November 21, 2018
Last weekend I noticed a Facebook post from Mary Beggs, a name I recognized from my past – the daughter of one of my high school English teachers at Placer High School.
I only had three English teachers in high school.
Mrs. Katherine Beggs for Freshman English; John Chaney for Sophomore English, and Charlie Minor for Junior and Senior English. I knew that John Chaney had passed away a number of years ago and thought Charlie Minor had too. Had no idea what had become of Mrs. Beggs until I saw that post from her daughter Mary. She posted a photo of her mom in her WWII uniform.
It turns out Mrs. Katherine Beggs is alive and well and still living in her home on Riverview Drive in Auburn.
She will be 102 on Sunday, November 25!
So then I started thinking…I really wanted to meet her and thank her for the role she played in shaping me as an English teacher.
Mary and I went back and forth a bit, and we landed on trying the the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as Mary would be in town.
What were my recollections of her from 49 years ago about starting Freshman English in the fall of 1969? One memory stood out as I reflected back on those days as a freshman in high school at Placer High School.
Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.”
My love for this piece began back in 1966 when the television version starring Geraldine Page and Donnie Melvin first aired in December of 1966. It was something my Great Aunt Florence and I shared. The only career she had was being a high school English teacher in the Oakland school district. She taught me to love words.
We loved the language together and I think we fancied each other as Miss Sook and Buddy. I recall her sending me a clipping from Parade magazine about the show. We never watched it together, but each year when it came on it was a topic for conversation, I was in sixth grade the first year it came out.
I knew the show had come from a short story written by Truman Capote, but I never had read it until Mrs. Begg handed out mimeographed copies to us in that fall of 1969.
Imagine a morning in late November. A coming of winter morning more than twenty years ago. Consider the kitchen of a spreading old house in a country town. A great black stove is its main feature; but there is also a big round table and a fireplace with two rocking chairs placed in front of it. Just today the fireplace commenced its seasonal roar.
A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. “Oh my,” she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, “it’s fruitcake weather!”
All I remember 49 years later of that moment is being thrilled to actually read the words for the first time. I loved my Aunt Florence and how could I not now love Mrs. Beggs?
She loved language too and always had us memorizing things.
Shakespeare and Julius Caesar. “The fault dear Brutus is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings”
And John Donne, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”
Not sure I can confirm this but my first real exposure to Shakespeare may have happened in her classroom that year.
Scores of my students can thank Mrs. Begg for showing me the power of memorizing passages from the great works. How many of you can still recite “The quality of mercy is not strained” speech from The Merchant of Venice or “If it were done when ’tis done then well it were done quickly” speech from Macbeth?
So on a rainy Wednesday I drove up to Auburn to reconnect with my very first high school English teacher. I was a little nervous to force myself into her world. Not sure I have ever hung out with a 102 year-old before. Mary had told me that her mom loves oatmeal raisin cookies so I picked some up at the Flower Garden Bakery and headed over to her place on Riverview Drive.
If you have never been in the presence of an 102 year old who has a better memory than you do, you are missing out on a remarkable treat.
She was born Katherine Kilbuck (she’s 1/4 Native American) in 1916 in Hood River, Oregon, graduated from high school in 1934 then headed off to college at the University of Nebraska where she got her Bachelors and Masters by 1939. She lived in Lincoln for six years with a relative and always planned to be a teacher. Returning to the Pacific Northwest in 1939, she taught in Olympia, Washington until 1943 when she joined the WAVES as a commissioned officer.
In 1944 she married Lloyd W. Beggs who she had known back in Hood River. He also joined the Army and was a part of the battle of Anzio in Italy. He had gone to the University of Oregon and majored in journalism.
They moved to Auburn in 1947 when he became the editor in chief of the Auburn Journal, a position he held for 25 years until 1972. Mr. Beggs may have been best known and remembered for coaching the Auburn Little All Star Team that made it to the Championship game of the Little League World Series in Williamsport in 1959. I only know him because I played on Lloyd W. Beggs Field when I was in the Auburn Little League from 1965-67.
What I had never realized was that Mrs. Beggs was at the end of her career when I had her. She began teaching at Placer in 1952 or 1953 until she retired in 1972.
I brought a copy of the “Christmas Memory” with me and wanted to read it to her, and so i did.
I’ve taught that story many times , but I never had read it all out loud.
By the time I was done we all had laughed and cried and felt the power of Capote’s words. It’s funny, poignant, sad, bittersweet.
And when that happens, I know it. A message saying so merely confirms a piece of news some secret vein had already received, severing from me an irreplaceable part of myself, letting it loose like a kite on a broken string. That is why, walking across a school campus on this particular December morning, I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.
What a privilege it was for all of us to share these words together.
One of the best moments from the afternoon was when I couldn’t recall one of the names of a teacher I had at Sierra College. Back in the day Sierra College was called Placer College and the high school shared the same campus.
I remembered my inspiration for going into teaching, Mr. V. Elmo Daley, but I couldn’t remember the last name of “Ray” who lived on Electric Street who had taught me American Literature. Mrs. Beggs as quick as could be said “Nelson.” Ray Nelson, of course. Amazing when a 102 year-old has a better memory than you do.
Several of her friends who I am sure look in on her often dropped in to share gifts and words of love.
We ate some of the delicious oatmeal raisin cookies together. And then it was time for me to go.
This was a day I will hold in my heart forever.
Thank you Mrs. Katherine Beggs. Thank you for deepening my love of language. Thank you for showing to me the power of great writing. Thank you for having me memorize great works that I still can recite 49 years later. Thank you for being a part of my story.
Can’t wait to hang out again.
Jim Jordan. November 23, 2018