Today, teaching computer science is as common as complaining on Facebook about Apple’s latest update.
But in 1977, Irene Culmo became a South Florida trailblazer in the brave new world of computer science. In that year, when Apple was first incorporated, Culmo took a position as the first computer science teacher at Christopher Columbus High School.
The private boys’ Catholic school in Westchester became the first high school in Miami-Dade to offer a computer science class. Culmo would give seminars to Dade County Public Schools to model what she was doing at Columbus.
Culmo, who taught at Columbus for 38 years, even after receiving a cancer diagnosis in 2013, died July 3 at 72. She only missed the spring 2014 semester to undergo treatment, her son Tom said. “I wanted my life back, I love teaching, I love the kids,” she told the school’s Adelante magazine in a fall 2014 profile.
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“She had a heart that knew no bounds,” said Columbus president Brother Kevin Handibode. “She was unbelievable. She was not only a great teacher but she cared for the kids after school. She’ll be greatly missed by the faculty. She was like their second mom.”
Culmo, born in New York City on April 22, 1943, moved to Miami when she was 14. She raised four children with Jimmy, her husband of more than 50 years. By the time their son Tom was a sophomore at Columbus in the late 1970s, Culmo was a volunteer there, counting the money for the annual raffle. Echoing the themes of the Reba McEntire song, Is There Life Out There? Culmo was a housewife who wanted family and the chance to expand her horizons.
So Culmo enrolled at Miami Dade College to study computer science — “for the fun of it,” her son said. She was so bright she wound up teaching courses at the community college before she earned her associate in arts degree.
Columbus principal Brother Edmund Sheehan quickly tapped her talents, too. “She said, ‘I don’t have my AA yet.’ Brother Sheehan said, ‘So what? We’re a private school. We can do what we want,’” said Tom Culmo. The school had just bought its first computer — a Data General Nova 3 — and no one knew how to use the machine.
Culmo, who would later earn her master’s in computer eduction at Barry University, did.
Countless students, given a head start in computer science thanks to Culmo’s smarts, went on to studies or careers in the field. Robert Sanchez, class of 1983, the CEO of Ryder System, “gave an interview recently and talked about how my mother’s class and her particular style of teaching is what launched him into the whole world of IT,’’ said Tom Culmo.
When she wasn’t in the classroom, which was often late into the evening, she could be found in her kitchen in west Miami-Dade.
“Irene is a first-rate cook whose Italian meals are a super treat, but in her early days at Columbus, the paper spaghetti coming out of the teletypes was not what her family looked forward to,” Brother Sheehan said in Adelante.
Her children understood.
“At the center of everything with my mom, she did everything with love and good humor,” said her son Tom. “What she taught us is that family extended beyond our home.”
In addition to her son and husband, Culmo is survived by her daughters Cindy Nehrbass, Nancy Pfaeffi and Amy Mallafre, 11 grandchildren and her siblings Nancy Brice, Helen Clarke, Jack Mannion and Ginny Gilmer.
A viewing will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Stanfill Funeral Home, 10545 S. Dixie Hwy., Pinecrest. A Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 7377 SW 64th St., South Miami followed by a luncheon at the Columbus High School cafeteria, 3000 SW 87th Ave., Miami. Donations can be made to the Irene Culmo Financial Aid Fund at Columbus.
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