Finding Miss Swanke: Students track down beloved teacher through daughter in Bemidji
FARGO, N.D. -- This is a tale of gratitude.
It's also a tale of reunion, faith and healing.
It's about two little boys, now grown men, who were influenced by a dynamic young teacher.
So much so that nearly 50 years later, these former students at Fargo's Roosevelt Elementary remember her with an awe usually reserved for sports heroes.
One of the boys, Cristopher Anderson, wanted to find her. The Minneapolis writer/documentary filmmaker hadn't talked to this teacher for nearly half a century. He knew her only by what he had called her in third grade: Miss Swanke. He realized she had since married and could be living almost anywhere.
But Anderson wanted to let Miss Swanke know what a difference she'd made so many years ago. He was 58 - an age when making such connections becomes more important. He made it his mission to contact her.
What he didn't realize was that Miss Swanke was hiding in plain sight. Now Marcella Richman, she had married a farmer, raised a family and lived just an hour west of Fargo.
But the last few years had been tough for Richman. First, her husband died. Then she was diagnosed with cancer. Later, she had a stroke.
When Anderson contacted her, she remembered him immediately. And just as her former student expressed thanks for her influence in his life, Richman felt gratitude upon hearing she'd left such an impression.
It made sense. Miss Swanke showed up in her students' lives when they needed her most. Now, her students showed up at a time when she needed them most.
'We were golden'
Marcella Swanke was just a few years out of teachers' college when she joined the faculty at Roosevelt Elementary School in north Fargo.
From the outset, the young teacher wanted to make school interesting, relevant and fun. Decades before education experts emphasized hands-on, problem-based learning, she had children bring foods from home that represented their ethnic heritage. She had them cook, visit museums, do art projects and knit. "Even the boys had a ball of yarn in their inkwells with a couple of needles sticking out, so when they had their work done, they could knit," Richman recalls, chuckling. "There were always so many opportunities to do more than read the story."
The educator had another gift: She liked kids. She was interested in their lives. She related to them as human beings, not just names on an attendance list.
Everyone liked the lively, pretty young teacher, but none more so than Cristopher Anderson and Tom Monson. The two boys were neighbors in north
Fargo's Kennedy Court. Tom had a crew cut, walked with an athlete's gait and came from a family of boys. Cristopher was the only boy in a family of three, loved violin and considered himself an egghead.
Despite outward differences, the two friends knew one thing: They worshiped Miss Swanke. Years later, Anderson would write an essay in which he reverently recalled her image:
"She wore full dresses that came down below her knees, had dark hair, and glittery earrings that, with her merry eyes and arching, conspiratorial, laughing smile, made one big sparkle, making us squirm and blush. She could look at me real personal, like she knew everything about me, and liked everything there was."
Monson, now a financial adviser in Denver, also has glowing memories of the teacher.
He talks about how the young educator innately knew how to handle issues, such as having three different boys named Tom in her class. "To make it easier, she sat us down and asked what we would like to be called," he says. "One wanted to be Tommy. The other was 'Tom.' I was Thomas. It could have been a major problem for someone, but it was just the way she handled it. She was almost, in a way, a friend."
Anderson's fondness for the teacher runs even deeper. Memories of her, he says, help recapture "that moment when we thought we were golden ... there's a time when we think we're golden and anything is possible."
A quest begins
In the half-century that has passed, Anderson married, had children and launched a writing career. But he often wondered what happened to his favorite teacher.
He reconnected with Monson, and they occasionally talked about their beloved third-grade teacher. Anderson wrote that essay, titled "Where Are You, Miss Swanke?" And then he decided to find out.
It turned out to be a surprisingly easy search. Through the Fargo school district, a former teaching colleague and some Internet detective work, he learned her first name, Marcella, and her married name, Richman. He then found her daughter, Ann Cease, who lives in Bemidji.
'It was such a gift'
Through Cease, Anderson began to piece together the last 50 years of his beloved teacher's life.
Like many women of her generation, Richman left teaching to get married to Wayne Richman, a Tower City, N.D., farmer.
She and Wayne raised two daughters, Ann and Amanda.
She also published two popular regional cookbooks, including "North Dakota - Where Food is Love," which contained recipes from the iconic Tower City truck stop.
She moved to Valley City when Wayne died in 2007. Always fit and healthy, she continued to walk two miles a day and run her cookbook business.
In the summer of 2008, Richman noticed she had trouble climbing the city's many hills. She saw a physician, who found internal bleeding. A colonoscopy revealed cancer.
Treatment required aggressive chemotherapy, resulting in a stroke. Richman was moved from hospital to nursing home to a rehabilitation center in Bemidji.
The cookbook author who used to make from-scratch meals for crews of hired men now had to re-learn how to make toast. She needed to practice how to walk without dragging one foot. The stroke affected her vision, so the once-independent Richman could no longer drive.
Then, at the most difficult phase of her life, Richman learned that a former student was looking for her.
She remembered Anderson well: a tall, blond boy with a good sense of humor and "a seriousness about responsibility."
He sent her a letter. She sent one back. "Your kind letter was the best medicine you could have offered in my present condition," Richman wrote.
Anxious not to overwhelm his convalescing, 74-year-old teacher, Anderson approached her cautiously. He communicated with her only by mail, and didn't press the issue of a face-to-face reunion. They continue to correspond.
"I want to be sensitive to her feelings and needs," he says.
But Richman marvels at how this connection was made at a time when she most needed it.
"It was so good for me to hear that right now when it feels like I'm a failure, because I'm not healthy and can't do things like I used to do," says Richman, now living back home in Valley City. "It was such a gift. It was uncanny that it would come now too because there was never a time when I needed it more."
As for Anderson, the gratitude starts on his end.
"When you are young, you need those giants, those big people, around you to believe in you," he says. "She believed in us."
Tammy Swift is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. The Forum and the Bemidji Pioneer are owned by Forum Communications Co.