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A lifelong connection between two Illinois State teachers

Betty Solyom and Jean Cook

Betty (Van Kirk) Solyom ’35, right, with Jean (Yurs) Cook ’72.

Amid all the 140-character tweets, moody Facebook status updates, and curt text messages, a 100-year-old Illinois State alumna has proven there’s still room in this world for a hand-written letter.

Betty (Van Kirk) Solyom ’35 is a lifelong educator who retired in 1973 but never really stopped teaching others. That’s clear from the connection she keeps today with Jean (Yurs) Cook ’72, one of her English students in the 1960s at Central High School in Burlington, about 50 miles west of Chicago.

Cook now teaches middle school outside Philadelphia, while Solyom lives in Elgin. When Cook’s advanced writing students showed an interest in Solyom’s life and longevity last year – when she was 99 – Cook had them write Solyom letters to share their interests, backgrounds, hobbies and aspirations.

Betty (Van Kirk) Solyom

Betty (Van Kirk) Solyom in Elgin.

“As I knew she would, she wrote back to each of them, with perfect penmanship, showing a gentle empathy, positive advice, examples where appropriate from her own experiences – little vignettes of her travels that meant so much to her,” said Cook, an elementary education graduate from Illinois State.

Solyom took the task seriously, relishing the opportunity to engage young learners again. The worldly educator knows what it’s like to be a student, how eye-opening a single course can become.

“Students have been my life,” she said. “I have patience for students, but I have patience for nothing else.”

Solyom’s journey took her to Illinois State as a transfer student in the early 1930s. She was a reporter for the Vidette and even worked for Illinois State Normal University President Raymond W. Fairchild, doing research for him that eventually led to the addition of more psychology courses to the curriculum.

She majored in Latin, English and French and traveled to Europe for the first time just before World War II, for two and a half months. But she was already cultured, the daughter of a Yale wordsmith and a musician. When she was hired at Central High School in 1958, she realized her students had no opportunity to study the arts.

So Solyom started the school’s Junior Great Books arts program, taking students to the Art Institute of Chicago, plays in downtown Chicago theaters, even into the world of Russian literature.

“I was giving them an enriched curriculum,” Solyom said. “They didn’t know it, but I knew they needed it.”

Cook said Solyom, with her passion and preparedness, inspired her and her peers to become interested in classic literature and become teachers.

“She was lively, she was fun. She was ready for her lessons. They were bringing literature to life,” Cook said.

Cook’s mother was one of Solyom’s go-to substitute teachers, so Cook remained in touch with Solyom over the years as she traveled back to Elgin to visit her mother. Solyom – always an educator – loved hearing about the different teaching assignments Cook had taken throughout the years in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

Their unusual connection has now stretched into a third generation with the letters. They may do another round of letters with Cook’s students this year, as Solyom is certainly energetic enough, Cook said.

“I was urging them to educate themselves, to read widely and become a lover of reading, and a lover of travel, because it opens up your eyes to the world outside,” Solyom said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@ilstu.edu.

 

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