Those who know Eleanor Lillie, a former longtime teacher at Columbia Elementary School, say nothing can keep her down.
Eleanor Lillie, 84, of Sonora, talks about her life and her teaching career. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copryight 2013.
The sweet, petite 84-year-old educator worked night and day to put herself through college, fought to have more than one child when doctors said she couldn’t, and has survived cancer twice, in addition to her numerous other health-related triumphs.
“That’s part of the ornery Swiss German in her. She’ll never stop until she’s dead. She just keeps right on going,” said her son, Jim Lillie, of Sonora.
To former Columbia School student Deanna Hunter Staggs, of Tracy, Lillie was an inspiration.
To this day, Staggs tears up when she talks of the impact Lillie had on her as a fifth-grade teacher.
“She spent a lot of extra time with me, encouraging me to pursue my dreams,” Stagg said. “She really touched my life. She inspired me and gave me so much confidence as a kid.”
Lillie was raised in McCloud, Siskiyou County, back when the lumber mill owned and operated much of the “very small” town. Her father worked in the mill, and her mother stayed home with Eleanor and her three siblings.
When she was a freshman in high school, the family moved about 15 miles to Mount Shasta, a slightly bigger town, where her father bought a service station.
When Lillie was a junior, the family moved again, this time to Downieville, Sierra County, another small logging community.
The high school principal approached Eleanor and asked her if she’d like to take extra classes and graduate early. She graduated at 16 and got accepted to University of California, Berkeley.
“It was amazing,” she said of the accomplishment of being the only graduating student to gain admittance to the prestigious university. “I still can remember the thrill of listening to the professors.”
Lillie didn’t know anything about scholarships or financial aid, so she worked day and night waiting tables to put herself through school. She initially chose nursing, but couldn’t attend all the labs with her work schedule, so she switched to geology, but had the same problem. After considering astronomy and economics, Lillie settled on English, because of her love of books.
By her sophomore year, she collapsed from exhaustion and doctors told her she either had to quit school or quit work, but Lillie refused to quit school and couldn’t afford to quit her job.
“I went on,” she said.
Unfortunately, by the middle of her junior year, Lillie wore herself out from all the work and went home to recuperate.
That’s when she met her future husband, Allen Lillie, a U.S. Navy veteran of World War II, who was working at his grandmother’s olive orchard in Corning, Tehama County, where her parents had moved.
“I married him on the condition that we’d go back to Berkeley so I could finish school,” she said.
However, plans changed. Allen went to work on the railroad and the couple moved to Sacramento.
Eleanor was 19 when she had her first son, John.
It was a difficult birth. He was a horizontal breech and was too low in her pelvis for a cesarean.
“I was determined to have a natural birth,” she said.
In those days, women were strapped down to the delivery room tables and the petite 5-foot, 5-inch tall young woman ripped her arms out of the ties, resisting the gas mask.
Finally, her son was born, but doctors at one point told her husband only she or the baby might make it, Lillie said.
Doctors advised her to not have any more children. But after six years, Lillie was determined to have another baby and found a doctor in Sonora willing to see her.
Her second son, Jim, was followed by a daughter, Michelle, a few years later.
Today, she has five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, many of whom live in Tuolumne County.
By that time the family had moved to Sonora.
After her husband returned from the Korean War, the Lillies and their oldest son, John, moved to Sonora. Lillie’s father got Allen a job at the mill.
Allen Lillie died in 1989 from heart valve failure.
Eleanor said Sonora was the “last place” she wanted to live because she wanted to continue her education and the community was very small and “isolated.”
Once she got here though, “I loved it,” she said.
In Sonora, Lillie worked as a dental assistant and later at a theater company.
However, she needed a job that would provide an income with which she could support her family and still allow her time with her children.
In her late 30s, she returned to school and finished a bachelor’s degree. She attended California State University, Stanislaus, and majored in English. She finished her bachelor’s degree and got her elementary and high school teaching credentials in two years.
“I never wanted to be a teacher. I never liked little kids, I never ran to see babies,” Lillie recalled with a laugh. “When I got married and had children, of course that changed things completely.”
Lillie took a job substitute teaching at Columbia Elementary and was later offered a job as the fifth-grade math teacher by former superintendent Max Hagemeyer.
“I said, ‘But I’m an English major,’ and he said ‘I have complete faith in you, Eleanor,’ “ Lillie recounted.
She taught fifth- and sixth-grade math for five years and then taught sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders English and reading for the rest of her 21-year career at Columbia Elementary.
“I really liked it. It was such a joy to work with these kids,” Lillie said. “When you finally reached one, it was such a thrill.”
She organized the school speech and poetry festivals and had a program called “book out,” where students got to write stories and they’d get published in a book. The subjects would be on various topics like cavemen and the Maya people, and Lillie would transform her classroom into a cave or Maya temple.
Lillie said students at that age were full of emotion, and many came to her with their concerns and she spent many hours after school counseling them.
One of her former students, Deanna Hunter Staggs, said Lillie was an important person in her life.
“Some of my very best memories of childhood are wrapped up in that lady,” Staggs said.
Lillie encouraged Staggs to continue her education, and Staggs is now the integrated community resource specialist for Stockton Unified School District and runs the district’s school-based health centers.
“She taught me to always send thank you cards. I still haven’t given that up. I can still hear Mrs. Lillie say, ‘A personal thank you card is the best thank you a person can get,’” Staggs said.
“Mom being an English major, she spells very well. I’m absolutely the worst speller in the world, and before computers, she was my spell check,” Jim Lillie said.
“She raised me and I appreciate it. She’s always been there for me,” he said.
After retirement, Lillie continued to substitute teach and didn’t stop until three years ago. She stays active with the Tuolumne County chapter of the California Retired Teachers Association, the Sonora Emblem Club and the Elks Lodge.
She worked on the California Literature Project and was on a juvenile justice committee.
“I’m always doing something,” she said.
Lillie enjoys crochet and reading and used to be a regular swimmer, before lung cancer forced her to have her right lung removed. That was after she survived breast cancer.
She’s also had her right hip replaced, a double bypass on her heart, and her left carotid artery unblocked.
She’s supposed to get a stent in her heart soon, son Jim Lillie said.
Last year, Lillie fell outside in her backyard and broke her wrist and pelvis in two places.
It took her 40 minutes to drag herself into the house where she called her son, Jim.
“I was not going to give up,” she said. “Don’t count me out yet people.”