Alpha Sigma Alpha’s Founders’ Day and an Outstanding Educator, Freida Joy Riley

Alpha Sigma Alpha was founded on November 15, 1901 at the State Female Normal School (now Longwood University) in Farmville, Virginia. It is the youngest of the Farmville Four, the four National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) organizations founded on that campus. The other three organizations are Kappa Delta, Sigma Sigma Sigma, and Zeta Tau Alpha. The Alpha Sigma Alpha founders had been invited to join some of the other sororities on campus, but they wanted to stay together. So they found an organization of their own. The five, Virginia Lee Boyd (Noell), Juliette Jefferson Hundley (Gilliam), Calva Hamlet Watson (Wootton), Louise Burks Cox (Carper) and Mary Williamson Hundley, created Alpha Sigma Alpha.

Years ago, on one of our drives east to visit family, we listened to Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam, Jr. The National Museum of Education has an Honorary Registry of Education. Freida Joy Riley. who taught at Big Creek High School in Coalwood, West Virginia, is on that registry, added on December 1, 2005 by Andrew R. (no last name provided). Homer Hickam added these thoughts:

            A few years ago, I wrote a memoir titled Rocket Boys which has since gone on to become a classic.  Rocket Boys (from which the film October Sky was based) is about life in a West Virginia coal town during the 1950’s and centered on my high school days when some friends and I decided to become rocket-builders.   One of the folks I wrote about was our chemistry and physics teacher, a young woman named Freida Joy Riley.  Because of the book and movie, Miss Riley, as we knew her, has taken on near-icon status amongst teachers across the nation and the world. Wherever I go, I am thanked by people of all walks of life, but especially by teachers, for telling her story.  At long last, they say, someone has written about a real school teacher, one who not only fought for her students, but insisted that they learn.
            In Rocket Boys, I quote Miss Riley as saying, “All I’ve done is give you a book. You have to have the courage to learn what’s inside it.”  She had just provided me with a book about rockets that required a thorough knowledge of calculus and differential equations to understand.  Although I was having trouble with algebra at the time, Miss Riley believed in me and so I believed in myself.

            Miss Riley was not an easy teacher.  She was a tough teacher.  She gave lots of homework and required each of us to arrive in class prepared and ready to discuss the day’s lessons.  Miss Riley paid attention to all her students, not just her missile-building boys.  She was fierce in her belief that going to school was the job of her students and, therefore, sacred.  To do a poor job was simply not acceptable.  When I got arrogant because of my rocket successes, or in trouble for my failures, she kept me on an even keel with just a few words of appropriate encouragement and a form of tough love.  Even when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, she never stopped teaching.  At the last, she was carried by stretcher to her classroom.

            Miss Riley died while I was on military duty overseas. When I found out, I wished then that I had told her how much she meant to me.  At least, I was able to do that retroactively in Rocket Boys.  I am most happy that she lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong step on the moon.  I trust she thought of her Rocket Boys when he did.

Freida Joy Riley was 31 years-old when she died. She was teaching at the same high school from which she graduated. An initiate of the Alpha Sigma Alpha chapter at Concord College, she did graduate work at Ohio State University and West Virginia University. There are several awards named in her honor. One is given by her college. Another is sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation and administered by the Partnership for America’s Future. And then there is an award given by and given to a member of her sorority.

Alpha Sigma Alpha’s Freida Riley Award for Teaching Excellence is given to one of its members, in good standing, who is a full-time or retired K-12 school teacher, with at least three years of teaching experience. The Award for Teaching Excellence demonstrates Alpha Sigma Alpha’s commitment to a quality education and recognizes outstanding Alpha Sigma Alpha educators. The women who are nominated embody Riley’s qualities of  “inspiring students to do their best, showing care and respect for students, and ‘going the extra mile’ to make their students’ experiences memorable.” 

Freida Joy Riley

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