Vai's View: English teacher's commitment made profound impact

Published: Friday, May 11 2012 2:35 p.m. MDT

I shook my head and told her "Thanks, but no thanks." Mrs. Nielsen simply smiled at me but turned to my mother and said, "Ruby, Vai is good enough to be on my newspaper staff. If he applies, it will improve his chances of getting into the best schools who are already recruiting him."

That closed the deal.

Our ace reporter on the Jackrabbit Newspaper staff was a young man who transferred from the Midwest during our senior year named Michael De Groote.

Michael was everything I wasn't — smart, sophisticated, well-traveled, cultured and unathletic. He was in the drama club, very witty but nerdy.

After high school, De Groote joined the Mormon Church and after graduating from Arizona State was accepted to BYU's Law School, where he earned a J.D. in the mid-'90s. He's been a reporter for the Deseret News since 2008.

Like Michael De Groote and scores of Mrs. Nielsen's Mesa High journalism students, I, too, ended up in the Fourth Estate.

From time to time, I often wondered what became of Mrs. Barbara Nielsen.

Was she still alive? Is she still teaching? Is she still in Mesa? Through the same sources that led me to my first home teaching companion, Marty Klein, I found Barbara Nielsen. Only, she wasn't Barbara Nielsen anymore. For more than 20 years, she's been Barbara Nielsen Dowell.

As fate would have it, her husband, Vic, died in 1985 about the same time her college roommate Ruth passed away. Ruth and her husband, Emery, were dear college friends, often double dating with Vic and Barbara as poor college students. Emery, called "Soap" by his friends, and Vic were on ASU's yearbook staff their senior year, and majoring in journalism was what brought them all together.

It just seemed natural for Soap and Barbara to reach out to each other after their spouses' passing, and soon they were married themselves.

Soap and Ruth lived in California, while Vic and Barbara raised their family in Mesa.

As a new couple, Soap and Barbara decided to keep both homes and given their age, they wintered in Mesa and summered in Sacramento.

It's been a good life.

I reached Barbara by email and she was ecstatic that I had found her. In March, my wife and I flew to Arizona to see her. Soap happened to be in Sacramento getting their taxes prepared, so I missed him.

She invited her daughter and her brother and his wife, who coincidentally served in the England London Mission with our youngest son, to join us the evening we visited.

I recounted for Barbara all the stories that I remembered and we laughed till it hurt. Now in her mid-'80s, I was so impressed with her lucidity, wit and charm. But that's almost what I expected of a woman who taught English, journalism and humanities for nearly three decades.

She told us that after graduating from Mesa High in 1944, she came to Provo and enrolled at BYU. Following her sophomore year, however, she returned to Mesa to work and help pay to keep her younger brother on his mission in Hawaii. Making such sacrifices was a part of being a member of The Greatest Generation. Since she was home, she enrolled at ASU, where she met her husband and earned her degree. Along the way, they had five children and she managed to teach them all at some point during their high school years.

At evening's end, I knelt at her feet and cried on her lap, thanking her for the way she prepared me for my profession and for my life.

It was as if God placed her there for the precise moment that I needed her.

Like an angel.

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