The Legacy of Former Dunbar teacher, Patricia Esrael

The Dunbar Memorial Garden Plants Tree in Esrael’s Honor

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Pat Esrael’s faculty yearbook photo. Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1990.

The words ‘teacher’, ‘friend’ and ‘mentor’ are just a few ways to describe Patricia Esrael. She taught in Lexington schools for nearly four decades and is remembered for the care she took of each of her students as individuals. Esrael passed away on March 16. She left a lasting legacy that includes her son, two step children, three grandchildren, seven step grandchildren and her many students.

The Dunbar Memorial Garden now hosts a tree planted in her honor. Several former colleagues and students donated money to buy a tree that was installed in the garden on May 25.

Esrael was involved in many organizations in her community. She was a part of the Cynthiana Daughters of the Revolution, the Madison County Historical Society, the Women’s Network of Kentucky and the Midway College Alumni board. She also volunteered with hospice of the Bluegrass, an organization whose mission is to provide care for people near the end of their lives. While she was very involved in the community, she is best remembered for the profound impact she had on her students.

She began her teaching career at Leestown Junior High school in 1963. In 1985, she was the first person to be awarded the Fayette County Teacher of the Year Award. She then taught at Southern Junior High School until 1990 when she became part of the first faculty of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. In 1990, she advised students and helped to create the school’s newspaper, The Lamplighter, which has run continuously since that time, and has been under the guidance of Mrs. Wendy Turner since 2007.

Dunbar Administrative Dean, Tonya Merritt, remembers Esrael as her speech team coach and English teacher at Southern Junior High School. Later, when Merritt became a student teacher at Dunbar, Esrael was the English Department Chair.

“She loved teaching. You could really see that in her,” Merritt said.

Retired Dunbar teacher, Jim Hanna, wrote an op-ed about the impact Esrael made on him as a teacher and friend.

Esrael is remembered for the individual interest she took in each of her students. In 1985, she said in an interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader “I really love kids. If you treat them as human beings, they’re just delightful. If you keep your promises and treat them with respect, they truly are fun.”

Merritt recalls that Esrael “deeply, deeply, deeply cared about her students. She knew every single one of them individually, both academically and personally.” She said that she felt Esrael was someone that she could talk to, regardless of the subject, and that she had “interesting” techniques.

“She had this old car seat… the back seat of a car that she had gotten from a junk heap that was in her classroom,” said Merritt. “It was a good day when you got to sit on the car seat.” 

She loved teaching. You could really see that in her.”

— Tonya Merritt, Dunbar Administrative Dean

But the thing that most stood out to Merritt was how dedicated Esrael was to her job. When she was a student, Merritt’s class traveled to Europe with Esrael.

“It was her anniversary. Her husband traveled with us, but it impacted me that she would choose to spend her wedding anniversary on a trip with a bunch of kids, and I think really spoke to the kind of person she was.”