Caffiere, Blanche (1906-2006): An Appreciation

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 1/15/2007
  • Essay 8060

Blanche Hamilton Hutchings Caffiere was a Seattle teacher, librarian, writer, and storyteller. Over the course of her very long life she influenced many people. Among these were her childhood friend, world-famous Northwest writer Betty MacDonald, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who was her student at View Ridge Elementary School. In this essay staff historian Paula Becker, a friend during the last six years of Caffiere's life, remembers her.

Katherine Blanche Hamilton was born on her family's farm in Rockport, Indiana, on October 22, 1906, and died peacefully in her sleep surrounded by her family in her West Seattle retirement home on November 19, 2006. She had recently celebrated her 100th birthday.

With her parents, older sister, and two older brothers, Blanche moved to Seattle as a babe in arms in the spring of 1907. Her family settled near Green Lake, first in the home of a cousin and then in a house her father, who later helped to construct the Green Lake Reservoir, built at 7330 11th Avenue NE. The names and charming foibles of her neighbors, her solo jaunts beginning at age five down the quiet hillside eventually obliterated by Interstate 5 to check out books from the Green Lake Library, her frequent swims in Green Lake, and seemingly every detail of her childhood were stored in Blanche's memory, later to be excavated as she wrote memoirs, gave oral histories, or simply told stories.

In 1920 at Lincoln High School, Blanche met fellow freshman classmate Betsy Bard. Betsy found Blanche's stories so amusing that she took Blanche home to meet her large, exuberant, somewhat eccentric family. The Bards, who held good story tellers in the highest possible esteem, immediately appreciated Blanche's skills. When Roosevelt High School opened in 1922-1923, Blanche and Betsy moved there as juniors, graduating together as part of Roosevelt's second class in 1924. In 1945 Betsy Bard, by then known as Betty MacDonald, rocketed to worldwide fame with the publication of her best-selling book, The Egg and I. Blanche remained close to the Bard/MacDonald clan throughout her life, eventually publishing a memoir about the family titled Much Laughter: A Few Tears. That book was also published in Czech, an event that took then 94-year-old Blanche to Prague where she was feted, interviewed on television, and swarmed by autograph seekers. MacDonald's books remain extremely popular in Eastern Europe. Blanche later confessed to an audience gathered at Vashon Library for a Betty MacDonald Day celebration that she felt the crowds were really there because of Betty. "I felt like telling them, I'm not Betty, I'm just her friend!" she laughed. Blanche lived more than twice as long as her good friend Betty, who died in 1958, and her written and oral reminiscences offer fans and scholars valuable insight into MacDonald's work.

Blanche Hamilton earned a teaching degree from Bellingham Normal School (now Western Washington University) and taught her first class in 1927 in a two room schoolhouse in the tiny Nooksack Valley town of Lawrence. She later earned a master's degree from Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Her career as an elementary school teacher and later as a librarian spanned more than 50 years. She taught throughout the greater Seattle area, in Portland, in London as a Fulbright exchange teacher, and in Sierra Leone. While serving Seattle's View Ridge School as librarian Blanche met the young Bill Gates. Gates worked as a library assistant under Blanche's tutelage, and later credited her early encouragement with his subsequent philanthropic efforts to introduce computer technology into school libraries.

In 1932 Blanche married Keith Hutchings. The couple had two children, Jill and Keith. In 1951 the marriage ended in divorce. In 1958 Blanche married Cyril Caffiere, later moving with him to Vashon Island where she had previously lived during World War II. Still an avid swimmer, Blanche impressed her neighbors on Quartermaster Harbor with her continuing dedication to the life aquatic well into her eighth decade.

A lifelong Christian Scientist, Blanche published many articles in the Christian Science Monitor including one about her by-then famous former student. The Reader's Digest reprinted this article ("The Boy With The Billion-Dollar Secret") in December 1995. Blanche was the lead writer on The Past Remembered II: Vashon-Maury Island Memories (a Washington State Centennial Project) in 1991, published her book about MacDonald in 1992, and published Rocking Chair Memories about her childhood in 2002. At the time of her death she was in the final stages of assembling another volume of memoirs. Blanche also participated in the Green Lake Oral History project and contributed to other oral histories. She was a popular public speaker, most recently appearing as part of the Vashon Island Library's anniversary celebrations in October 2006 where she stood for nearly an hour, sharing memories of Vashon and about Betty MacDonald. Blanche remained an active, interested, highly valued participant in many groups and associations and especially in the lives of her friends and family members throughout her own long life.

