South Boston native Karen Gelzinis touched hundreds of young lives over protractors and graph paper during her 34 years as a teacher in the Boston public schools.
"I am the person I am because of her," said Sonie Felix, who is assistant headmaster at the Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester and once struggled in Mrs. Gelzinis's algebra class at Boston English High.
Felix, who emigrated from Haiti as a child, said Mrs. Gelzinis saw beyond the bad actions of a confused 14-year-old who was reeling from alienation and culture shock.
"She knew it wasn't the real me. She was always there to talk to you after the school day was over. She stayed when others passed me off," Felix said.
Mrs. Gelzinis died Friday at age 57 at her South Boston home. The cause was paraneoplastic syndrome, an immune disorder brought on by ovarian cancer first diagnosed in 2004.
Standing only 5 feet 1 inch, Mrs. Gelzinis taught math to full classrooms of students at English High for 19 years. She often began new algebra classes by asking her students to write essays about themselves and viewed teaching as a chance to change lives.
"She thought about the profession as a calling," said her husband, Peter, a longtime columnist for The Boston Herald. "She would get infuriated with people who would talk as if teachers have it easy because they have the summer off, etc. To her, it was such a deep commitment."
Mrs. Gelzinis was the oldest of eight children born to Rita A. (Burnett) and the late Robert Cuddyer of South Boston.
Inspired by the nuns who taught her during parochial school, she wanted to become a teacher from an early age, her family said.
She went to high school at St. Augustine's in South Boston and graduated magna cum laude from Emmanuel College in 1973. She earned her master's degree in special education at Regis College in Weston in 1981.
Her first classroom was at the now-closed Christopher Gibson School in Dorchester, where she taught reading.
She later trained to teach math and started at English High in 1985.
"She was probably the best teacher I worked with," said Jerry Howland, a Boston schools teacher for more than 30 years who works as a coach for the system's math teachers.
Mrs. Gelzinis struggled with math in school, so she knew what her students were facing, he said.
"She could break things down in ways other people couldn't," Howland said. Her students' test scores often jumped dramatically after a year in her classroom, he added.
Former student Migdalia Nalls said Mrs. Gelzinis commanded respect in class because she was "such a nice, nice person."
"I always thought algebra was such a hard course. She would make it so easy I couldn't believe my grade," said Nalls, who is now a Suffolk County assistant district attorney.
She credits Mrs. Gelzinis with helping her believe she could succeed in college. She earned her law degree from Boston College.
Mrs. Gelzinis's teaching accomplishments were recognized several times during her career. She was inducted into the teaching hall of fame at English High and was among teachers who received the system's Golden Apple Award in 1988. In 1981, she was named Teacher of the Year at the Mackey School in Boston.
In 2004, she began teaching math at the Quincy Upper School in Boston. She learned about her cancer after her first day at the new school, her husband said.
"She didn't go back to the classroom because she didn't think she could immerse herself with the same energy as before," he said.
She had met the man she would marry during a party in South Boston when Peter was a rock critic for the Herald.
"She was a neighborhood girl with an incredible world view," he said. "She loved what her neighborhood gave her in terms of the bedrock stuff - loyalty, sense of place. But she was able to relate to that in every community."
They were married 31 years.
The columnist said his wife's standing sometimes helped his own career. He remembered trying to interview gang members in the early 1990s on Intervale Street. "The biggest of the four guys steps out, walks over, and gives me a once-over, looks me straight in the eye, and says, 'You Mrs. Gelzinis's husband? Say hello. She was my best teacher,' " he recalled.
In 2005, Mrs. Gelzinis began tutoring 13-year-old Claudine Humure, a Rwandan orphan who was living in South Boston while receiving treatment for bone cancer.
In an e-mail message yesterday, Humure said she felt as if she had lost her own mother. "She has been so wonderful to me that it feels horrible to live a life without her. . . . I don't understand why God didn't answer my prayers. I will always miss her but never forget her," she wrote.
In addition to her husband and mother, Mrs. Gelzinis leaves her son, Peter P. IV; four sisters, Barbara Sampson of Quincy, Geraldine Cuddyer, Joan McColgan, and Jean Boutin, all of South Boston; three brothers, Donald and Kevin Cuddyer of South Boston and Robert Cuddyer of Braintree; and many nieces and nephews.
A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Monica's Church in South Boston. Burial will be private.