The Amazing Hanna Kirk Mathews
By Barry Gwinn
I grew up in Swarthmore and graduated from SHS in 1956. With our three straight years of undefeated football teams, preppy clothes, and about a 90% college acceptance rate, we definitely stood out in Delaware County.
Unfortunately I wasn’t around in 1965, when Time magazine came to town to report a most unlikely event — the retirement dinner of Hanna Kirk Mathews. I have done a lot of writing in my life. That I have had some measure of success is due mainly to one diminutive woman — my high school English teacher, Hanna Kirk Mathews.
In her 40 years of teaching, about 4,500 high school students passed through her classroom. Most of us are avid readers and confident in our speech and written word. These qualities have enriched our lives.
Everything I have written for the last 60 years has Mrs. Mathews’ fingerprints all over it. The tributes paid to Mrs. Mathews upon her retirement were so remarkable that they were published in the Readers Digest, Time, and in my hometown newspaper, The Swarthmorean.
Hanna Kirk Mathews was born to a Quaker family on a farm near Doylestown Pa., in 1900. She lived to be 93. She graduated from Goucher College, just outside Baltimore, and then received a master’s degree from Columbia University. I imagine her degrees were heavily weighted in English literature.
Her first job was teaching English in tiny Doylestown High School. One of her first students there was sophomore James A. Michener. After a year or two at Doylestown, Mathews (then Miss Kirk) accepted an offer of employment from Swarthmore High School and began teaching there in 1926. “The school wanted her badly,” recalls Putty Willetts, a colleague, “[Miss Kirk] came highly recommended.” Swarthmore, then as now, was a leafy suburban Philadelphia college town (pop. about 5,000). (Michener would later graduate from Swarthmore College.) It was a plum position and Mathews jumped at the offer. She would head up the English department there until her retirement in 1965.
As her student in 1956, I recall her classroom being arranged with four large tables, each seating eight students. The tables were along either wall, leaving room in the middle for plays and recitations by the students.
Mrs. Mathews spent most of her time wandering among the tables (getting personal) or standing at the back of the room watching what was going on in front. One student recalls that she would recite a line from a Shakespeare play and then ask whence it came. Another fell in love with the sonnets of Keats, which were frequent homework assignments. Still another drew inspiration from the stack of New Yorker magazines she kept in the classroom.
We didn’t know it, but we did a good deal of the teaching ourselves. In addition to acting out Shakespeare’s plays, we would be called on to recite what we had read in our homework assignments and encouraged to correct our fellow students both as to grammar and to content. Then we had to write about what we had read and heard.
Our papers were always downgraded for incorrect grammar, punctuation, and syntax. The subjects ranged from Hammurabi’s Code to the Gettysburg address; Shakespeare to Arthur Miller; Chaucer to Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Salinger; John Keats and Lord Byron to Longfellow and Ogden Nash. We had to get inside the authors’ heads, dissect their books, perform their plays, and recite their poems. The process was never complete, however, until we had reduced our impressions to writing — always writing.
To this day, when I correspond with one of my classmates, I expect a concise, well written communication. I don’t recall ever being disappointed. By the spring of our senior year, we had become sated with the world of English literature and familiar with the communication techniques of the various authors.
Then, with just three months until graduation, she required us to write something original. It was the dreaded senior theme and it was a backbreaker. It is the only term paper I have ever been required to write. “College English was easy compared to Mrs. Mathews’ classes,” a classmate recently told me. “I was excused from taking freshman English at UVA,” said another. He gives Mrs. Mathews the credit.
I learned that research and preparation is the sine qua non of journalism. She told us what she wanted, how it was to be presented, and suggested ways to go about it. I accumulated dozens of 3”x5” cards with notes and citations from periodicals in the Swarthmore College library. The cards completely covered the double bed at home, next to my desk. I experienced a rush when it was done. It was a rush to be repeated many times during my career.
An article in Readers Digest caught my eye back in 1975. I was then stationed in Phoenix. It mentioned three people, all of whom were well known to me — Mrs. Mathews, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and the President of the United States.
I had always been in awe of Mrs. Mathews and used the skills she taught me to write my way through life. After reading and rereading the article, I knew I had certifiable proof that she belonged in the pantheon of great teachers. It certainly was exhibit A of the influence a really good teacher can have on their students’ lives.
The culmination of Mathews’ career came on the evening of June 8, 1965, when 160 Swarthmore High School faculty, students, alumni, and friends crammed into the sweltering Swarthmore High School cafeteria, to do her honor. The Swarthmorean had earlier reported that a surprise guest would be present. It turned out to be renowned author James Michener. The Readers Digest article reflected the loyalty and veneration this famous author had for her.
As I recall it, the Digest reported that President Johnson was hosting a White House dinner honoring young authors (120 of them) for outstanding scholarship. Author James Michener had recently been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for one of his first novels, Tales of the South Pacific. He was, at the time, perhaps the best known and widely read American author. Understandably, this was the man and keynote speaker, who President Johnson wanted at his right hand for such a dinner.
The event was scheduled for June 8, 1965. The presidential invitation went out to Michener. Michener replied with a thunderbolt, sending his regrets. The President, not accustomed to having his summonses refused, got Michener on the phone. From recollection, the conversation went something like this —
The President: “James, this means an awful lot to me. We are all expecting you to be here. Couldn’t you possibly rearrange your schedule and come down?” Michener’s reply over the phone arguably constitutes one of the greatest tributes a teacher will ever get. Michener was reported to have replied, “Mr. President, we have had great presidents in the past, and undoubtedly will have them in the future. Very few of us, however, are privileged to have had a great teacher. My high school English teacher has had a tremendous impact on my life. Her retirement dinner is scheduled for the same night [as your event]. I have committed to it and intend to be there.”
Time magazine reported a similar quote made by Michener at Mathews’ retirement dinner — “In his lifetime, a man lives under 15 or 16 presidents, but a good teacher comes into his life but rarely.” And so, on June 8, 1965, rather than sitting at the President’s side in a glittering White House assemblage, James Michener showed up in Swarthmore High School’s small jam-packed basement cafeteria at Hanna Kirk Mathews’ retirement dinner.
An anonymous Swarthmorean reporter did a first-rate job of recording what happened there: “Mr. Michener said that Hanna Kirk ‘brought into our small [Doylestown High] school, a ray of light.’ [Michener] read from a letter of invitation from President Johnson to the White House dinner honoring the Presidential Scholarship winners, that same evening, and his own telegram in reply, which said in part, ‘Your invitation was received just three days after I had agreed to speak at a dinner honoring the high school teacher who taught me how to write… Being a teacher yourself, I know you will understand… You will not miss me at your dinner; she might miss me at hers.’ It is a rare thing, Michener said, to meet a really good teacher. To hold her in regard these many years is an experience to cherish.”
These were not the last known sentiments which Michener had voiced about his favorite teacher. One of my classmates recalls meeting Michener on two occasions, in 1978 and 1982. “I asked him about Mrs. Mathews [on both occasions],” the classmate said, “[Michener’s] response came immediately and with little pause. His words were to the effect that ‘I would never have achieved success without her. You know, I should probably write and tell her that.’” There are many of us with the same sentiments.