Bessire, Minnie Ethel
Maiden name: Piper
Born: March 10, 1890 – Illinois
Died: Los Angeles; February 10, 1954; Age 63
“Mrs. B,” Founder, President and Director of Mar-Ken School.
From 1940 Mar-Ken Yearbook:
Minnie Ethel Bessire:
An energetic and ambitious educator, who believes “Labor is the price which the gods set on anything worth having” yet withal not losing an innate sense of humor and a fine degree of tolerant sympathy, is the admirable characteristic of M. Ethel Bessire.
Having received her early education at Chicago University and Chicago Musical College, having had many years of educational work with the professional child, and being in regular attendance with all California State Executive conferences, Mrs. Bessire is well qualified to be the director of an expanding school such as Mar-Ken.
Majoring in the field of Psychology, believing in the leadership of vision, the ambition of the individual makes M. Ethel Bessire an enlightened leader of the group of youth which she directs.
Minnie Ethel Bessire In the 1936 Lawlor Professional School Yearbook and Lawlor Journal Ethel Bessire is listed as faculty and served as Acting Director during Mrs. Viloa F. Lawlor’s vacation. In November, she is mentioned as the study room teacher. In the December 16, 1938 Mar-Ken Journal: WHAT THEY ARE DOING FOR CHRISTMAS – WHAT THEY WANT FROM SANTA CLAUS: Mrs. Bessire: Trip to Death Valley Gruen wrist watch. In the October 25, 1940 Mar-Ken Journal: Mrs. Bessire was coming home with her arms full of bundles and tripped on her porch. The result, a very bruised and almost broken arm. We hope it is soon well. In the 1943 Mar-Ken Primary & Junior High School Annual: Mrs. Bessire has a little Gremlin that rides on the side wing of the Cadillac.
What the students wrote about Mrs. Bessire in the 1940 Yearbook above is not the entire story. She certainly was a qualified teacher and administrator, as demonstrated by the excellent curriculum standards that she issued after incorporating Mar-Ken School. See the 1939 Mar-Ken School Information Bulletin. The following are the comments of some of her students:
Alumna Gloria Vauges (Mohr) remembers Mrs. B from the Hollywood Mar-Ken School as “a very large bosomy woman with a booming voice who took control the moment she walked into a room.” Alumna Lynne Porter writes, “There was Mrs. B, the best teacher I have ever had. She was a born teacher and a wonderful person.” And, alumna Maggie Shidler adds, “Mrs. ‘B’ used no textbook for her 7, 8, and 9th grade classes — she had a HUGE notebook with hand-written notes from which she lectured.”
Alumna Gerry Morgan recalls that “Bessie was 6 feet tall and had the weight that went with it, and a deep voice. She was ‘very scary’ and would make you tremble.”
One day she came up to Gerry and said, “Gerry, I want to see you in my office.” Gerry thought, “I’m dead.” She couldn’t think of anything she had done wrong. When she got to the office, Mrs. B was on the phone. Gerry sat there, scared and shaking, waiting for her to finish the phone call. Finally, in a “ferocious” voice she told Gerry that she was in the honor society and ordered, “I want you to come to the ceremony next week.”
Somehow, Mrs. B found out that Gerry could sing, although “I tried to hide my ability to sing from the other students and the teachers.” Mrs. B again called her into the office and told her that she was going to sing at either the graduation or the baccalaureate ceremony. Gerry was shocked. She chose the graduation so she could have her own accompanist, as at the baccalaureate she would be backed by the organist. She ended up singing two songs.
Mrs. B, as she was politely known, was sensitive to her full name. She used her first initial of M. and her middle name Ethel, but she never used Minnie. (See her business card on this webpage). In fact, no one admits to ever knowing what the M. stood for. And, sometimes she is referred to as ‘Bessie.’ Cam Redlich is amused: “Mrs. ‘B’ never wanted to tell what M. Ethel Bessire stood for? So, I get a kick out of your reference to Minnie.” Anita Chavin was sure that her name was Margaret. Why? Because Anita’s father used to call Mrs. B “Margaret.” Now that Anita knows her name was Minnie, she speculates that maybe her dad used that name because she wouldn’t say what the M. stood for, and that was her father’s sense of humor.
