As I sat at my station at Warm Glow Candle near Centerville Friday hoping to move a few books, I looked up and recognized her immediately.
As I live and breathe, it was Mrs. Joan Kratzer, my eighth-grade history teacher.
“Mrs. Kratzer!” I instinctively bellowed, jumping from my chair to greet her. It had been 44 years since I sat behind Vonda Hoppes in the old Short High School, which in our day, served as Liberty Junior High.
No doubt Joan Kratzer (Mrs. Kitterman now, having married her high school sweetheart after she lost her long-time spouse) had surely heard her name blared out too many times to count from admirers: former students, or patients of her late father, long-time Liberty family doctor, James Lewis.
I fell into both camps. I loved and looked forward to her classes with her always engaging and amusing presentation of American history, and Dr. Lewis was my family’s doctor whom I associate with both shots and sticks of Juicy Fruit--peace offerings for the shots.
About both father and daughter, however, I have nothing but respect. Doctors and teachers were celebrities in my small-town world. You looked up to and trusted both. They were the community leaders, and the good ones (there were many) made you better for knowing them. If they weren't your favorites, well you learned from them anyway, a foretaste of life to come.
Joan Kratzer Kitterman didn’t recognize me, I’m sure, but she did a quick survey of my table and put it together. “I read your first book,” she said, not missing a beat, joined by her sidekick, Vicky Lakoff Snyder, who also devoted her entire career to Union County students as teacher, coach, and principal. The two are pals.
I must have sounded like a crazed fan, but I knew I had Joan Kratzer’s ear for only a few moments so I pulled up the memories, surprising myself even, with what came out. “I’m sorry about the loss of your brother,” I told her, having read her twin's obituary recently in The Liberty Herald. He was a doctor as was his father, and the two generations before them, and she filled me in on how like their father he was.
“Do you still wear the circle pin?” I asked. I recall her signature piece of jewelry and she wore it every single day. I have always thought that would be a classy thing to have, a signature statement like Joan Kratzer had. But she’s the only one I’ve ever known to have such a thing. That’s her, memorable.
“Oh, yes,” she said, explaining that she didn’t wear it on casual clothing such as what she wore in the candle shop Friday but otherwise, yes, and yes, it’s the same pin. In all these decades, she has lost – and found it – twice.
She told of the more than 20 times she had been to Europe, and listed some of her travels. She inquired how Brian was, as did Vicky.
I always thought Joan Kratzer (er, Kitterman) was one of the most beautiful women I ever knew. She still is. As a young teen, I loved how she dressed in her perfect, classic style, with her striking salt-and-pepper (frosted, she called it) hair, and she had the clearest, sharpest blue eyes which never missed a thing.
I asked her about her modeling days, and she confirmed that yes, she modeled in Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
Eighth-grade was a good year for me, the year I spent with Mrs. Kratzer. I didn’t feel angst about life in that particular year the way some do about junior high. All things felt possible.
For one thing, I was selected as an office aide, and it came at the perfect time every day, the lunch hour, when things were laid back. I thought surely there had been a mistake when “office aide” appeared on my class schedule. First, didn’t you need to apply for such a lofty position?
And second, I didn’t think hoodlums were granted the kind of access that comes with a seat behind the principal’s secretary’s desk.
In seventh grade, I had gotten sent to the office for talking. Mr. Cummins, the principal himself, had sent me, and a stern lecture came with the trip, as heard through my own excessive tears and contrite humiliation.
Somehow, I had been redeemed.
The office was next to Mrs. Kratzer’s room and it seemed that she was in there quite a bit at midday. She would send me to the cafeteria to retrieve for her a chef salad with Russian dressing.
Russian dressing? That seemed rather exotic for Liberty. We only had Catalina at home.
It was no chore at all, but rather a privilege to be asked to help a teacher in any way. I liked having insider information. I mean, who knew that the cafeteria ladies created specialties such as fancy salads? Well, I knew. Yes, being an office aide had its insights.
Just like the time Mr. Cummins thought a boy needed a haircut so I watched as he cut the boy’s locks himself. (But I won't reveal said boy's name. That would disgrace my office-aide code of ethics, which far as I know has no statute of limitations.)
Also that year, the energetic school secretary, Mrs. Ruth Miller, turned a spare room on the second floor into an arts-and-crafts studio and we were given an option to study hall, that of spending the hour crafting or stitching. Mrs. Miller taught me to crochet – an aside that I fictionalized in my second book.
We used mostly recycled goods in our crafting such as from wallpaper-sample books. We covered everything with that free paper from paper flowers for our moms to an umbrella stand made of sturdy, leftover tubing. Her ideas and skills were those of a clever Pinterest artist decades before the website or even the personal computer were invented.
Seeing Mrs. Joan Lewis Kratzer Kitterman brought back these fine memories. I’m blessed to have grown up in such a wonderful community as Liberty, Indiana. I’m so happy that this icon, the doctor’s beautiful daughter, and generations of students’ fascinating and insightful teacher, is still beautiful, fascinating, insightful – and exactly as engaging as I remember.
Some things don't change. And sure enough, I wasn't the only one bending my former teacher's ear. A trio of women from the Liberty area recognized her, and another spirited conversation ensued. Guess that's what it's like when you are an icon.