Beloved Towson High teacher's memoir tells tale of hard beginnings
By Nelson Coffin
Dec 05, 2016 | 3:59 PM
Writer and retired Towson teacher Betty Walter reflects on her life at her home at Edenwald Retirement Community in Towson, MD on Thursday, November 10, 2016. Video by Jen Rynda/ Baltimore Sun Media Group
It's difficult not to be captivated by Betty Walter.
A razor wit, contagious laugh and engaging personality have made her a popular — and colorful — figure with a wide array of colleagues, former students, friends and admirers in the Towson area for nearly 50 years.
The Edenwald Retirement Community resident is also, at 84, a first-time author, thanks to her longtime friends John Hutchinson and Marcia Gleckler, who insisted that her memoir, titled "I Never Sang For My Mother," would be available in print for the general public's consumption. The self-published 84-page paperback is available at amazon.com for $10.
Gleckler and Hutchinson, members of the Wednesday Writers group, which Walter founded in 1997, had read the memoir that Walter wrote for her three grandchildren 19 years ago and decided the time had come to publish the work. They also co-edited the book by Walter, who taught creative writing and theater at Towson High School for 25 years, when she used Corwell as her surname.
The Wednesday Writers had come from an idea Walter had while teaching a course at Notre Dame of Maryland University, where her students wrote about life experiences.
According to Gleckler, the group still meets weekly at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, adhering to Walter's original promise of "no red ink," meaning that no story should be corrected.
"She says 'Tell it like it is, from the heart,'" Gleckler said of Walter's advice to the writers. "'Either poetry or prose. For years, Betty taught in local schools, inspired the students as only someone with a heart for language can do, with an underlying flair for the dramatic. Then it was her turn to have her own writings published as the ultimate storyteller, exploring honestly her own background."
Walter said that she still has strong feeling about the Wednesday Writers.
"I think, in a way, it's my legacy," she said. "I'm more than proud of it — and every person there. Something happened there that doesn't happen very often. It was almost spiritual. It was just a wonderful experience."
Walter taught her fellow writers, who ranged in age from 65 to 80 or so, to "trust yourself, trust the group and trust the results."
She followed her own advice while writing a memoir that covers her life through early childhood and into adolescence, all the while dealing with an ill mother who died from tuberculosis when Walter was 16.
In her memoir's forward, Walter writes that she hopes her "musings, mullings and meditations" will help her grandchildren to "better understand a part of their own family history. I wanted to give them an idea of who I am and how I came to be."
Teaching and reaching
While Walter had spent the greater part of her adult life as a teacher and mentor, Hutchinson said that it was time to honor her for all of the inspiration she has given others through the years.
"I met Betty in 2000," said Hutchinson, who was an educator for 35 years and an elementary school principal for 16 years in Baltimore County. "I was doing consulting at the time, and someone mentioned a writers group. After the first meeting, I wondered how could I resist her. Well, I can't."
Hutchinson said that Walter is a "friend, nurturer and mentor," who boosted his confidence in his beloved poetry.
"She's such a good listener," the Parkton resident said. "She said that everyone has a story to tell. That's what drew us in."
She also attracted friends from a variety of backgrounds not always like hers, particularly longtime Towson High teacher and basketball, soccer and lacrosse coach Randy Dase, for whom she wrote scripts for "High School Sports Scene" on the Baltimore County Public Schools television station.
They have become very close friends.
"Even though we're opposite in many ways, we're both coaches." said Dase, who will celebrate his 40th year teaching at his alma mater on Feb. 1. "She did her [theater] coaching on the stage and I did mine on the gym floor or field. Betty had a real passion for what she did. She was a fantastic educator who could even get the least academically-minded student to read. She helped all her students unleash their creativity and pulled it out of them, and that's what great coaches do."
One such former Towson High student, Scott Buckley, admitted that English was not his favorite subject at the time.
"I was more interested in playing [basket] ball in those days, but I really enjoyed her class," said Buckley, the head varsity basketball coach and assistant athletic director at Roland Park Country School. "She made 'Macbeth' fun. She found a way to reach all of her students, not just 'A' students. She made you to want to go to class, and that's a rarity."
Hutchinson and Gleckler did not ask for her permission when they decided to move forward with "I Never Sang For My Mother."
"I was surprised," Walter said. "The first I heard about it is when John called to tell me. I was very pleased."
Another Wednesday writer, Joan Pugh, said that the group was taken in by Walter's memoir.
"When others had the opportunity to read the collection, they found a small gem that grew on them — a memoir open and honest that pulls you in deeper the more you read," she said.
The book describes a series of eventful moments in Walter's life, not necessarily in linear fashion, from her early childhood in Glen Burnie to her Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) 40th reunion — and beyond.
The reunion, Walter wrote, "was not about dressing for or acting for 'success.' Those games belong to 20th reunions."
Instead, she said, the gathering took "neither admirable nor spectacular courage, just a little dab of pluck, a touch of chutzpah and a dash of stage presence — the kind required to attend a cocktail party without alcohol, a dinner without endearing companions or an office Christmas party without a clearly marked exit."
Remembrances of her dog, Poochie, show her comedic side as well.
"Poochie was very fond of boy dogs, and may I say, they returned the affection," Walter wrote. "Although mothering was not her long suit, she thoroughly enjoyed (or so it would seem) the process needed for reproduction."
Insights of her time boarding at Hannah More Academy, in Owings Mills, and earning a Master's Degree in Fine Arts at Columbia University where she met her first love — and then her first husband — are included in the book, although the most poignant moments deal with the relationship with her mother, Elizabeth Lloyd Walter.
Before the widespread use of antibiotics to fight tuberculosis, many people with the disease were isolated in sanatoriums, such as the one where Walter's mother was treated for five years in upstate New York, near Lake Placid.
When her mother was home, physical contact was not allowed, even a kiss.
"Touching with tuberculosis was disallowed," Walter wrote. "That was the credo I must remember. Don't touch. It would take me years to realize that touching need not be dangerous, that love was not a disease, and that contagiously transmitted emotions could be just as dangerous as the micro organisms whose presence we tried to avoid."
Walter said that it wasn't painful writing about her mother because their inability to touch created a physical and emotional gulf between them.
"I know that she never hugged me," Walter said. "I couldn't even be around her that often. I remember when I was in the second grade and I had whooping cough, so I was whooping (coughing) down the hall and all my mother could do was watch me. I'll never forget the look on her face because she couldn't touch me.