Walt's Favorite Teacher: Daisy Beck

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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Walt's Favorite Teacher: Daisy Beck

A little while ago, I wrote a column about Walt Disney and his very limited experience with the public education system. If you missed it, you can find it here.

Walt only attended one year of secondary education before he forged his birth certificate and went off on an adventure in France at the end of World War I. When he came home, he never returned to public school to finish his formal education.

Walt was not fond of his years of formal schooling although he became one of the greatest advocates of education.

Walt Disney was awarded the honorary degree of master of science by USC in 1938. Later the same year Walt received an honorary master of arts degree from both Harvard and Yale.

From 1932 to 1954, Disney received 121 plaques, cups, citations and other awards, including so many Oscars from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that it became an individual record that has yet to be broken.

On Feb. 17, 1954, the Associated Exhibitors of the National Education Association presented the American Education Award to Walt Disney. The illuminated manuscript presented to him at that time stated in part:

"In truest American tradition, he rose from virtual obscurity to become through his beloved character creations, a great good will ambassador throughout the civilized world. He has influenced for good and freed the imagination of youth in every free land.

"He has made outstanding contributions to education in bringing to the screen the classics in fantasy and wonders of nature in his True Life Adventure films.

"He has received with modest dignity the highest honors a grateful industry and on appreciative world can bestow upon him. His patriotism and his genius was devoted almost exclusively during World War II to the making of training films for our armed forces.

"But with all his honors, every new venture is a challenge to this 20th Century teller of stories, who, like the immortal Anderson, Aesop, Grimms, and Perrault, has won and earned a place in the hearts of the eternal young everywhere.

"This is Walt Disney."

In December of 1955, the Journal of the California Teacher's Association interviewed Walt and the interviewer came away with the following impression:

"His standing, record, and impact as an educator may not be so widely appreciated. Yet he has done-and is doing-notable and lasting things in the field of education through his own special techniques and explorative methods. Some of our most prominent American schoolmen have recognized him as a powerful force in the spreading of knowledge and have named his films as valuable aids to classroom instruction.....He made me feel his deep responsibility toward the children whose friend he is. No teacher, no parent, could be more concerned about the things to which impressionable young minds are exposed. Fully, half of his forthcoming and future productions, I am informed, will have educational values. His record and his plans establish him as a remarkable public educator. And like all successful people, he remembers his 'good' teachers."

I taught middle school for many years in the Los Angeles area and so imagine my surprise and pleasure when I discovered that Walt's favorite teacher was his seventh-grade teacher.

She was a young woman with auburn hair named Daisy A. Beck. She taught at Benton School in Kansas City, Mo. By all accounts, she was an outstanding teacher whose encouragement of Walt's wanting to draw was much appreciated even while at the same time she prodded him to keep up with his more academic studies.

As Daisy Beck's niece Helen recalled for the webmasters of the Walt Disney Family Museum, her aunt shared with her the following anecdote: "All [Walt] did was sit and draw and she recognized his talent. Now, a lot of teachers at that time didn't. So, she kept saying, 'Walt, you've got to know more than just drawing. You've got to have something in your brain. When you get through with your arithmetic, I don't care how much you draw. You can draw any pictures you want, anything -- when you're through!' I don't think he was a very good student by any means, but Auntie always said that he had a great mind."

Walt's affection for Beck didn't end at graduation, and in later years they continued to exchange letters until well into the 1940s.

Beck also took the time to understand what Walt's life was like outside the classroom with his early morning and late afternoon paper route. "If he was sleepy and had fallen asleep, she just let him sleep," said one classmate. "She understood why the boy was so tired."

Walt's only participation in school athletics came as a result of the good fortune (a rarity at the time) that Beck was coaching the school's track team. As Walt recalled in a 1940 letter to his favorite teacher, "I often think of you and the days I spent at Benton. I can plainly see you ... coaching the athletic teams for the annual track meet. I don't know whether you remember it or not, but I participated in several events and even won a medal one year on the championship 80-pound relay team. I was kept rather busy with my paper route and I didn't have much time to train, but I did manage to get in on a few events...."

