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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.

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.

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.

"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.

"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.

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

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

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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."

"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