I met Blanche during the course of researching the history of Betty MacDonald and her sister Mary Bard's Seattle area homes. Like many others following the Betty and Mary trail, I stumbled upon Blanche's memoir of her friendship with the colorful Bard family and her own girlhood in Seattle's Green Lake/Roosevelt neighborhood. Noting that since she'd been 85 years old when the book was published, she might no longer be living, I wrote a letter to Blanche at the address on the book jacket. Several weeks later she replied, expressing enthusiasm for my research and amazement that my address was only a block away from a house she'd lived in as a young mother in the early 1930s. We subsequently met, and met again, eventually settling into a routine of regular visits at the retirement home where she lived. We began to take outings, sometimes to her childhood neighborhood where I now live with my own family. Our final outing, a guided tour of her beloved Roosevelt High School, occurred less than three weeks before her death. The magic of listening to Blanche tell stories from her past about my neighborhood illuminated my daily environment in a fuller, richer manner than all my other archival research about the area had done, and continues to enrich my life and those of my children.

In time Blanche became well known to my entire family. She was particularly interested in my daughter, Lillie, whose modern life in Blanche's old neighborhood sometimes paralleled Blanche's own childhood despite the 90-year time gap. Blanche's long life became a personal timeline against which my children measured the events of the last century. Blanche was 5 when the Titanic sank, 8 when Ernest Shackleton began his Antarctic expedition on the Endurance, and 10 when Shackleton finally brought his crew home. The 1918 flu pandemic? Blanche would have been 12. The Smith Tower? Well, Blanche was a little older than the Smith Tower. It wasn't started until 1910. She attended the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, although she was too young to remember very much. The stock market crash? She was 23. Pearl Harbor? Blanche was 35.

We knew Blanche loved her elementary school experience at Fairview School wholeheartedly and the rhyme she still remembered about that school's 1910s arch-rival, Green Lake Elementary:

"Fairview's dandy, stuffed with candy,
Green Lake's rotten, stuffed with cotton."

When we drove past the Green Lake Reservoir we thought of Blanche's funny story about getting stuck in tar nearby one hot summer day in 1911, or her sad recollection of the neighbor boy who sneaked into the reservoir's enclosure in the early 1930s and then drowned.

West Seattle meant Blanche's vivid description of riding the streetcar to Alki Point to picnic with her mother and sister Esther in 1912. The streetcar they boarded at Green Lake station across from the pool hall was bright yellow, Blanche wrote in Rocking Chair Memories, and it

"... lurched from side to side. The ecstatic feeling I had as we careened around Green Lake could never be duplicated. Green Lake was then in its aboriginal form -- trees, bushes, banks, swamp grass, and mud around the edges. No groomed gardens or neat paths ... when the streetcar left the Lake, it took a diagonal route, skirting backyards, clotheslines, even a few chicken coops, on into Woodland Park. The thicket of firs came amazingly close to the car. In retrospect, it was beautiful, gliding through the heart of the park, but to me, at this point, it was merely something to get over with, so we could hurry on downtown to where we could transfer to the ALKI, that phaeton to paradise" (Blanche Caffiere, Rocking Chair Memories [Seattle: Blue Gables Publishing, 2002], p. 70).

By the time I got to know her, Blanche was so very old and yet still extremely vibrant. Early on I left each visit marveling at her wit, her ongoing interest in the vicissitudes of daily life, and her astounding facility to recall the past. This last ability had the effect, at least on me, of opening what felt like almost a literal door into Seattle's past. With Blanche's help, I was almost voyeur, seeing through her memories the answers to my many questions about the region's social history. It was as if the Interurban cars still traversed the corridor from Tacoma to Bellingham, and when I asked a question Blanche's answer was a hand reaching out of the car door and pulling me aboard. As our friendship progressed, even as I saw tiny signs of her ever-increasing age, it became strangely less possible for me to remain alert to the absolute inevitability of losing her. She became less and less a venerated elder and more and more a pal.

A proverb usually attributed to African culture says that when an old person dies it is as if a library has burned down. If this proverb is applied to Blanche, the now-smoldering tomes were sparkling, well crafted gems up until the instant the flames swept through. Browsing in that collection was a privilege the likes of which I do not expect to be honored with again. Blanche Caffiere was both witness to and participant in a century of Seattle's history -- and for anyone who asked about that history, a completely enchanting oracle.

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