Dede Barty remembers Mrs. Bessire as “scary, and she could be a tyrant – she demanded complete attention.” She was called The Gunner by the kids because she was always gunning for something. Marty Spellman also recalls the Gunner nickname, but other kids called her Mrs. Brassiere, a play on her name and her being a big-busted woman, and according to Louise Montgomery, “a bombastic stage mother, a big woman, probably weighing 250 pounds.”
Dede comments on her size: “She was a big woman, six feet tall, and there was no carpeting on the hardwood floors at Franklin, so you could hear her coming, and the kids used to hide.”
Dede tells the story about her brother, Billy Barty. He went to the beach with the other kids and he bought the beer. Mrs. B found out about it, and later she stomped into study hall and called Billy to the front of the room in front of the other kids. Everyone was scared. She boomed out that she understood that there was a beach party and that Billy bought the beer. She fully expected Billy to deny it. Billy said, “Yes Ma’am, I did.” She was so surprised that he told the truth, that she paused and said very loudly, “Well, don’t let it happen again,” and then turned and stomped out. Everyone was amused and very relieved.
A telling incident about Mrs. Bessire’s “gunner” approach was the experience of Richard and Joan Gardner. Joan didn’t care for Mar-Ken from the beginning. She had an attitude and Mrs. B didn’t appreciate it. On the other hand, her brother liked the school, had made many friends and liked Mrs. B as a teacher. Things came to a head toward the end of the year. They were both expelled on the same day. As Joan remembers it today, after a party at the school, Joan was called into Mrs. Bessire’s office and was accused of stealing some phonograph records. She denied it. That was it for Mrs. B, and she expelled Joan. Joan knew she didn’t steal any records, but gave the borrowed records that her brother brought to the party to their rightful owner. She was glad to get out of Mar-Ken, so she really didn’t care. It wasn’t until June, 2005 when Richard and Joan told their stories to Alan Simon at Mar-Ken.org, that they both learned what actually happened. As Richard tells it:
My sister Joan’s information, at least some of it, was new to me. We were both expelled the same day, but I always thought it was for just for the day for both of us. I know it was that way for me at least. When she was expelled, she called my father, and he of course got angry and called the school and told them both of us were withdrawing. I was disappointed in this, and was irritated that she would complain to him, figuring that it would blow over by the next day. Somehow, the information was passed on to me, and I was told not to go back.
I never knew before why she was expelled, but guessed that it was partly because of my incident. The night before the school had had a party and I had provided the records for the event. I had a large record collection at the time mainly in jazz and swing, i.e. Big Band music. I had also borrowed some records from Elizabeth Haddaway, and possibly some from a girl from Hollywood High School that I had occasionally dated named Joyce Jackson. She had one album of 12 inch 78 rpm records that I really liked called Five Feet of Swing. I had basically forgotten about this part of the events which led to Joan’s expulsion. Somehow, I was persuaded by a couple of Mar-Ken girls, I was very susceptible to the persuasion of pretty women, to put on a party at my parents home. I had had a party earlier in the year there where we had set up a dance floor and had a group playing that included Walt Sage, also class of 45′ on drums. This party tuned out to be somewhat of a fiasco, since in my wishy-washy fashion at the time I could usually be persuaded to be Mr. Nice Guy and help get people to the party. Of course this was rather stupid on my part since it took away from the concurrent Mar-Ken party. This is why I was expelled, because of Mrs. Bessire’s anger at my having a concurrent event. I had always thought that Joan was expelled for the same reason having not heard of the incident where she was accused of taking some records. Actually, she hadn’t, some how there was a miscommunication to Mrs. Bessire.
And, finally we hear from Jean Porter. Everyone loved Mrs. Lawlor, but she was no longer able to continue running the school in 1937 due to her failing eyesight. She sold it to her administrator, M. Bessie Bessire. Jean, not caring for Mrs. Bessire’s overbearing approach, transferred to another school, as did a number of the other students.