Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Kathleen Leach

A Teacher's Journey Through Life
A 100 year old remembers

In a farmhouse six miles out of the town of Beaver Dam, Kentucky, Kathleen Leach was born on December 10, 1912, to mother, Francis (Allen) and father, Forest Leach. Their farm was between their maternal and paternal grandparents farms.  When World War I ended Kathleen remembered her uncles, Oscar and Clarence Allen returning from France. They came home in 1920, and the impressionable eight year old girl remembered them telling her stories.
“Uncle Clarence was part of the Army of Occupation after the fighting. He was marched to the beach and thought that they would  be shipped home, but they learned that they would become occupation troops,” Kathleen said. 'The Germans had been told by the Kaiser that if the Americans won the war  that they would kill all German men and rape the women.  The troops were housed in German's houses. When Uncle Clarence and another man were housed in a German woman's house she was terrified that they  would  rape and kill her. So, she cooked them a chicken dinner  hoping that if they liked the food they would spare her. The two soldiers, not having had a hot meal in months, ate the entire chicken and were happy for the night. They didn't rape or kill the woman and left on friendly terms when they finally moved out of her house.”

Growing up in Kentucky 100 years ago

On Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) Kathleen's mother gave all the little kids an American flag to place on the soldier's graves. The kids would place the flag on one of the graves and say something about the fallen warrior.  “Many of the soldiers were from the Civil War, but we knew something about them all,” Kathleen remembered.Decoration Day was an important day then. I don't think the young children do that anymore.”
Church was an important part of life in Beaver Dam, having been formed as a community in 1874 by a group of Baptist; however, in the early years after the turn of the century, there was no permanent pastor to preside over Sunday services. Many of the community's activities revolved around the church, so once a month her father would take his wagon to the train station and pick-up a travelling preacher who would stay with them for the night then preside over the service. Her father would than take him back to the train station.
On Christmas Eve, the parents of Beaver Dam would bring their child's Christmas present to the small Church and place it under the large fresh cut Christmas tree, unwrapped. After the Christmas Eve service someone dressed up like Santa passed out the gifts, one by one, to the excited children. Kathleen said that each child got only one gift. There was a beautiful large doll under the tree one year. Kathleen fell in love with it and didn't really pay much attention to who was getting the other gifts because she could not take her eyes off the doll. When all the gifts had been given out the Santa picked up the doll and handed it to Kathleen. She was so surprised, and shocked, that she just stared at it and did not say a word. On the trip home in the wagon her mom finally asked her, “Do you like the doll?' Kathleen smiled and said yes. She remembered it as her best present ever.
            She was 10 years old when they moved off of the farm to Owensboro, Kentucky. They moved the thirty miles by horse and wagon, making the move because Owensboro had a high school, where as Beaver Dam only had a one room school that ended with the eighth grade. Kathleen's mother, Francis, never finished high school herself, and was insistent that her daughter would graduate. Kathleen graduated from Owensboro High School in 1929 and then went on to attend Murray State Teachers College. “I was helped getting into college by my pastor, it was a Baptist College," she said "I worked for the college to pay for my room and board.”

Kathleen (R) & Cousin Libby 1920's

Kathleen upper row right with friends, 1930's

Living through the Great Depression

            Kathleen graduated in 1933 and then taught at the same one room school that she had attended in Beaver Dam, Excelsior School, earning $25.50 a month. It was at the height of the Great Depression and the school could only pay her for two months. She still continued to teach there for free. 

Kathleen's first class of students, 1934-35 in Beaver Dam, Excelsior School

During this period she had a hard time finding a paying job as a teacher. Her father moved to Whiting, Indiana looking for work. He had been earning a living selling tobacco off the family’s farm, but during the depression sales fell off so much that he had to migrate to where the jobs were. “There were no jobs in Kentucky then, and everyone said go to Detroit, Michigan, because there's work up there. But dad found work in Whiting on his way  up, after meeting another Kentucky man who told him that if he looked there he'd be hired that day,” Kathleen remembered. Her mother moved up afterward and then she did too, finally finding work there herself.  Other  families from Kentucky moved to the Gary area to find work, including her best friend and cousin, Elizabeth Wright, called Libby by everybody. But the Great Depression was hard on many people and Kathleen was forced to move around finding teaching jobs. She would teach in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois before finding a permanent job in Chicago at the North Park Christian School in 1947.  In the meantime, she pursued her master's degree in the Romance Languages of Latin, French and Spanish from the University of Chicago.

            Still living in Whiting, Indiana, in the early 1940's, Kathleen took a bus from Gary into Chicago's south side where it would drop her off 11 blocks away from the University of Chicago campus. “I was never afraid,” Kathleen remembered, “even though the cars never slowed down.” She continued taking that bus to earn several master's degrees. During World War II she finally found steady work teaching in Whiting, but not at only one school. That would come after the war when she was hired by the North Park Christian School, later called the North Park Academy, where she remained for the next 29 years; retiring in 1976 after a 42 year career as a teacher.

            Her best friend and cousin, Libby Wright Conn, convinced her to move to Chesterton, Indiana, to be near her after retirement; which she did. Kathleen couldn't simply sit still though; she taught, for free again, this time at the Chesterton Adult Learning Center. For the next 17 years she instructed English as a second language. Over the past 35 years in Chesterton she was active with the Liberty Bible Church, volunteering her time and efforts, as well as volunteering more time in the Chesterton Library. In 2011 she moved into Rittenhouse of Valparaiso, where she is visited by friends and family. One of those friends, Daria Sheets, who met Kathleen at church, listened to all of her stories and called Generations the Magazine to suggest that we tell this story about this incredible woman.

            On turning 100, Kathleen stated that her secret is that she  didn't die yet. She also suggests that you eat your dessert first, which she often does, drink whole milk several times a day, (she has up to three glasses with each meal) and have faith in God. Her personal hero is her mother and her advice to others is to try to do what I would like others to do for me.

Kathleen and Libby 2003

Kathleen and Daria 2013

Source: Generations the Magazine
December 2012/January 2013

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