Betty Jo Harper, a silver-haired, bespectacled teacher from tiny Paint Creek, Texas, has numbered many successes in her 83 years.
Every spring, her prize-winning begonias bloom in her flowerbeds.
Her miniature dachshund, Miss Fritzi, recently received the Best in Show award at the Taylor County Fair, beating out a bullfrog, a white lab rat, and a minah bird in the mixed-species competition.
Her recipe for chicken and dumplings, inherited from her late Aunt Sister, is enjoyed by scores of guests at her small cottage on the edge of Paint Creek.
Miss Harper-”I’m old-fashioned, hon. I don’t go in for any of those fancy women’s lib titles”-can look back with satisfaction on decades of teaching third grade at Paint Creek’s elementary school. She prides herself on being a disciplinarian who taught generations of West Texas students to read and write and spell.
Into every life, however, a little shame must fall. Miss Harper was Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s third-grade teacher.
“I taught little Ricky ages ago,” she says, patting Miss Fritzi. “He was just the cutest little thing. You know-pretty hair, shiny brown eyes, big smile.
“Ricky was real eager, too. He always had his hand up in the air every time I asked a question, even though he never knew the answer. He sure liked talking a lot-and he was never scared of looking dumb in front of all the smart kids.”
As wags across the nation make fun of Perry for suggesting that Texas might leave the Union, Miss Harper offers a partial defense.
“He’s a sweet boy,” she says. “Real sweet. But he was-well, I don’t know what they call it these days, but we called kids like him ‘slow’ back then. You could tell from his eyes, how they’re kinda vacant-looking, you know.
“It’s not his fault. Bless his heart, he tried awful hard.”
Miss Harper laments she could never convince little Ricky that “succeed” wasn’t spelled “secede.”
“Poor thing, he always thought you had to ‘secede’ to be successful. He could never understand why everybody said the South lost the Civil War, since all the Confederate states had seceded.”
Miss Harper lays blame for the governor’s intellectual shortcomings at the feet of Paint Creek’s legendary football coach, Herman “Pop-Pop” Fletcher, who taught American and Texas history in the grade school.
“Pop-Pop, now he was a real good coach,” Miss Harper says. “We won state three years in a row when he was coaching. But he was a little ignorant when it came to history.
“Pop-Pop always thought Ricky raised some mighty good points about how the South really won the Civil War since it seceded. Pop-Pop said the textbooks could have been wrong about the Civil War-same way they were wrong about Adam and Eve.”
Miss Harper shakes her head, smiling. “‘Course,” she says, “since Ricky wanted to be a cheerleader instead of a football player, Pop-Pop always says he never was gonna amount to a hill of beans. Pop-Pop was always kind of hard on sissies.”
After Rick Perry became governor, he contacted Miss Harper and Pop-Pop to let them know he was doing well. “I always told you I’d secede!” he wrote.
Commentator and author Ruth Pennebaker lives in Austin and blogs at www.geezersisters.com