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Mrs. Byrne 'gave us the gift of learning'

Lorna Tycer Byrne gave no homework for her final lesson on Thursday.

There was no need.

It was a lesson on a life well-lived, one that all of us gathered for her last class knew well. Our classroom was the funeral hall in Cave Junction; the pupils were her relatives, friends and former students.

Lorna Byrne, who taught for 50 years in the Illinois Valley, died in Grants Pass on Sept. 17 after 104 years of life. God knows how many lives she improved during a half-century of teaching.

It was out of deep respect for her that the powers that be in the Three Rivers School District wisely decided in 1977 to name its new school in Cave Junction the Lorna Byrne Middle School. Never mind she had retired only three years earlier.

The lady I shall forever know as Mrs. Byrne — even now I don't feel comfortable calling her "Lorna" — was my eighth-grade math teacher in the mid-1960s at the long-defunct Kerby Elementary School.

Joining me in Thursday's drive to that beautiful little valley was Central Point resident John Decker, an old buddy and "Kerby U" alumnus who was an outstanding football player at Illinois Valley High School. En route, we reminisced about the old days, both the good and the not so good.

Several folks who knew her spoke during the service led by Denny Hare, a gifted singer who lifted our spirits with his songs. He was also a longtime neighbor and cherished friend of the late teacher.

They all spoke eloquently about how Byrne had touched their lives. Succinctly summing it up was Mike Vitto, her grandson and former student, who said, "She gave us the gift of learning."

I had intended to stand up and speak but there seemed to be lump in my throat and something in my eye. Both eyes, actually.

It wasn't sadness. After all, 104 years in one of the fragile biological machines we each drive through this life is excellent mileage. No doubt our talented teacher was ready to graduate from this mortal coil.

It was joy — for being one of the lucky ones to have met her along life's highway. For being reacquainted with old friends, some of whom I had not seen for decades.

As I sat there, I was overwhelmed with memories, including the infamous bubble-gum incident.

It occurred during my eighth-grade math class. To say that I was not the sharpest pencil in the class would be an understatement. What's more, I was a consummate daydreamer.

To paraphrase the Bard, Mrs. Byrne did not suffer foolish students gladly. She was a no-nonsense teacher who expected you to pay attention in class.

No gum. No goofing off. Period.

Daydreams faded away under her laser-beam look like wisps of mist in the bright morning sun.

It came to pass one sunny day that a friend, we'll call him Cliff Phillips because he's most likely the culprit, gave me the gum during lunch hour. It was a pleasant break, blowing bubbles out on the playground.

I walked back into class with a jaunt in my step and plopped down, happy in my thoughts about some fishing excursion Cliff had planned for us.

That's when Mrs. Byrne's laser beam began burning into my forehead. I nearly choked on the forgotten verboten gum.

I was frozen with fear. My jaw muscles went slack. I couldn't talk.

Mrs. Byrne marched swiftly down the aisle, held out a tissue for me to get rid of the gum, told me to sit up and pay attention. Like all good teachers, she knew the difference between a deliberate act of defiance and the act of an absent mind.

She had my full attention for the rest of the year. In fact, I remember thinking four short years later during Marine Corps basic training that Mrs. Byrne could have given lessons on discipline to my drill instructors.

Fast forward to the late 1980s.

I was writing for the Grants Pass Daily Courier and had an interview over lunch scheduled with Mrs. Byrne. I brought along my young daughter, Amy, for protection. She was small but feisty.

But I warned Ames to be on her very best behavior.

"She's a nice lady but very strict," I cautioned. "And don't even think about chewing gum."

Turns out the teacher I feared most was a warm, wonderful human being. She talked about the good times she had as a teacher, about the satisfaction of giving the gift of learning.

And she chuckled when reminded of my gum episode, an incident she had long forgotten.

"She was awesome, Dad," Amy said on the way home. "I'm going to be a teacher when I grow up."

Amy now has a master's degree in history from Southern Oregon University, the same school, albeit with a different name, that Mrs. Byrne had graduated from nearly 80 years ago. Moreover, Amy was one of the teachers greeting students when the newly minted Central Medford High School opened early this month.

That precious gift Mrs. Byrne gave her on the joys of learning is one she is now passing on to her students.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Published: TIMOTHY BULLARD/Daily Courier Lorna Byrne turned 104 on Tuesday and is the oldest resident in Josephine County that the Daily Courier knows about. Original: TIMOTHY BULLARD/Daily Couier Lorna Byrne turned 104 on Tuesday and is the oldest resident in Josephine County that the Daily Courier knows about. âÄúIâÄôm doing OK,âÄ she said during her celebratory lunch. âÄúIâÄôm enjoying myself but I wish they wouldnâÄôt make such a fuss.âÄ