This post has been updated.
In the fall of 2009, Chris Shumway paid a visit to his old grade school in Vienna, Wolftrap Elementary.
He had been a student there in the 1970s, and then had grown up and gone off to New York to work on Wall Street. By 2009, he was managing his own multibillion-dollar hedge fund, Shumway Capital.
He visited Wolftrap with the idea of donating something to the school in honor of his third grade teacher, Candace Leyton, who died in 2003 at age 54 of breast cancer.
Wolftrap’s principal, Anita Blain, said she told Shumway that the school had established a beautiful courtyard. Would he like to donate a bench? Or perhaps a tree?
“He said, ‘I’m really thinking more substantial,’ ” Blain said, recalling the conversation.
“He said, ‘Do you need a building?’”
Blain swallowed her shock — “Things like that just don’t happen,” she exclaimed — and embraced the offer. And Monday at noon, Wolftrap will hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the Candace Leyton Innovation Learning Lab.
Blain said Shumway was effusive about his former teacher. Leyton had taught him to be a problem-solver, he said, a risk-taker and a critical thinker. He owed his success to her, he told Blain. She had changed his life.
Shumway originally offered $500,000 for the lab, which is meant to give teachers and students technology and space for creative and experiential learning. When construction bids came in high, he stuck with the project, and has now donated about $800,000.
What was it about Leyton that stuck with Shumway all those years?
It’s hard to say exactly. Shumway did not return phone calls to his business or his foundation; Blain said he’s a private person who has made it clear that he does not want to talk to reporters.
But Monday, the Shumway Foundation released a statement about the groundbreaking ceremony at Wolftrap Elementary.
“The Shumway Foundation is proud to honor the efforts of Candace Leyton and other great teachers who bring creativity and a love of learning to the classroom,” the statement said. “Just as Mrs. Leyton challenged Chris Shumway to learn, we hope this technology lab will inspire both students and faculty to develop skills as critical thinkers and innovators.”
By all accounts, Leyton — Candy to her friends — was the kind of teacher who made on impact on lots of kids. She was funny and tough, the kind of teacher whose praise you really had to earn.
“I was absolutely terrified to have Candy as a teacher, to tell you the truth,” said Janelle Monger Crowell, who had Leyton in the mid-1970s for both third and fourth grades. “She had quite a formidable reputation.”
Crowell, who described herself as more of a literary person than a math whiz, recalled how it felt to stand at the blackboard, facing an arithmetic problem in front of the class with her teacher at her side, waiting expectantly for the right answer.
“She was full of certainty that she could, in fact, pound math into the brain of someone like me,” Crowell said. “She expected nothing but the best of efforts from everybody.”
Leyton taught in Fairfax County for more than 30 years, first at Wolftrap and then at Cooper Middle School. Math was her specialty, and she was known for figuring out creative ways to make it relevant to students’ real lives.
“It was never cut and dried out of the book with Candy. It never was,” said Buffy Nicolas, who taught at Woltrap in the 1970s and remained close friends with Leyton. Leyton had a knack for connecting with individual kids across the academic spectrum, Nicolas said.
And maybe that’s what happened with Shumway. He didn’t stay in touch with his third-grade teacher and never saw her again after elementary school, but he carried his gratitude through the years.
Peter Leyton, Leyton’s husband, said Shumway had expressed appreciation for his teacher’s encouragement that one year, so many years ago. It had been a rough period, for whatever reason, and Leyton had made a difference.
“She paid attention to him, I think, is what it really amounted to,” Peter Leyton said.
He said his wife would have been honored by Shumway’s donation, and by the knowledge that she had mattered so much in the life of a kid. But she would have pointed out that she was nothing special — that teachers everywhere are making differences, even if they can’t always tell.
“I can remember saying things like that to her: ‘You’re having an impact, and you just don’t know it,’” Peter Leyton said.
He said his wife had long wished for better math-education training for elementary school teachers. He plans to establish a fund to help pay for such training, and hopes some sessions will take place at the new lab at Wolftrap, which should be ready to open some time in the spring of 2013.