Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: They were young moms in the ’50s — and they’re old friends today

Janet Baccus, 82, looks for the last guest to arrive at her 10-acre home in Puyallup for a group of 17 women who volunteered in the ’50s and ’60s to help Collins Elementary School. Fundraising with dances and other events, the women bought a piano, playground equipment and a record player. The pot-luck was Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015.
Janet Baccus, 82, looks for the last guest to arrive at her 10-acre home in Puyallup for a group of 17 women who volunteered in the ’50s and ’60s to help Collins Elementary School. Fundraising with dances and other events, the women bought a piano, playground equipment and a record player. The pot-luck was Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. Staff photographer

It was the era of Ike and JFK, weekend cocktail parties and one-car families that knew their neighbors and thought every problem had a solution.

The 1950s and ’60s saw a group of Pierce County mothers, whose children were attending Collins Elementary School on 128th Street East, form an organization — the Collins Tots Club.

As a name, it made no sense. The club wasn’t for the tots, it was for their mothers, women who could get things done.

Good thing.

“It was a very poor school,” said Ella Mae Earle, 88. “In 1955, it didn’t have a kindergarten, so my daughter had to go to preschool.”

Bette Hartman, 79, remembered the club going to the school district and asking what could be done, and getting a simple answer from the superintendent.

“They told us, ‘We’ll supply the teacher and classroom space in the basement next year if you come up with all the supplies.’” Hartman said. “The next year, Collins had a kindergarten.”

That wasn’t the first time the club had come to the aid of their school.

Though parents usually stayed in the club only as long as their children were attending Collins, the members — past and present — became friends.

“We were like sisters,” said Janet Baccus, 82. “None of us had any money. Most of us didn’t have cars.”

Last week, 15 former Collins Tots Club members got together at the Baccus home in Puyallup for a potluck lunch. It has been 60-plus years for some, more than 50 for others, since the club raised money for Collins.

In that time, children have been raised, and the 15 women who came to lunch now have a total of 98 grandchildren. Some of the women are divorced, many are widows, having outlived their husbands, often by a decade or more.

And since the ’50s and ’60s, one of the strongest, longest and most consistent relationships all of them have enjoyed has been with each other.

“We’re lucky,” Baccus said. “We’ve been blessed to have one another over all these years.”

The club was formed in 1952 as a fundraising group for Collins, a school first opened in 1909 and completely rebuilt in 1935. One of the group’s first projects was getting water to one of the school’s auxiliary buildings.

Over the years, the women bought a slide for the playground, a piano for the kindergarten, the school’s first copy machine.

Every year it was something. Each year, they delivered.

“We knew how to raise funds, and we knew how to have fun,” said Joan Sagan, 84. “We’d ride bikes down Canyon Road, just get together and talk.

“We’d have come-as-you-are gatherings some mornings, just call everyone and tell them to bring their kids to someone’s house and we’d show up in nightgowns.”

They sponsored annual dances, put on carnivals and Christmas programs — going so far one year as purchasing a Santa Claus suit and sticking a Santa in it for the kids.

“I remember one year we made toy snakes, stuffed them with foam and sold them for 25 cents at the carnival,” said Donna Craft, 78. “The kids loved them. It was the Year of the Snake.”

Pregnancies were a regular occurrence within the group.

“A couple of us were pregnant at the same time, two or three times,” Sagan said. “They called our street ‘Baby Road’ and said there was something in the water.”

Club president Theodora Doyle had to step down in 1960 when she got pregnant, and her 1961 delivery was big news in the neighborhood — thanks to the club.

“I remember that year one of the members got a sound truck and on the day of the carnival, I had my daughter,” said Doyle, now 88. “The truck went up and down the street and this voice would say ‘Come to the Collins School Carnival. Mrs. Doyle had a baby girl.’”

Among those at the potluck last week were Erlene Rasmussen, 75, Joanne Maitrejean, 82, Emily Miller, 83, Velma Hunt, 78, Dolores Baskett, 87, Maryanne Svinth, 85, Virginia Wilcox, 84, Ruth Wilcher, 82, and Genevieve Hovey, 86.

They shared laughter and stories of children moving away — or back in — knee replacements and husbands.

“Since he sold his boat, he wants to ‘help’ me,” Hovey said of her husband, and all the women laughed in unison. “He redid the kitchen and pantry, and now I can’t find anything, and what I can find I can’t reach.

“I love him, but he’s driving me crazy.”

Svinth offered advice.

“Whack him over the head with a broom handle,” she said.

Again, everyone laughed in unison. The Collins Tots Club was in session.

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