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Obituaries

Blanche Bettington; Inspired Generations in L.A. Schools

March 03, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blanche Wadleigh Bettington, considered by many to have been one of the most inspirational and outspoken teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, has died at 99.

The Brentwood resident died Thursday of complications from pneumonia in a Culver City hospital, friends said. Bettington would have been 100 on July 11.

Bettington, who taught civics at Canoga Park High School for 26 years and at Hamilton High School for 16 years before retiring in 1966, was an early activist in the Los Angeles teachers union and was honored as one of the oldest graduates of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Her frequent refusal to teach out of textbooks, and her concentration on contemporary articles, historic documents and vivid classroom discussion, endeared her to generations of students.

What her former pupils remembered best was that, as students, they always knew where Bettington stood.

Tossing Aside the Textbook

At a celebration of her life eight years ago at Hamilton High School, Fran Diamond, a 1951 Hamilton graduate, recalled that on the day in 1960 that rapist Caryl Chessman was executed in San Quentin's gas chamber, Bettington greeted her civics class by proclaiming: "You're all murderers! You're all murderers! The state is murdering in our name and we're all responsible!"

"While her politics were on the liberal side, she was interested in the intellectual challenge," said another of her former students, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Mission Hills), on Friday.

"She threw the textbook away and just had us read conservative and liberal magazines and writings," Berman recalled. "She loved the debate. She wanted us to challenge her position and her assumptions."

Bob Steiner, former spokesman at the Forum in Inglewood, said: "She is the teacher we all talk about. She stood for integrity in government. She was a devotee of due process. She gave lessons, using the internment of the Japanese [Americans during World War II] and how wrong it was, because it violated due process.

"She taught her entire class from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. She made us question, and [said] that you just don't accept things."

Born in Vermont, Bettington came to Los Angeles at a young age. She graduated from USC in 1923 and began teaching at Canoga Park in 1924.

Claim of Being 'Communistic'

Her years in Los Angeles Unified did not pass without controversy.

One of her students at Canoga Park, Lyn Nofziger--who later became press secretary and an advisor to Gov. and later President Reagan--accused her of being "communistic" in the early 1940s for warning her students against "reactionary" publications, and the charge went all the way to the California joint legislative committee on un-American activities.

But Bettington and another teacher were later cleared by the Los Angeles Board of Education.

"While this inquiry has raised serious questions as to certain classroom practices engaged in by these teachers, it has also produced evidence of many outstanding accomplishments by them," the board said in a 1946 statement.

The Hamilton High School alumni coordinator, Marvin Sugarman, said Friday that he had visited Bettington just three weeks ago, and that she recalled in detail her fight with Nofziger and others who accused her and said definitely: "I forgive them."

Even at the celebration of her life, attended by 200 former students on Sept. 12, 1993, when she was 92, Bettington remained outspoken.

"My great interest is public education; I'm terribly concerned about it, and if the voucher plan is carried, I'm concerned it will be devastating . . ." she told the crowd.

Gerald Chaleff, until recently president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, was another of Bettington's students.

"She was an inspiration to all of us and encouraged us to achieve far beyond our own expectations," he said Friday. "We're all products of Blanche Bettington."

As for Berman, he summed up his teacher this way: "I can honestly say it was Blanche Bettington who excited me about public policy, government and politics."

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