COLLEGE PLACE -- The young tree on the back lawn of Sager Middle School may not be the same tree Francie Nolan gazed on from her Brooklyn apartment in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." But the freshly planted tree could inspire some toward Betty Smith's classic novel, while summoning the memory of a teacher who wished to share the novel with students before her sudden death.
Roseanne Casseday 'Rose' Ross, a longtime teacher at Sager, died unexpectedly June 2 at age 59 after being diagnosed with lung cancer. Ross taught English and English as a Second Language at Sager for nearly 20 years, retiring in 2008, although Ross continued to substitute teach at the school up until the time of her illness.
Earlier in the year, Ross and her husband of 28 years, Milton Ross, had read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," and were both struck by the universal themes of a novel set in the early 20th century in a Brooklyn slum. The book tells the coming-of-age story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up poor to immigrant parents and closely mirroring Smith's image.
Although Rose Ross didn't get the chance to share the story with her students, Milton Ross saw an opportunity to share his wife's final legacy with current and future students, while leaving a living memorial to Ross at the school she held so dearly to her heart.
On Tuesday afternoon, close to 60 students, staff, family and friends gathered on the back lawn of the middle school to plant a tree in Rose's honor. Milton Ross donated the Chanticleer pear tree students planted firmly in the lawn.
Milton Ross also donated a hardbound copy of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" to the Sager library, with a dedication to Rose inside. Having finished a second reading of the book on the day of the memorial, Milton Ross said he found the story of young Francie inspiring and telling, even as an adult. He said he hoped students would also find meaning and inspiration in its pages.
"Life has a lot of different twists and turns," he said about the story. "You don't always have control over things that you wish you had."
Rose Ross was born in Dayton, but moved to Walla Walla at a young age and attended Berney Elementary, Pioneer Junior High and Walla Walla High School. Encouraged by a school counselor to work with her hands or go into the Army after high school, Ross took it as a challenge to strive harder academically.
She earned a bachelor's degree in English from University of Puget Sound, and eventually earned a master's degree in Education with an ESL endorsement.
Most of her career was spent at Sager, and when she wasn't working, Ross helped her husband tend the crops of Spring Creek Farm, his business. Along with many family and friends, Ross is survived by her two sisters and brother; her husband, and her mother, Sarah Earnheart Burch, who also attended the Sager memorial.
Former student Abel Hernandez spoke during the dedication, and said he recalled being 12 years old and new to not just College Place, but the country. His family had arrived from Michoacan, Mexico, and he started middle school in a new place. Having Ross as a teacher helped him ease into the transition of a new school and new home.
"I think she had a big influence on all the kids who went through her class," he said.
Hernandez recalled Ross' caring, and willingness to help her students, and called it an honor to have been invited to speak at the dedication.
"Mrs. Ross made it very easy for us," Hernandez said. "Her kindness made a big impression on us. Being part of her classroom made it worthwhile."
Maria Wilks, a teacher's assistant at Sager, tearfully recalled the inspiration Ross instilled in her to teach.
"She became my friend the day I met her," Wilks said. "She was an amazing woman. She never had anything bad to say about anyone."
To Wilks and others, Ross was a model of genuine compassion who always maintained her patience.
"She was so patient with the kids," she said. "To her there was no such thing as a bad student."
The memorial was coordinated in part between Milton Ross and Terri Klundt, another longtime Sager staff member who knew Ross well.
"She was a dear friend at Sager and always very generous and kind to our students," Klundt said.
"I loved Rose very much, and she will live in my heart, and in our students' hearts, forever," Wilks said.
Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8317. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/schoolhousemissives.
A fund has been established at Banner Bank under the name Roseanne Ross to help support students of Sager Middle School who may need unique support. Contributions can be made to any local Banner Bank branch.