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Alabama English teacher inspired generations
Question of the Day
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - English teacher Betty Caldwell had studied in New York with the legendary acting coach Stella Adler in the 1950s, and she often burst into tears reading a scene in her class at The Altamont School.
“She was an incredible English teacher - she would act out stories for us,” said professional theater actress Susan Johnson Lawrence, who graduated from Altamont in 1976. “She had so much style, the way she carried herself, the way she dressed. She was elegant; she just had that spark. She could cry on command. She would act out the scenes. We’d be spellbound.”
Another of her students at Altamont was Daniel Wallace, author of the novel “Big Fish,” which was turned into a movie by director Tim Burton. Wallace said that Caldwell reading the J.D. Salinger short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” to the class inspired him to be a writer. “To me, it was electrifying,” he said in a call from the University of North Carolina, where he directs the creative writing program. “It starts off amusing, then ends up in a tragic way. The listener is taken on a roller coaster ride. I thought, ‘How great would it be if I could make somebody feel like that?’ That is what inspired me to give it a shot.”
Wallace said he continued to visit Caldwell every time he came to Birmingham. “What makes a great teacher great? Her imagination, respect and belief in me and really everybody. She was the most important teacher I’ve ever had. I don’t know where I’d be without her. It’s hard to put my finger on why she was so glorious. We had a friendship that lasted way far beyond high school. She was my biggest fan. She was a cheerleader for her students and her friends, the kind of person so important when you’re trying to make it as an artist or writer: somebody outside your family who is smart, who has been there. It’s invaluable. She was so sharp and imaginative and tricky. I felt there were three or four different Betty Caldwells. That’s another reason why I loved her. She was very complicated, a complex person. She was so proper, but I sensed a mischievous spirit behind her.”
Caldwell, twice divorced, was known most of her life by her maiden name. Born Alice Elizabeth Caldwell on July 29, 1927, she died Jan. 3. She was 86.
Caldwell graduated from Ramsay High School in Birmingham and went to the University of Texas for a year. After World War II ended she was asked to leave along with other out-of-state students to make room for returning soldiers. She transferred to the University of Alabama and earned an English degree. She then went to study for six months at the Cleveland Playhouse, which had an acting school, said her friend, Alice Friedland of New York.
“She was one of the sweetest people I ever knew, very dedicated to whatever she did,” said Friedland, who met Caldwell at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City soon after it was founded in 1949. Friedland said they were students there for three years, from 1950-52. They learned method acting from Adler, a legendary acting coach who taught Marlon Brando. “It was all silent,” Friedland said. “We didn’t talk for two years. It was all actions. Just do an action on the stage.”
Caldwell lived in a brownstone on 87th Street on the West Side of Manhattan. After she finished acting school, Caldwell returned to Birmingham. She acted in plays with Town & Gown Theater in the 1950s and was associate director under James Hatcher. She portrayed Anna in “The King and I.” In another play, she co-starred with Leonard Nimoy, who later played Spock in the Star Trek TV series.
When her daughter, born in 1959, was three, she gave up her theater job because of its late hours. She got her master’s degree in English from Samford University and taught at Shades Valley High School for 11 years before going to Altamont in 1972. She retired in 1991.
“She worked on and off, took a couple years off after she married a second time, then went back,” said her daughter, Elizabeth Coleman.
Caldwell directed dozens of high school plays at Shades Valley, Altamont and productions for the Altamont Alumni Theater. She taught a generation of Birmingham actors and writers.
“I have memories of Fannie Flagg at our home when I was a little girl,” Coleman said of the actress and author of “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe.” ”Mother was her acting coach before Fannie made it big.”
During her New York days, Caldwell became friends with the future star of “Bewitched,” a popular 1960s TV sitcom.
“She was friends with Elizabeth Montgomery in New York,” Coleman said. “She came to visit mother and stayed with her for the weekend.”
In a way, everyone was like a celebrity to Caldwell, her daughter said. “She always made people feel good about themselves. She made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the room. She was an intellectual, but she was also playful.”
Caldwell was a hero to the children in her neighborhood. Every year, there was a street party a few days before Christmas, after which Caldwell would invite children into her house to open the Magic Drawer and reach in for a prize, most likely costume jewelry, and hear the story that went with it, said Katherine Mears Beshear, who grew up next door. “My sister once chose a medallion called the Magic Necklace and she would sleep with it under her pillow. Caldwell told her if she would put the necklace under her pillow, it would keep the nightmares away. She believed it, and it did. We always called her Caldwell. She wanted us to. We didn’t have to say Miss. My grandmother was her best friend and she always called her Caldwell.”
Beshear, 29, is now a professional actress, singer and dancer for the USO Show Troupe in New York. She recalls Caldwell telling her stories about “Chester Squirrel,” who lived on her carport on Chester Road. “She always made me believe he had been there. She’d say, ‘He’s been cooking acorns.’ She always had stories of what he had been up to and what he had been doing in the houses I built for him.”
Caldwell was a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and her imagination sometimes took a mystical turn.
“She’d take students on walks to look for ‘The Over-Soul,’” from an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson about the nature of the human soul, Coleman said.
“She loved life, she loved children, she loved animals,” Coleman said. “She could command a room, but it was never all about her. She had a beautiful spirit and made everyone she was around feel like they were special.”
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