Fellow member of the track team, Meyer Minda, reminisced about Daisy Beck: "She had a nice build, and she wore nice clothes, and she just took an interest, and you felt like you had a personal teacher. She gave you a lot of compliments. If your time wasn't so good in a sprint, or something, she'd say, 'You can do better than that. Just warm up. Keep warming up. We'll try out again.' She was great."

The California Teacher Association Journal for December 1955 gave Walt an opportunity to reminisce and praise Beck. It is a reminder of the impact that teachers can have on students, especially those who like Walt by traditional standards were regarded as not going to have much success in their future.

Here in Walt's words are his memories of Daisy Beck:

"The teacher I remember best, with affectionate respect, is Miss Daisy A. Beck. She taught the seventh grade in the old Benton Grammar School in Kansas City, Mo. She later became Mrs. W.W. Fellers by marriage and she retired years ago after a rich full life of devotion to the hundreds of youngsters who moved through her classroom. And now she has passed on.

"But persons like Miss Daisy A., as we called her, never retire from your memory. She remains as vivid today as she was in the days of her patient concern for a laggard boy more interested in drawing cartoon characters on textbook margins than in the required three Rs.

"She gave me the first inkling that learning could be enjoyable-even schoolbook learning. And that is a great moment in a kid's life. She had the knack of making things I had thought dull and useless seem interesting and exciting. I never forgot that lesson.

"Getting through the seventh grade was one of the toughest trials of my whole limited span of schooling.

"You've got to be good to teach the seventh. You have to know a lot about human nature in the bud. How to get into stubborn resisting young minds and how to make the classroom compete with everything that tends to lure a kid's attention to the world outside.

"That's the kind of teacher Daisy A. was. I had little inclination toward book learning and very little time to study. When I was 9, my brother Roy and I were already businessmen. We had a newspaper route for the Kansas City Star, delivering papers in a residence area every morning and evening of the year, rain, shine or snow. We got up at 4:30 a.m., worked until the school bell rang and did the same thing again from four o'clock in the afternoon until supper time. Often I dozed at my desk, and my report card told the story.

"But Miss Daisy A. wasn't discouraged. She knew our circumstances. She never slacked what she considered her teacher's responsibilities. I think I must have been a special challenge to her patience. She never scolded. And I don't believe she ever shamed any of us youngsters with discouragements.

"Once only she lost patience with me. That was for a prank.

"I had rescued a field mouse from a cat and had brought it to school. Attached to a string, it had crawled to a nearby desk. A girl's shriek brought the teacher on the double, and boy, did I get it! She smacked me on the cheek so hard I felt it for several days.

"I deserved it. In a way, it was educational, too. One of my first 'true life adventures,' you might say.

"It was always my inclination to think in pictures rather than words. I was already dreaming of becoming an artist-a newspaper cartoonist, at this point. I spent many study hours drawing flipover figures on textbook margins-like the McGuffey readers-to entertain classmates.

"Miss Beck understood this, too. She was not only tolerant about these extra-curricular activities, but actually encouraged them. She saw what she regarded as potential talents in other kids, too, and did everything she could to bring them out.

"The point is, she tried to understand all of us as individuals. But she never favored or pampered any of us. She managed somehow to promote our personal inclinations without neglecting the formal grade requirements.

"She knew that the good students, the apt ones, who got their lessons easily would get along well without much urging or coaching. It was the laggards, like myself, who most needed encouragement. So with great patience and understanding, and incredible faith, she lavished her teaching genius upon the least promising of her charges.

"Other teachers at Benton who often come to mind were Miss Katherine Shrewsbury and Miss Ora E. Newsome, art teachers, Miss Ethel Fischer, and by no means least, J. M. Cottingham, the principal, who acknowledged that I never had to visit his office in punishment. That, I must admit, was sheer luck.

"To sum it all up, the outstanding teacher of my youth instilled in us a permanent sense of wanting-to-do rather than having-to-do."