ELKTON — Cathie Lenhoff and Ruthie Bilas did not get into teaching or community service for the laurels and the praise.
“You don’t volunteer for the glory. You don’t teach for the glory. Occasionally, you get glory, but for the most part you do what you know how to do as well as you can do it for as long as you can,” Lenhoff said.
The twin sisters, 67, were named Elkton’s 2019 Citizens of the Year for their contributions to the town as longtime educators and active volunteers since their retirement. Both women will be honored at a March 21 banquet at town hall.
Many Elkton parents have been taught or had children taught by one or both the sisters, who worked in Cecil County Public School for decades. Lenhoff, who was a German teacher, taught three generations of one family at one point in her tenure. Bilas, a special education teacher at Cecil Manor Elementary, said it’s sometimes hard to tell who her former students are years later after they’ve grown up.
“When you stand out in the hall and see the kids come down, you see their faces. And for them, it was a new day,” Bilas said. “It was such a wonderful thing.”
Jessica Price, executive assistant of the Elkton Chamber & Alliance, said that while the honor has been bestowed on business owners in the past, Citizens of the Year include recipients who do “any good for the community.” Past award recipients nominated the sisters due to their extensive work for the town that goes far beyond the classroom, Price added.
“When they retired, they’ve remained devoted the community. They’ve dedicated their lives to Elkton, from their work with the Rotary, CASA, Union Hospital, etc.,” she said. “Looking at that along with their teaching careers, it was a no-brainer and we’re honored to name them both Citizen of the Year.”
Lenhoff and Bilas were born to John and Margaret Rees, a family with deep roots in Cecil County. Their mother was also a special education teacher, one of the first as the program started in the late 1960s. Both said their mother served as a role model who inspired them to get into teaching themselves.
“She used to say, ‘At the end of the day, forget everybody’s name. Come back the next day, treat every day as a new day. Treat every kid with the feeling you have the first time, and you’ll get by,’” Lenhoff recalled.
The sisters’ lives mirrored each other as they both graduated from Elkton High School, went on to get degrees in German and education from Western Maryland College, and earned graduate degrees in curriculum and instruction as well as pedagogy from other institutions. Lenhoff also earned a graduate degree in secondary education while Bilas earned a degree in reading and special education.
Their lives deviated slightly, as Lenhoff immediately went into teaching in 1974 while Bilas worked in a different field. Lenhoff said she decided to get into teaching as there were very few “genteel jobs for young ladies at time,” but added that something in her wanted to make the world a better place.
“When you impact kids every day, and the overwhelming majority of what you do is positive, overall you think you made the world a little better place,” she said. “The real stories [of our schools] belie the headlines. Very, very good things come out of those schools.”
Bilas started substitute teaching at Gilpin Manor Elementary School in 1992 as a way to get on the same schedule as her daughter. At that time, the school had a special wing for students with disabilities, such as those who were non-verbal, those with physical handicaps and those with feeding tubes.
“It was where I was meant to be,” she said. “Teaching is not for everybody, and it’s not a character flaw if it doesn’t work out. I used to tell my student teachers, ‘Watch, because this is what it is every day.’ The first thing to do is to keep your kids safe and keep them knowing that their lives are going to improve that day.”
During Lenhoff’s and Bilas’ tenure with CCPS, both were involved with extracurricular activities, like heavy involvement with the Elkton High football team. Lenhoff worked as a statistician for the team, while Bilas volunteered as part of their field crew. Both sisters refined their baked ziti over the years, as they would host a dinner for various sports teams, notably the annual dinner for the football team before the first game of the year.
Both sisters supported as much extracurricular events as they could, including music and theater performances. Bilas also would volunteer to teach parents new math skills and other skills that would better prepare them for their children’s homework help. Both Lenhoff and Bilas would also travel with students on a summer tour of Germany for more than three decades.
In the midst of teaching hundreds of Cecil County students, both women were active in the Elkton Rotary Club and their various service projects. Bilas is now president of the club. The twins also served as members of the Women’s Auxiliary of Union Hospital for years, volunteering to raise funds through special events like the Chef’s Challenge, Blue Jean Ball and Luau.
Lenhoff and Bilas both retired at the end of the 2017 school year, since neither of their parents were able to enjoy life after a career. But there has been no slowing down for either of them since — they signed up as volunteers with Youth Empowerment Source and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA).
Serving as a CASA for two children, Lenhoff said it’s about helping them as much as you can.
“Maybe you can’t make a big change, but you can make a tiny change. You can make that kid happy for the hours that you’re with them,” she said.
Bilas, who works with a teenager, has two distinct goals in her work as a CASA.
“I can show her how to make a decision and that there’s somebody in her life that will put what they would do second and her first. Lots of kids don’t have that,” she said.
Bilas also works as an educational surrogate, an advocate for students in the individualized education program.
Both women also recently started volunteering with a youth mentor program at Thomson Estates Elementary School once a week.
Lenhoff is married to Peter Lenhoff, and has one son, Peter Jr., a daughter-in-law Amanda and granddaughter Emily. Bilas was married to John Bilas for 38 years until his passing in 2012. She has one son, Christopher; daughter-in-law, Audra; two grandsons, Christopher Jr. and Andrew; and one great-grandson, Logan. Bilas also has a daughter, Megan, married to Dr. Jason Torres.
As is the tradition for past announcements of the town’s Citizen of the Year, Elkton Chamber & Alliance President Larry Crouse and Vice President Roger Owens surprised Lenhoff and Bilas with the news. The twins said that they came in with flowers and an envelope during a Elkton Rotary Meeting, and thought they were there to prank new members.
The banquet held this week could be the first time the twins have been celebrated for their works, barring Lenhoff’s award of Cecil County’s Teacher of the Year in 2009. Both women opted out of sentimental and showy events on their retirement from CCPS.
But when the town chamber representatives came with the news months ago, both said it was an emotional moment.
“It is such a blessing to be able to do what you love, where you love and with whom you love. My life has been blessed by the relationships that I have developed and maintained, and I am proud to give back to the community that helped to shape me,” Lenhoff said.
“This is a sweet community,” Bilas added. “When I retired I wanted to find a way to continue to help my community, so I am so honored to be chosen as a Citizen of the Year.”