Life stories

Voice for kids in D.C., at home

Avid reader lauded creativity

CORRESPONDENTJanuary 16, 2012 

Editor's note: The Life Stories column Monday and an accompanying photo caption on misidentified where George Graham worked as a professor. Graham was a professor of politics and public administration at Princeton University. Also, the headline on the column misidentified where BettyAnn Rowse did her advocacy work in education. It was in the Washington, D.C., public schools.

While growing up in Princeton, N.J., a young Elisabeth Childs, called BettyAnn, was known for her love of reading. She had so many books that she started a lending library so her friends could enjoy her books as much as she had, recalled friend Marjorie Harding.

Harding met BettyAnn in the fourth grade. The two women kept in touch some 80 years

BettyAnn, who would become Elisabeth Graham, died last month at the age of 88. She left a legacy of her love for learning and her constant interest in others.

She also proved that stay-at-home mothers should never be underestimated - while raising the seven children she bore over 11 years, she was involved with the public school system in Washington, D.C., at one point serving as president of the John Eaton School PTA, with Walter Mondale as her vice president.

She spent a number of years in the 1960s and 1970s serving on the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers, where she authored teaching booklets and also developed a course curriculum on China.

In 1968 she served as a consultant to the White House Taskforce on Education of the Gifted, and the following year she founded the Educational Rights Council, a lobbying group that promoted every child's right to a good education .

"My mother felt so strongly that children should be supported in a creative environment," said daughter Mary Rowse. "My mother cared a lot about children's rights."

She did not want children to be afraid of people from other countries, Rowse said, noting that her mother encouraged courses that illuminated China and the Soviet Union.

"She was a peacemaker," Rowse said. "She wanted people to understand each other."

Graham graduated from Wellesley College in 1945 with a degree in American history. Her father was a professor of politics at Princeton University, and her mother is remembered as being a bit strict but also an advocate for her three daughters.

When a young BettyAnn was accused of tracing a drawing by a teacher, her mother, after watching BettyAnn draw it again from scratch, marched back to school to set things straight.

A moment like this might explain where her intense beliefs in the educational rights of children originated, her family said.

"She was fiercely protective of her children and other children in the schools who didn't have someone looking out for their needs and rights," Rowse said.

Once, when one of her children was accused of poor behavior in the classroom, she told the teacher that her curriculum needed to be re-evaluated - boredom was likely to blame.

One of her writings, "The Creative Atmosphere," stated that if teachers could offer a nurturing, safe and supportive classroom environment, then children would feel free to take risks, express themselves and do their best work.

Her only son, Robert Rowse, is extremely appreciative of the way she fostered his interests in building and creating things, be it the blocks she encouraged him to play with as a small child or the lake cottage in Maine she allowed him to replace when he was just a few years out of college.

Her family had long links to Maine, and she spent summers at this cottage. After it fell into disrepair, her son decided he wanted to build a new passive-solar house with a few elements from the old cottage. She found the money to help facilitate his dream, and he now frequents that cottage with his own family.

"She was so supportive of me," Robert Rowse said. "I've always felt different from a lot of my friends who've always dreamed of building a house - I had accomplished that at a very early age."

BettyAnn was married to Arthur E. Rowse for 32 years. He worked for the Washington Post in the '60s on the city desk; the family lived in the Cleveland Park neighborhood in the District of Columbia. They divorced in 1979.

She became Elisabeth Graham in 1986 when she married George Graham, a professor of politics and public administration who was a colleague with her father at Princeton and had even attended her first wedding - something he liked to joke about. He lived to be 100 and died in 2005.

When her children were young, they lived in Concord, Mass., in a house called the Dove Cote, the same home in which Louisa May Alcott had once lived. Mary Rowse cites the following quote when thinking about her mother: "They always looked back before turning the corner, for their mother was always at the window to nod and smile, and wave her hand to them. Somehow it seemed as if they couldn't have got through the day without that, for whatever their mood might be, the last glimpse of that motherly face was sure to affect them like sunshine." - Louisa May Alcott, from "Little Women"

eshestak@mac.com

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