Dear Mr. Toler,
I just heard from Aileen, your beloved wife of 40 years, that you passed this morning. I have gratitude that she reached out to let me know but pain in my heart that you are gone. What hurts even more is that I feel like I missed so many moments to tell you how much you mean(t) to me. And like I always tell everyone else, I didn’t listen to my own advice – don’t wait to tell someone how much they mean to you because some day it will be too late. I can only hope you knew deep down that you meant the world to me.
You were the first teacher to get me into my Jewish shell. Growing up in the mountains outside of Denver was not easy for a Jewish girl. My parents were committed to taking me and my sister to Temple Sinai every week for religious school, Shabbat and holiday services, and youth group. But being Jewish in a small mountain town is challenging when there are only 5 Jewish kids in school, 2 of whom admitted it. (At least that’s what I always said, and I don’t even think there were that many.)
I was in your 9th grade class, Accelerated History and English (the days before AP or Gate – remember, it’s a mountain town). It was time for group projects and my group chose World War II. I wanted to focus on the USO because of my love for theater and singing. But you challenged me and said, ‘Heidi, you should focus on the Holocaust.’ My response, ‘the Holo what?’ It was time I learned about one of the most difficult yet important times in modern Jewish history because as you explained it to me, I had to become one of the teachers who would never let the world forget.
I worked hard that semester because you inspired me and encouraged me. You pushed me and never made the assignment easy. You knew what I was capable of even when I didn’t. You believed in me. And that one class project turned into a series of high school presentations that turned into a Rabbinic Thesis that turned into a life long passion of making sure the world never forgets the Holocaust. That was you Mr. Toler!
You were so important in my life that I had to have you not only at my wedding, but standing beside us as a chuppah holder. You laughed and danced that night and it was awesome to have my teacher and friend celebrate with Matt and me.
Time moved on and we went our separate ways. I was ordained and moved to southern California and you moved from Montrose, Colorado to Yuma, Arizona to be with your daughter and her husband.
Life moves forward but there are those moments that we are drawn back into memory. Mr. Toler….Frank….I cannot begin to tell you how much you were and are a part of my life. You were one of those who gave me a foundation from which to stand, a platform from which to speak, a lectern from which to teach. You helped me find my voice and be who I am and never let anyone tell me to be something else. You gave me the courage to speak out against injustice and showed me that the words are written on my heart. You were and are the greatest teacher I had because you believed in me and you never gave up on me.
I will miss you in life but am grateful for the memories that surround me and strengthen me. I wish Aileen and your family love, comfort and strength. Zichrono livracha, may your memory always be a blessing.
Your student always,
Heidi Williams (Cohen)