‘He Gave It His Heart And Soul”

Former Student Honors Beloved United English Teacher

With little interest in English or writing, Ian Kordish-Murdick didn’t expect much from his first class of the day when he started his freshman year of high school.

Longtime English teacher Richard “Ric” Szelong shook that perspective right out of him.

His booming “good morning” and trademark slap against the desk made sure everyone was awake at 8 a.m. and helped him live up to his tough teacher persona, perfected over decades. As the year went on, Ian began to see how much the craft of writing and a passion for a great read shaped Ric’s approach to working with students.

“He was always supposed to be this scary, or assertive, guy,” Ian said. “As the year went on, he just turned into a big teddy bear. English wasn’t my favorite subject. After his class, grammar and spelling mattered more to me, and I had an appreciation for storytelling, diving past the first layer.”

Now in his senior year at Robert Morris University, Ian heard in December that Ric, who spent 32 years teaching at United High School, had passed away. The high school memories came back to him. Mr. Szelong’s box of red pens, short stories his class had enjoyed together, and a few lines of “The Road Not Taken” that he and his fellow classmates now associate more with their beloved teacher than they do with Robert Frost. They came to realize just how much of an influence he had on all of them.

Ian, a Homer City native, decided he wanted to do something to highlight the impact this teacher had on him and so many others, so he reached out to the school district, where administrators connected him with CFA to discuss setting up a scholarship fund. CFA also connected him with Brenda, Ric’s wife of 36 years.

The new Ric Szelong Memorial Scholarship Fund will support a graduating senior at United, and applicants will be required to write a short essay on how a teacher had a meaningful impact on their life.

Brenda said helping young people was always at the heart of how her husband operated, so it’s a fitting tribute.

“He loved kids,” she said. “He loved teaching. He was just thrilled to be there.”

He earned students’ respect and, thanks in part to his stature, had a commanding presence, but he was always looking out for them, whether it was insisting the school provide a coat for a student in need or putting in the extra time to make sure class was as engaging as possible.

When their two children were young, dinner conversations often revolved around poetry or Shakespeare, which Ric could quote chapter and verse. Deciding to retire was tough for him, she said, but he adjusted, enjoying beach vacations without bringing literature volumes to work on lesson plans as he had done for much of his life. He and Brenda also had adopted a goldendoodle, Luna, who became an important part of his everyday routine. Four years after his retirement, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He lost a hard-fought battle in December 2021, leaving behind a loving wife, two children—Joshua and Sarah—and other family members, and many former students who benefited from his guidance.

“Ric just went above and beyond,” Brenda said. “He gave it his heart and soul.”

Through the new scholarship, he will continue to help young people pursue learning. Ian and other former classmates now are fundraising to establish a strong foundation for the scholarship fund. To make a gift in Ric’s honor, click the button below.