Vickie Dearth remembered - a 2010 reminiscence

EDITOR'S NOTE: Longtime Culver Comm. High School French teacher Vickie Dearth passed away Saturday, Sept. 21 at Miller's Merry Manor in Culver. Following is a March, 2010 story from The Culver Citizen, looking back at her career here and just why she was so beloved by so many students...

Former Culver Community High School French teacher Vickie Dearth’s favorite line in the play, “Pippen,” is, “I have once again accidentally stumbled into my destiny.”
Dearth, who ended more than 40 years of teaching at CCHS at her December retirement, says “Most of the things that make the biggest difference in your life, you stumble into. Things that are supposed to happen, will.”

And for Dearth, becoming a vibrant part of the Culver community she loves – and even the teaching profession itself – she seemed to “stumble” into, and both seem meant to be.

Dearth’s third grade teacher in her childhood home of Gary, Indiana, left her in charge of the class for a few minutes one day and returned to find a quiet class full of students working.

“She said, ‘You’d make a good teacher someday.’ I had probably 100 teachers tell me I couldn’t do it. I was a shy, quiet kid who never said ‘boo.’ My answer was always, ‘Yes I can. Mrs. Hunt said I could!’”

Barred from entering the early foreign language program some years later in high school – she believes due to that same shyness – Dearth determined to prove herself worthy and stacked up “A” grades in French.

“I got to college,” recalls Dearth, “and saw my first advisor and I said, ‘I’m going to be a teacher because Mrs. Hunt said I would.’ ‘What do you want to teach?’ the advisor asked. I said, ‘I don’t know. She didn’t tell me that!’”

Her best grades were in French, so Dearth, on the spot, chose that as her teaching subject. She loved her Ball State French classes and their instructors and, after graduating, she picked Culver as a point midway between Gary and Ball State. She was hired here shortly thereafter.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll stay a year and see if I can or can’t teach.’ By the end of the year I was pretty well hooked. I liked it here and didn’t want to go back to the city.”

Dearth says she enjoyed being able to stay with students through all four levels (five when junior high classes were added) of French rather than teaching only one level as usually happens in larger city schools.

“I also found out by the time I had students for three or four years, they were like family. I felt I should call their parents and ask how much I owe for college tuition on their child!”

Though she says she’s “never been a sports person,” Dearth has “seen athletics turn kids around,” and so chose to work in a support role in various sports contexts at the school, where she got to know students even better (once accused of cheating by a spectator while score-keeping at a basketball game, Dearth replied drily, “Sir, I don’t care enough to cheat!”)

If it’s not evident by now, one of Vickie Dearth’s great assets in and out of the classroom is her dry sense of humor. Another is her obvious love of the students themselves.

“I don’t have kids,” she explains, “and it’s crossed my mind more than once that I have more patience with most kids because I don’t have to come home and deal with (them). Not that I’m recommending no teachers have kids. In a sense, they (my students) were my kids, and I think kids feel that. They know without having to be told who cares and who doesn’t, (and) you have to treat each child as an individual. You can’t lump everything together and expect it to work with every student.”

Dearth says she’s also proud of her emphasis on manners for students, who she feels are often not taught the rules of politeness elsewhere. One former student, she says, came up and hugged her in thanks for all the tips he received – due to manners learned from Dearth, he believes – while waiting tables. “I said, ‘Where’s my cut?” Dearth adds with a smile.

Students also responded to her sometimes unorthodox methods of teaching, such as allowing shy students to speak French behind the “disguise” of hand puppets she kept in her classroom.

And then there are those stories. As anyone who’s spent more than a minute with Vickie Dearth knows, she often communicates through personal anecdotes – most of them humorous – which she seems to have gathered in spades and can use to great effect in the classroom or in conversation.

Another memorable facet of her teaching experience, says Dearth, was the experience of taking students on several trips to Europe starting in the late 1980s. The first trip grew from Plymouth High School’s need for a few more students on its journey overseas, but in other years included school groups from other states. Some trips combined students from French and Spanish classes, she notes, which made travels to countries speaking both languages all the better.

Typically, she says, Culver students experienced England, Paris, Nice (in France), the Riviera, Spain, Italy, Monaco, and Switzerland.

“The kids just loved it,” she recalls. “We had two things going for us: we laid out the rules before we left and enforced them, and we tried to make it fun, to think of things to do if the kids wanted to do them.”

Dearth recalls some chaperones from out-of-state schools allowing their own students to drink and date alone while in Europe. Expecting Culver students to demand the same, Dearth says she was floored when her CCHS students asked her, “What’s the matter with those chaperones? Don’t they care about the kids? If one of us was in trouble, you’d know it and be looking for us; they wouldn’t know if their kid was gone.”

“I was real proud of them,” she adds. “I think they had more fun than the kids going out drinking!”

The trips ended, Dearth explains, after the events of September 11, 2001, which of course ground air traffic to a temporary halt. She had considered working to put together another trip in the near future, she says, but her health got in the way.

