Published June 19. 2014 4:00AM
Stonington - When Stonington High School teacher and softball coach Ann Marie Houle was in her senior year at the high school, she found herself in a physical education class with all freshmen.
Knowing Houle was interested in becoming a teacher, physical education teacher Abby Gibney handed Houle a whistle and clipboard and anointed her a teaching assistant. Gibney let Houle in on some of the "ins and outs" of teaching and frequently left her encouraging notes.
"She always let us know that as young women we could be everything we wanted to be," said Houle this week. "That's a huge thing for a young woman to know you can do it all. And that's a huge part of the legacy that she will leave behind."
Stories such as this abound at the high school, where Gibney will retire this week after 42 years of teaching and coaching, 39 of them at the high school. At tonight's graduation ceremony, she will give the commencement address.
Houle called Gibney an "unbelievable role model" whose "legacy is amazing." She said one of Gibney's most impressive accomplishments is that she has changed with the times and her students while still maintaining her core beliefs about morals, ethics and what she expects from students.
Gibney's energy and enthusiasm for the job never seems to waver, evidenced by how her voice still carries across the school athletic fields when her classes are held outside.
"'I've really enjoyed this job. I love coming here. There's the camaraderie of the faculty, and Stonington has great kids. They make it a joy to come here every day," she said this week while sitting in the empty gym. "I've enjoyed this job to the end. You continue to learn. Even this year I was adding new things.
"You have to find a passion in what you do and teaching physical education certainly has done that for me," she said.
"But I'm going to be 65 and there are other things to do. I just felt like I was ready," she said about her decision to retire.
Her husband Bill, who taught for many years in East Lyme and helped her start the successful Stonington High School lacrosse program, retired four years ago. She said they will visit their two grown children in Colorado and travel to places they have talked about. She plans to continue volunteering with a therapeutic riding program, working out at the YMCA, working on her 100-year-old farmhouse in Ashaway, R.I., and going to the beach.
And students can still expect to see her in the stands and on the sidelines watching high school games this fall.
Gibney said she is happy she continued working this year because it gave her the opportunity to teach classes on the school's new artificial turf football field.
"I've had a blast teaching on that new field," she said.
Gibney grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Springfield College. While there, she met her future husband, who was from Westerly. She said she fell in love with this area.
When she graduated in 1971, she took a job teaching and coaching at the former Mystic Junior High School. She then went to St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and taught high school there for a year.
She and Bill then landed jobs in Stonington and East Lyme and returned to southeastern Connecticut. There were times over the years when the two found themselves coaching opposing teams.
"When you coach, it's the epitome of teaching," she said. "Some of my best memories are the relationships I had with athletes."
Over the years, Gibney coached cross country, track, gymnastics and basketball. In 1998, she and Bill began the boys' and girls' lacrosse programs. She was inducted in the high school's Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.
"She always tried to do what's best for the kids," said high school Principal Steve Murphy, who is retiring this year after 19 years. "Abby is someone who always tried to make things better, whether it was in the classroom or in sports."
Murphy said that one of the school's hallmarks is Gibney and her contributions. He pointed out that many of her students, such as Houle, have gone on to become teachers and coaches in southeastern Connecticut.
"She's had a big influence on people," he said.
Gibney said that through her retirement party, clearing out her office and helping organize tonight's graduation ceremony, she's managed to keep her emotions in check.
She said that may change Friday, when she attends her last staff development day.
"That could be it," she said.