Kathryn Phyllis “Fifi” Egan McFadden, a retired Bethpage High School English teacher who documented her life in a book called “The Last Unicorn: The Life and Times of Fifi McFadden,” died on March 25 at an assisted living facility in Medford, in Suffolk County. She was 95.
“My mom was always a great storyteller,” her son Philip said, “and whenever the kids were around — or any kind of audience — she would tell all kind of stories from her growing up in Tarrytown through the war … And she always ended her little storytelling sessions with, ‘Oh, I should write a book.’”
Philip quit his job in construction in 2009, and two days a week drove from Ossining, N.Y., to Hauppauge, where she lived at the time, to help her finally write that book. Two years later, they produced a 482-page autobiography that included hundreds of photos from Fifi’s life.
Born on Aug. 2, 1922, Fifi was part of a generation that Philip describes as unicorns — a mythical breed of people that are now vanishing from the world.
“They really saved the world, that generation,” Philip said. “They lived through the Depression and World War II, all through the ’50s and ’60s, they made contributions in arts and science and civil rights … just an amazing generation of people that I don’t think we’ll ever see again.”
Fifi graduated from Tarrytown’s Washington Irving High School in 1939, and earned a degree in English from Mount Saint Vincent College in 1943. That same year she married John McFadden, who was immediately sent to World War II’s Pacific theater with the Marine Corps. He returned in 1946, and the couple began raising five sons before moving from Tarrytown to Seaford in 1959.
The McFaddens found a home on Mansfield Drive and met neighbor Jean Cox, who told Fifi about a substitute-teaching job in the Seaford School District. That was where she began her teaching career.
A little over a year after the McFaddens settled in Seaford, they were forced to move due to a major state project. “The state condemned the row of houses there,” Philip recalled, “because that’s where they were putting the Seaford-Oyster Bay Expressway.” Eventually, Fifi and John moved to Bit Path, right next to the newly built expressway.
On Nov. 12, 1976, having fallen into a coma after years of heart problems, John died at Nassau County Medical Center. One day later, son Patrick was set to play in a high school football playoff game for the Seaford Vikings. In her book, his mother recalled that he didn’t want to play, but she told him that the team was counting on him and that his father would have wanted him to play.
When the public address announcer introduced the team as they ran through a paper banner, Fifi wrote, she remembered being in tears while wearing her green “Seaford Super Fan” jacket. “Patrick was the last player onto the field,” she wrote. “He wore number 76 on his football jersey, and as he ran onto the field, the loudspeakers announced, ‘And in the ‘Spirit of ‘76 [1976 being that year] number 76, Patrick McFadden.’ Everyone in the stands stood up and cheered as he ran onto the field. Most of them were aware that he had lost his father …”
Fifi earned a full-time English teaching job at Bethpage High School in 1964. Four years later, her right leg was shattered in a car accident.
The high school administrators, she wrote, “never once intimated that I wouldn’t have my job back, once my leg healed, even though they knew it was going to be a long process before I would be even be able to walk again. The whole conversation was based around when I would be returning to work.”
In the 1968-69 school year, Fifi taught all of her English classes in a classroom right next to the elevator. Her leg soon healed, and she continued to teach in Bethpage until her retirement in 1990. During her 26-year tenure, Mrs. McFadden was known for being a soft-spoken teacher who always had a positive attitude.
Theresa Siclari, a member of the class of 1983 who was in McFadden’s class in ninth grade, said she believes her teacher played a large role in Siclari’s becoming an author of three children’s books and a mystery novel. “She was patient and an awesome teacher,” Siclari wrote. “Never screamed, and was soft-spoken, but got her point across.”
Another former student, Jeff Cantor, of the class of 1980, said, “Not realizing it at the time, she was probably one of the most wonderful teachers I’ve ever had in my life. She was very kind, very caring, very patient, always took time to help and was never in a bad mood.”
“I believe she had the rare ability to see (in some cases) how to motivate people to motivate themselves,” Greg Pasco, class of 1975, wrote.
In addition to Patrick and Philip, McFadden is survived by two other sons, Nicholas and Brian, 12 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren. A son, Jack died in 1982.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Bethpage Educational Foundation and Scholarship Fund, at 10 Cherry St., Bethpage, N.Y. 11714.