Sadly, another touch of my childhood has slipped into Heaven — and it’s so bitter-sweet, leaving traces of tears on my cheeks.
Valeria Van Zanten passed away on May 4, 2017 in Crescent City, California, at the age of 103. She was born August 19, 1913, also in Crescent City.
Born to Swiss immigrants, Alice and Victor Del Ponte, who homestead 200 acres near Klamath, California, she attended the one-room Terwah School in Terwer Valley and graduated from Del Norte High School in Crescent City. In 1930, by the age of 16, Valeria was attending Humboldt State University, where she and a friend lived off-campus in an Arcata apartment with a monthly rent of about $17.
“It was Depression time, and we didn’t have very much money,” Valeria told the Humboldt Magazine in 2012. “I was very lucky to be able to go to school. I recall attending HSU or a little over $25 per month.”
As my third-grade teacher, she used to tell about how she wasn’t allowed to go on biology field trips because she was girl. Mrs. Damm, as we knew her then, explained that she was left behind and made to practice her taxidermy skills.
Later, I learned the ‘field trip incidents’ are what drove her wish to read “The Little House on the Prairie,’ by Laura Ingalls-Wilder. To her, she once explained to me, Laura was ahead of her time and she could see herself in the little girl’s character.
And while I can only guess, I’m sure that the many field trips we took while in her third grade class were a result of having been denied going on field trips as a university student. I know many of my childhood friends will never forget hiking down to the old sweat lodge along the Klamath or the rock-hopping amid the tidal pools along the coastline of Crescent City.
Valeria graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934, and within two years was teaching at Klamath Union School in Klamath. She was initially forced to resign her teaching post when she married, but after insisting that the ‘rule’ were not equally enforced, she won her job back.
I met Mrs. Damm in late summer 1965, shortly after the building of Margaret Keating School which replaced the old Klamath Union, after two catastrophic floods along the Klamath River destroyed it the year before.
Employed by Del Norte County School District for over 30 years, upon her retirement in 1973, Valeria took up traveling, visiting places like Europe, Israel, Syria and Peru.
“All of my life, I was fascinated by Machu Picchu,” Valeria explained in the same 2012 interview. “To think that from [a] little farm and little school that I would one day stand at its base was just incredible to me.”
Not only was Valeria one of my grade school teachers, she was also my sister Deirdre’s God-mother. She was a member of St. Joseph’s Parish in Crescent City and past president of the Alter Society of St. Robert and Ann Catholic Church in Klamath, where we attended mass.