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Students, parents rally behind Rowland Hall teacher battling lung disease

Published May 16, 2013 11:40 am

After retiring for health reasons, he gets a boost from an auction of his art.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Learning is work: It's a philosophy, personal mantra and now magnum opus of lifelong learner, teacher and artist Peter Hayes. And students and friends want to ensure he's around a long time to champion it.

In February, the Rowland Hall High School biology teacher stepped away from the classroom after 18 years at the school to tend to his health after being diagnosed with a life-threatening lung disease called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Difficult as it was, Hayes said, even the decision to leave taught him something.

"Having to leave teaching was really bad for me," he said. "I love being in the classroom; it's my place. But if I've done one important thing in my life, aside from raising my family, it was to become a teacher and to give to society what I think is the most noble thing anybody could ever do — teach children."

Years before he realized that charge, Hayes was teaching river rafters and fellow ski patrolmen the ecology, biology, anatomy and physiology he had learned over countless hours running rivers and working ski slopes in California, Oregon and Idaho.

"My whole theme was, 'Be an efficient learner so that you have more time to have fun,'" he said. "You have got to enjoy life."

Hayes enjoyed the life of professional outdoorsman for more than 15 years before taking his first full-time teaching job in 1989. Six years later, and somewhat disenchanted with the lack of time the public school system allowed him to spend instructing individual students, Hayes took a job with Rowland Hall — a decision that he said changed his life and freed his approach.

"I could spend my time teaching," he said. "And then I could instill my values of caring about society, of wanting to share what you have and be nice to people and to think of those who have less and to help them in whatever way you can."

When Hayes announced in February that he would no longer be able to instill these values in the classroom, it was hard for students and parents to accept. Soon after finding out about the diagnosis, longtime friends John and Amy Nichols were determined to do what they could to defray some of his medical costs and thought Hayes' art might be the key to doing so.

Knowing Hayes' talents as an artist, John Nichols told him to get busy putting together a collection of works that they could auction as gifts. Having benefited firsthand from Hayes' mentorship, John Nichols said he threw himself into the effort because he couldn't stand by and watch the community lose such a vital asset.

"He is just a force for good in the community and always has been," he said. "He's one of those rare individuals that stands up and fights for what's right."

While Hayes got to work on some of the most ambitious pieces he had ever created, John Nichols approached Glenda Bradley, owner of 15th Street Gallery, who agreed to host an event where Hayes could show and auction his work to parents and friends who wished to express their thanks.

Seventeen paintings left with friends, colleagues and parents of students who donated more than $70,000. Jim Bradley, who helped frame and prepare the paintings and other work for the show and whose two kids took biology from Hayes, said the turnout and the generosity are a testament to Hayes and the impact he has had.

"It's a statement to his quality," he said. "When you have a quality teacher of Peter's stature, one who's been able to touch so many students, the parents recognize that and respond to something like this."

The centerpiece of the show was Hayes' "Learning Is Work," a 12-by-4-foot mixed-media collage composed primarily of more than 100,000 hand-written grades spanning his entire career at Rowland Hall. Shortly after announcing his departure, Hayes extracted the grades by hand from dozens of books he couldn't bring himself to throw out.

"It was really cathartic for me," he said. "It was almost like I was cutting myself out of my job, cutting myself out of what I did for so many years, so many decades."

To ensure Hayes always has a place at the school, a group of parents donated more than $30,000 to give "Learning Is Work" a permanent home at Rowland Hall. The painting will serve as a reminder that, for Hayes, learning is his work, but teaching is his life.

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Meet Peter Hayes

Peter Hayes taught ninth-grade biology at Rowland Hall for 18 years before having to leave the classroom due to a diagnosis of a irreversible lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Friends, former students and parents affected by Hayes' life and work thanked the lifelong learner and artist at a gallery showing of his work where 17 paintings and many other pieces were auctioned for more than $70,000 in donations to be used to defray his treatment costs.

His magnum opus, "Learning Is Work" — made from more than 100,000 hand-written grades spanning his career at Rowland Hall — will find a permanent home in the school thanks to a donation of more than $30,000 from a group of parents.