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Seniors impart life lessons to eighth-graders during yearlong project on aging

Published: Thursday, May 15 2014 9:58 p.m. MDT

Rod Rougelot looks through his biography, written by eighth-grader Billy Riley, right, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Rod Rougelot looks through his biography, written by eighth-grader Billy Riley, right, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Until he met Margaret Besso, eighth-grader Tommy Walz says he didn't know that senior citizens had a sense of humor.

Take the story she told him Thursday about leaving her hometown of Price to attend college at the University of Utah.

Her father, who was concerned about her safety "in the big city," insisted that she take a revolver to college.

"I was so scared of that darned thing that I gave it back," she said.

Tommy also learned that he and Besso have a lot in common. Each endured lengthy hospital visits as young children — he to undergo two heart transplants by age 9 and she for multiple surgeries intended to correct hip dislocation.

"Here I am. Most of my parts have been replaced, but the brain is still intact," Besso told Tommy and fellow J.E. Cosgriff Memorial Catholic School eighth-grader Andrew Cotter.

Eighth-graders Tommy Walz, left, and Andrew Cotter, right, escort Margaret Besso to her car at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Walz and Cotter have spent the school year learning about aging and writing Besso's biography. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Eighth-graders Tommy Walz, left, and Andrew Cotter, right, escort Margaret Besso to her car at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Walz and Cotter have spent the school year learning about aging and writing Besso's biography. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

The boys were paired with Besso last fall as part of the school's Mother Teresa Project. They met with her every three weeks to conduct interviews about her life, family and career.

Thirty-four eighth-graders took part in the project, which also included classes taught by instructors from the University of Utah's Gerontology Interdisciplinary Program. The coursework included the topics of healthy aging, death and dying, as well as units on the sociological, physiological and financial aspects of aging.

The project culminated in the students writing and publishing the biographies of their senior friends, who are older adults in St. Ambrose Parish. The students presented hardbound copies of the books to their companions during a brunch at the school Thursday morning.

Andrew said Besso taught him the importance of perseverance.

Dorothy Kaffer looks through her biography, written by eighth-grader Carin Reeves, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Dorothy Kaffer looks through her biography, written by eighth-grader Carin Reeves, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"I learned she's gone through so much with surgeries and difficult times in her life," he said. "She's always continued to stay positive and never gave up hope. She's trusted in God, believing he would help her through each difficult situation."

Besso worked 30 years in the Utah Department of Human Services. She then worked at the Ronald McDonald House and continues to volunteer and serve her church.

The trick to aging well, she says, is planning one activity a day that gets her out of the house.

"If you just stay home, the cobwebs grow," Besso said.

Tommy said a former Cosgriff student wrote his grandfather's biography when that boy's class took part in the Mother Teresa Project.

Gerald Kaffer Jr. looks through his biography, written by eighth-grader Tanner Nilson, right, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Gerald Kaffer Jr. looks through his biography, written by eighth-grader Tanner Nilson, right, at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"After I read this, I figured out a lot more about my grandfather that I did not know and probably wouldn't have known unless I had this in my family," he said. The book has become a cherished possession in his family, he said.

The biography of Peggy Eklund has already become a treasure for her nephew, Steve Eklund, her only surviving family member. Peggy Eklund died unexpectedly in January following a surgery.

The assignment became a profound life lesson for eighth-grader Zach Shubella, who had been paired with Eklund.

"He had this huge basketball game, but he went to her funeral," Cosgriff Principal Betsy Hunt said.

Friends and family members agreed that Zach's work nicely captured Peggy Eklund's personality, which included a stubborn streak.

But she also was kind and generous, the eighth-grader said. She was a public health nurse and also taught nursing students.

Margaret Besso listens as eighth-graders Andrew Cotter and Tommy Walz talk about what they've learned from their relationship with Besso at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Eighth-graders there have spent the last year learning about aging and were paired with a senior partner to write their biography. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Margaret Besso listens as eighth-graders Andrew Cotter and Tommy Walz talk about what they've learned from their relationship with Besso at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Eighth-graders there have spent the last year learning about aging and were paired with a senior partner to write their biography. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"She was really caring about everyone," Zach said.

She was particularly fond of her dachshund, Hunter, Steve Eklund said.

In her final days in the hospital, he smuggled the dog into the hospital for a visit. Peggy Eklund perked up when she saw her dog's face. "She said, 'My boy, my boy,'" Steve Eklund said.

"They were quite a team," he said.

The dog died a week or two after his owner, Steve Eklund said.

"It was a tough situation, but I was glad to step in," he said. "This was the upside. Dealing with Zach was just a lot of fun."

Sue Squire, whose aunt and Peggy Eklund were longtime friends, said helping Zach fill in the blanks of the biography was "a beautiful experience."

Adele Eklund looks at her husband, Steve Eklund, as they are given a biography of Steve's aunt, Peggy Eklund, written by eighth-grader Zach Shubella at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Eighth-graders spent the school year learning about aging and wrote a biography about a senior that they were paired with. Peggy Eklund passed away during the project. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News) Adele Eklund looks at her husband, Steve Eklund, as they are given a biography of Steve's aunt, Peggy Eklund, written by eighth-grader Zach Shubella at J.E. Cosgriff School in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 15, 2014. Eighth-graders spent the school year learning about aging and wrote a biography about a senior that they were paired with. Peggy Eklund passed away during the project. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

"I wouldn't have missed it," Squire said.

"It's been a treasure to have Zach a part of our lives."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com

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