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A Lifetime of Education: Dr. Faith LaVelle Celebrates 100 Years of Life Devoted to Education

faith levelle smiling

“I’ve just been living one day at a time,” says Professor Emerita of Anatomy and longtime Elmhurst resident Dr. Faith LaVelle, reflecting on her recent 100th birthday. It’s a simple way to sum up the century she’s spent on earth, a life that has been filled with family, education, and service.

Born Faith Wilson, she started life in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. “Our house was next to the high school where my father was the principal,” she says. He was also working toward a doctoral degree in education, with a special interest in the new field of 2-year junior colleges. By the time Faith was entering third grade, the family left Vermont and began a series of moves in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, as new junior colleges began seeking her dad’s help in developing programs. His final stop was with the University of Baltimore, where he became its president. Even as a child, Faith was drawn to education. “I guess I’m a natural teacher,” she says. “I used to play games with my sister where we were teaching the dolls and teddy bears.”


During her youth, Faith also fell in love with the outdoors. She remembers summer trips to Maine to visit her grandparents. “They had a large garden and a cottage on a lake and we could go swimming.” Even though she loved many aspects of nature, when she finished her public school education as valedictorian of her high school class in Catonsville, Maryland, and entered Mount Holyoke College, she didn’t plan on majoring in science. But she credits great science professors at her college with attracting her away from an English and history track and toward zoology. She feels these fields go together well. “You need to know how to write and present in science, asking a question and figuring it out. You have to be very precise,” she says. “My writing and speaking skills came in handy. And later, as a teacher, using language and trying to make sense to other people was important. You have to know who you’re talking to and adjust your language to your audience to get them to want to learn more.”

After graduating summa cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 1943 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, and then earning her master’s degree in 1945 in the same department there, she moved on to Johns Hopkins University to study for a PhD in biology. This is where she met her husband, Arthur LaVelle, who had earned his college degree in biology at the University of Washington in Seattle while doing World War II factory work. He and Faith, now married, moved from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where Arthur worked toward a PhD in Anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Meanwhile, Faith finished writing her thesis and received her PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1949.


While waiting for Arthur to complete his PhD studies in Philadelphia, Faith was invited to assist in the teaching of microscopic anatomy to the first-year medical students at Penn. In 1951, with both PhD’s in hand, the couple moved to Illinois, where Arthur had been appointed to the faculty at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago. They bought their home in Elmhurst and began their professional careers. Within a few years their daughter Audrey was born, and Faith chose to be a stay-at-home mom for a while. She soon saw her life being divided up among her interests. “There are three parts to my life,” Faith says. “These would be my family life, my professional life and my life as a volunteer.”

That mixture was unusual at the time, and the profession of science was predominantly male. “My husband and I were in the same field,” Faith says. “We were both interested in developmental neurobiology, the development of the nervous system. We both were active members of the American Association of Anatomists and the Society for Neuroscience. When he first came to his position in Illinois, his department asked me to stay with them for a while, doing research and publishing with Arthur and assisting in teaching one of the courses to the medical students. But I could not get tenure there. I could not go up the faculty track because of anti-nepotism rules. I was the wife of a staff member. He went up the ranks, and I became primarily a research worker.” The big change came in 1971, when the Department of Anatomy at Loyola University of Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine in Maywood invited me to join their faculty.


Dr. LaVelle remained at Loyola for 16 years, moving up the ranks to a full professorship before retiring in 1987. She directed the first-year, basic science course in Histology (cell biology of the body’s organs) and also lectured and led laboratory sessions in the preclinical Neuroscience course. During her tenure she received several teaching awards and also mentored Anatomy graduate students working toward their PhD degrees and their own futures as science teachers. In addition, she enjoyed several years of service on the medical school’s Admissions Committee, and she also served as acting Department Chair from 1984-1986 while the chairman took a sabbatical leave.

In addition to her family and university duties, Faith invested her time in volunteer work, most significantly with Mount Holyoke College and with the Camp Fire Girls youth organization. For the college she served on alumnae committees and the college’s Board of Trustees. For Camp Fire she led two groups of girls from first grade through high school, worked with the local council board, and then served 14 years on the national board, with two of those years as National President (1978-79). Camp Fire now serves boys and girls, helping them develop personal skills and interests while gaining knowledge about the man-made and natural outdoor worlds, and beginning to think about ways to build satisfying lives that include providing service and leadership when community needs and problems arise.

“I was working and having fun with little kids and still-growing young people,” Faith says. “It was a different kind of teaching, because I wasn’t talking professionally with them. While visiting new places and gaining lifetime knowledge, we included simple things: washing their hands and their fruit, working safely with fire while camping, and behaving while visiting the Art Institute in Chicago. But as they got older, they also wanted to see what a brain looked like, so I showed the girls a preserved brain.” Faith smiles. “Their parents might have been horrified, but the kids—they wanted to know all about it!”

In addition to many family camping trips across the whole country, her time with the Camp Fire Girls allowed her the opportunity to share the wonderful natural world around them and talk about keeping it safe and beautiful. “I love being out in nature,” she says, “to see the mountains, lakes, and oceans, all of which were created along with the forests, plants, people, and animals that inhabit them. We really are partners with nature.”


In 2012, Faith and her husband moved to the residential retirement community Park Place of Elmhurst. There, she has led two workshops and a couple of review programs on keeping the aging brain healthy. “We have such a broad range of knowledge and life experience among our residents here,” she says, “thus giving us the opportunity to continue learning new things just by talking to each other.  And learning new things helps to keep us young.” Most recently, Faith also provided new thoughts for first-graders at Timothy Christian School on their 100th day of the school year. She answered questions about 100 years of life, including her earliest memories and the many changes and inventions that have come since then. Imagine life without television! But the hardest thing the children couldn’t wrap their minds around was the absence of airplanes in Faith’s earliest years.

Faith’s daughter Audrey and granddaughter Jocelyn live in Pasadena, California, where Audrey works in a music program for pre-school children and Jocelyn studies sociology in college. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her daughter couldn’t be personally present for Faith’s 100th birthday, but she contacted friends, relatives, and colleagues across the country, thus ensuring that her mother received cards and phone calls for two weeks. Audrey also provided some treats for Park Place residents, and she prepared a slide presentation which was shown at three Zoom reunions with people who love and admire Faith. The one person missed but often mentioned during this celebration was Arthur, Faith’s husband, who died at age 97, after 71 years of companionship with Faith.

And now Faith relaxes in her apartment, still reading and still learning, and always eager to share information, just as she has her entire life. “Teaching was my favorite thing to do,” she says. “I was teaching my Camp Fire Girls. I was teaching my daughter. I was teaching my medical students. When I’m here, I enjoy my bits of teaching with people at Park Place. I’ve enjoyed my life. I’ve been lucky,” Faith says. “But I’m working on my next century now.”





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