For most of us, there are one or more teachers who made a difference in how our lives turned out. It might have been their kindness, teaching ability, understanding, or enthusiasm that inspired or affected us deeply. Whether you’re young or old, they remain “Mr.” or “Mrs.” to you throughout life, even if your ages differ by only a decade. It’s partly force of habit, but the special ones merit a lifetime of respect for one compelling reason: they made a difference.
For a great many folks attending school in Lewis County in the years on both sides of 1900, and an even larger group in a distant city, that person was Ottilia Beha. Such an unusual name was fitting for an unusually dedicated teacher.
Ottilia was born in late 1874 in West Turin, about six miles northwest of Boonville. Among a large number of German immigrants who settled in that area were her parents, Joseph and Theresa Beha. Dad was a farmer and Mom was a housewife, typical of the times, although the results of growing up in the Beha household were anything but ordinary.
The oldest of nine children, Ottilia attended Cortland Normal School (“Normal Schools” trained students to become teachers). By the time she graduated in 1895, her younger brother (Joseph Jr., 17) was already teaching school in Constableville. He began attending Cortland later that year.
Ottilia became a teacher and assistant to the principal of Constableville’s school while furthering her own education at Albany Normal School, from which she graduated in 1897. That same year, Joseph graduated from Cortland and began teaching music at Constableville.
As a progressive educator, Ottilia recognized several learning tools that were critical to success. At the county teachers association meeting in 1898, she emphasized the importance of proper grammar even among very young students, and the need to make constant corrections until communication skills were second nature. A nested goal of that system was the development of reasoning powers, which were then used by the students to demonstrate the ability to apply lessons learned.
Each year at the association meetings, Beha stressed the need for teachers to improve their methods, particularly in the subject of reading. She strongly urged that even very young students read literary classics and join in the discussion of a book’s merits. It was an important and effective idea, especially in the era of one-room schoolhouses, where children of all ages were grouped together.
Ottilia herself was an excellent communicator, adding strength to her message and attracting support for her ideas on educational matters. In 1899, while teaching and serving as vice-principal at the nearby Port Leyden school, she was approached by local Democrats, who convinced her to join the party ticket as school commissioner candidate. In a decidedly Republican region, the odds were stacked heavily against her, but to everyone’s surprise, Ottilia won—the only Democrat to do so. She was in a small minority statewide as well: of 113 district school commissioners, only 12 were women.
For three years (1900‒1902), she led the district as a great advocate for children and education. Ottilia’s leadership skills were evident, particularly in the yearly teacher-association meetings, where attendance grew to more than a hundred. She took control of a good Lewis County Summer School program and made it far better, expanding its popularity (and her own as well). Whether managing the district, working with teachers, or instructing students, Beha received plaudits from all sides—peers, pupils, and parents sang her praises. Even Republicans offered grudging acknowledgment of her abilities. Democrats agreed, suggesting Ottilia should be the candidate for both parties in the upcoming election. (That idea didn’t fly.)
State education department officials also offered a glowing assessment of her efforts: “Miss Beha is a gratifying success. She has not only raised the standard of education in the schools under her jurisdiction, but she has encouraged the improvement of buildings and grounds, and the school libraries have grown. She has visited nearly every one of her hundred or more schools twice each year, acquainting herself with their needs, and encouraged teachers and pupils.”
A second term seemed likely, but it was not to be. In fall 1902, she received a high number of votes, but not enough to win (1516 to 1401). Earlier that year, Ottilia’s father had died. Combined with the career setback in the election, it was time to take stock of her life. Leaning towards a drastic change, she decided to apply for a teaching position in New York City, where other family members were already living and teaching. Were she to go, it would surely be Lewis County’s loss.
Next week, the conclusion: Rising to greater heights.
Photo: Ottilia M. Beha