Teacher celebrates 100th birthday with former students
By Romi Herron For The Courier-News August 23, 2012 4:00PM
Jean Cook and Betty Solyom.
Updated: September 25, 2012 10:31AM
Teaching high school English in a farm community decades ago, Betty Solyom felt that a fine arts club wouldn’t be a big hit. So she came up with an alternative, Junior Great Books Club.
Last Friday, Solyom and a former student in that club reconnected to celebrate her 100th birthday, reflecting on the paths their academic careers have taken.
“I’m proud of her,” said Elgin resident Solyom of Jean Cook, 61, who teaches English in Pennsylvania. “She’s doing a lot of the things I had hoped she would do.”
One of Cook’s accomplishments is that she started a Junior Great Books Club for her junior high students. The activity is centered on building an appreciation for classic literature through reading and discussion.
“The Great Books Club is more of a fine arts club; but that wouldn’t go over real well in a farm community, so I disguised it as a book club,” Solyom said about organizing the club for Burlington High School back in the 1950s.
Cook, who graduated from BHS in 1968, said Solyom’s enthusiasm for the arts was inspiring.
“She taught us all the literature, and we would travel into (Chicago) to see some of the musicals,” Cook said. “Betty was one of the cultural (advocates) of Plato Center.”
After teaching at Burlington High School, Solyom later continued educating at Elgin Community College. Her charge was assessing students’ English skills and placing them at the appropriate level. In addition, she taught pre-GED classes and served as a volunteer tutor for “everything except math and physics,” she said.
But her love for the classics was always paramount, Cook said.
“I liked her excitement, and her energy, and the way she taught us to look at better poetry, drama, art and literature,” she said.
For example, Solyom said a television series called “Shakespeare Hall of Fame” gave her an opportunity to assign students to watch the theatrical versions of William Shakespeare’s classics. She incorporated additional engagement for advanced students, asking if anyone would like to read the play and talk about it before the other students watched the televised version.
“One of my star students volunteered and did an excellent job,” Solyom said. “And she later said from that moment on she wanted to major in English, and she did.”
Running a panel discussion and symposium were other lessons Solyom taught her classes. Cook and Solyom are both alumnae of Illinois State University, and the two share a friendship that has evolved over the past 40 years. Some of Cook’s sisters were also students of Solyom, and Cook hosted a gathering with friends and family at Elgin’s Toom Toom Thai restaurant Friday to wish Solyom the best as she turns 100 Sept. 15.
“Whenever I came home to visit my mother, I always made a point to visit Betty,” she said. Cook’s students also have developed a relationship with Solyom.
“I had my advanced students write a story about their lives, interests and goals, and they sent them to Betty,” Cook said. “She wrote back very thoughtful, touching, creative letters, sharing parts of her life that might be the same.”
Solyom said she’s aware many of her students became teachers themselves, and her way of influencing them was through example.
“I really never got into giving advice to students who wanted to become teachers,” she said. “I taught by demonstrating.”