Rosemary Oates was so poor as a child that she had to sleep in a crib until she was 7 – her family could not afford to buy her a proper bed. Even before her father, a factory worker and union organizer, died from tuberculosis, her family struggled financially, often going without heat during the cold New England winters. Still, they read Shakespeare in the evenings, and her father sang them to bed with union songs.
Oates would later sing those same tunes to her four children, and sometimes wept when listening to the likes of Pete Seeger in the 1960s. By then Oates had earned not only an undergraduate degree in Latin, but also a master’s degree in the classics from Yale University.
The value she placed on education only strengthened, prompting her to take her talents to a population she believed needed it most: pregnant teens. For 30 years, Oates worked at such schools, both in Connecticut and in Durham. During those years, pregnant students were quietly asked to leave mainstream institutions, often putting them at risk for dropping out of school entirely.
“This just horrified Mother,” said her daughter Sarah Oates. “Education was your ticket out of poverty. That was her experience.
“It will not only allow you to learn a living ... it’s the whole point.”
Oates, 85, died last month after a brief illness. Because she rarely talked about herself, it was only in her later years her family was able to fully realize just how far she had come.
‘A sense of self’
Rosemary Oates was originally named Rose Mary Walsh, and was the youngest of three children. She was 4 when she realized she preferred Rosemary, and insisted upon changing it.
“She had a sense of self, even as a young child,” said her daughter Emily Wingfield .
Her father died when she was a young teen, and her family was evicted from their apartment. Her brother left school around the ninth grade to help provide; Oates knew an education was the only way to improve her situation.
Oates received a scholarship to attend a small Catholic women’s college nearby. After earning her degree in Latin, she worked a few years in New York City and even traveled across the country by train, seeing the Grand Canyon along the way.
“She did things by herself, which I think was interesting for a woman at her time,” Wingfield remarked. “She was curious, I think, about the world around her.”
She met her husband, John Oates, while studying in the classics library at Yale. He had already secured a Fulbright scholarship, so Rosemary crossed the Atlantic, alone, to marry him in Athens, Greece.
Upon their return, Oates gave birth to four children in five years, and was not set upon returning to work until she read “The Feminine Mystique.” As she told her children, as soon as she put down the book, she picked up the phone to see about getting her old teaching job back.
Learning was all
Her children mostly remember her as a working mother, devoted equally to her family and career. At home she praised and encouraged good grades, making it clear that school was not just “a” priority, it was “the” priority.
“If I came home with an A in Latin, she would quiz me on it to make sure I deserved the A,” her son John Oates II said, laughing.
She wasn’t afraid to teach lessons to other people’s children as well.
“I’d bring friends home and she would correct them to make sure they used the proper term for races, creeds, colors ... lessons that stuck,” he said.
Swearing was not allowed, unless Duke was playing Carolina. And there was one summer when she made all four children watch the Watergate hearings on television.
Her family says her approach in the classroom wasn’t a whole lot different – tough but fair.
In New Haven she’d helped to establish the school for pregnant teens, one of the first of its kind, her family said, and taught English. When the family moved to Durham in 1967 for her husband’s job at Duke University, she soon joined the faculty at Durham’s Cooperative School for Pregnant School Girls. It was a tough population.
“I remember on Fridays she would just be exhausted,” Sarah Oates said.
When the N.C. School of Science and Math opened in 1980, Oates switched gears and became one of the original faculty members. She was able to teach Latin again (rather than English) and eventually settled into the position of registrar, a change she enjoyed, her family said.
A busy retirement
Upon retirement she was not one to sit still. She worked as an application reader for Duke University until she was in her early 80s. Her concern for social justice never waned, and she volunteered for 20 years at One World Market, a fair trade shop in Durham, as well as for various Democratic candidates.
“She was unstoppable,” Sarah Oates said. “She was never just Mrs. Oates.”