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Remembering educator Rita F. Pierson

Posted by: Tedstaff

Rita-Pierson-featureThe TED community was deeply saddened to hear that Rita Pierson, whose powerful, funny, heartfelt talk kicked off TED Talks Education just a few months ago, died today in Texas, at age 61.

It was truly an honor to help share her message with the world. Hers is truly an idea worth spreading: that every child, rich or poor, deserves a champion. We asked TED TV producer Juliet Blake, who cast Pierson for our PBS special, to share a few words about this woman who became a friend to so many of us here. Here’s what Blake wrote, in Pierson’s honor:

I searched for someone with heart and humor for our TED Talks Education TV show and, when I saw Rita Pierson on YouTube, I knew I had found her. But I hadn’t found her; it took a good few weeks to track her down. I called various schools in Texas and I waited and waited.

One evening my phone rang:  “Are you looking for me?”

I said, “Rita?”

She replied, “I sure am”… and she sure was. She didn’t have to say another word, she was booked to open the show — she exuded that much warmth and spirit. We talked many times on the phone as we worked on her talk. In truth, she had never heard of TED, but she was so excited to come to New York with her husband and to be part of the program. When she arrived in Brooklyn a couple of months later for the recording of the show, she hugged me as if we were old friends and I knew that TED had been given a gift. She was everything we had hoped for and not for a moment did I doubt she would steal the show.

“I don’t rehearse,” she said, “and I haven’t learnt it.”

“That’s OK, we’ll just let you go.”

“Good, I can do that.”

And that’s what she did. Rita touched so many people’s hearts in the short time she was part of our TED TV recording — I can only imagine how many students lives she has altered over the years. It was an honor to know her and to have her become a part of TED. And of course her talk will live on.

A few days after the show aired on PBS, I emailed Rita to thank her and asked her if she had seen how many page views her talk had received on TED.com. She said she was very excited 75,000. I told her to look again. Over a million views, with many comments. I shared a few of them with her, and with her quiet modest voice, she just said: “Oh my.”

Our hearts are broken.

Watch Rita Pierson’s talk, full of chutzpah and a deep wealth of experience »

Listen to Rita Pierson on TED Radio Hour from NPR »

Read a beautiful essay from Pierson on Huffington Post, in which she writes, “Teachers don’t make a lot of money. They are usually not deemed worthy of news coverage unless there is a scandal or a strike. Most of the time, their major accomplishments are shared only with colleagues and family members and not the media. The celebration is often cut short by some catastrophe the next day. Yet, in spite of the highs and lows, I cannot think of another profession that brings both joy and challenge on a daily basis.”

Update: Dr. Pierson’s family sends this message to the TED community:

It is with great sadness that the family of Dr. Rita F. Pierson announces her sudden passing on Friday, June 18, 2013. A celebration of her life will be held on Saturday, July 13, 2013, 10 AM, at Brookhollow Baptist Church, The Church Without Walls, 5725 Queenston Blvd., Houston, TX, 77084. Rev. Dr. Ralph Douglas West, Pastor/Founder, officiating.

In lieu of flowers, remembrances may be made to Rita’s favorite children’s charity, Communities In Schools of Houston, 1235 North Loop West, Suite 300, Houston, TX, 77008.