And Vickie Dearth’s health ultimately led to her decision to retire when she did. As reported in a previous edition of the Citizen, in 2008 she contracted the bacterial infection MRSA and found herself fighting for her life. She missed the entire 2008-2009 school year of teaching, and two open heart surgeries later, she’s up, around, and involved in Culver life again. In fact, she returned to the classroom last semester (fall, 2009), but – still forced to use a walker to get around – decided the risks were too great.

Last December’s ice storm, and the subsequent realization that walkers and snow and ice don’t mix well, led her to concerns for her safety.

Further, doctors informed her she’ll need continual health monitoring from now on, which could at times mean a day or more in the hospital.

“That’s not fair to the kids,” she says, “Especially with French…right now they’re lucky to have Nicole Trebair from Paris (to teach the rest of this school year). But unemployed French teachers are not walking the streets of Culver waiting for me to get sick!”

And, she admits, she’s “thoroughly enjoying retirement,” though she misses the students.

She’s also disappointed to learn the school is dropping the French program entirely, largely due to the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding owing to state legislative decisions. Dearth is concerned especially for second-year French students who she’s afraid will have no means of continuing their studies.

She has every intention of staying in Culver, where Dearth has been an active part of the community almost since her arrival. And, though she fell in love with Culver from the start, she and two other big-city teachers just arrived here in the fall of 1969 “just howled” with laughter when they opened their first Culver Citizen newspaper to a headline about “a man growing corn on his garage roof…we said, ‘Where have we ended up?’”

But, she says, “The people have kept me in Culver.” From her arrival here, locals took her under their wing, sending her baked goods and otherwise looking out for her.

“People here are so out to help the next guy, more than anyplace else I’ve been,” she notes. “It’s a small town and I’ve felt very safe here. Being single, I don’t know if I could walk the dog at two in the morning and feel very safe, but I’ve done that here.”

Dearth was one of the founding members of the Maxinkuckee Players theater group, which she says evolved from the late Mimi Kalt (later Weirick), a CCHS teacher at the time, asking fellow faculty members to take unfilled parts in “Finian’s Rainbow.”

“When it was over, we’d had so darn much fun we sat around and said, ‘It’s a shame adults didn’t have enough parts to do (in plays).’ Some genius said, ‘Why not?’ and we got to talking about all the talent in this town doing nothing, and thought maybe civic theater would work.”

The same year, an evaluation of Culver’s high school noted the building wasn’t used enough by the public, making officials more than happy to facilitate auditorium space for the newly-formed group of thespians. When only two performances their first year sold out every seat in the auditorium, the Maxinkuckee Players knew they had something good on their hands.

Dearth credits local businesses for fully backing a fledgling and untested group of performers, as well as the high school for making the space available for both rehearsals and performances “for next to nothing.” In turn, the Players have tried to return the favor by paying for new stage curtains and other upgrades.

Dearth herself has done it all with the group: actress, director, chorus singer, set designer and worker. “Just about everything except play the piano, which I don’t know how to do,” she quips.

She’s also highly involved in Culver’s Lions Club, “just because they do so much good and help out in a lot of ways.” She’s also involved in Grace United Church of Christ and its mid-month meals, which she says exemplifies that church as “another organization that I think helps where they can. I like to be involved in things that try to do some good.”

She also feels Culver is the best of many worlds.

“It’s obviously a beautiful place to live; there’s nothing prettier than around that lake in the fall…I also think a lot of it is the Academy. They attract a lot of interesting people from all over the world. What other small town can you walk in and there’s famous people (and) people from (around the world)? I think that’s great. And relations between town and Academy have gotten so much better over the years than what they used to be. It’s a very nice little town and I love it, but it wouldn’t be what it is if we didn’t have the Academy…for a town our size, I think that’s a wonderful thing. I would venture to say there isn’t another town in the world quite like this one.”

And the big-city girl has embraced the quirks of small town life.

Dearth is full of anecdotes about Culver, from residents not knowing names of streets (“If you don’t know where people live, they can’t give you directions!”) to the proprietor of a former grocery store on Main Street calling her house to remind her to come in and get milk (Dearth’s visiting, big-city mother was amazed: “Your grocery store runs a wake-up service?”).

“The whole town is just not to be believed,” she chuckles. “It’s really kind of like falling into utopia. You don’t believe this kind of place exists. Other people live in fear for their life in the city. It’s just nice to be able to relax and live and enjoy; it’s kind of like living 100 years ago.”

She’s full of tales, too, of former students and their dedication to her, including some who she found later had been watching out for her safety when she didn’t realize it.

“Anybody not doing some occupation where they’re dealing with kids is missing the boat,” she says. “It gives you faith in the future…I got pulled into 50,000 kids’ world!”

Which brings Vickie Dearth back to that line from “Pippen” about destiny.

“I stumbled into my destiny,” she admits, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I just felt like it was meant to be.”