An early photo of Bea and her husband George. Original photographer unknown.
An early photo of Bea and her husband George. Original photographer unknown.

Beatrice Vivian Otterson Elder, known by most as “Bea”, retired Eatonville High School teacher, member of Eatonville’s United Methodist Church, founder of Eatonville’s Lady Lions’ club and avid community volunteer, became one of few centenarians living in the South Pierce region on Jan. 23, 2020.

On her birthdate Elder celebrated with five nephews at a local restaurant. On Sat. Jan. 25, 2020, a party for her 100th birthday was hosted at Eatonville’s United Methodist Church.

Elder was born in 1920 on her parent’s humble farm in Audubon, Minnesota.

Olaf Otterson, Elder’s father, immigrated from Sweden during infancy. Elder’s mother, Julia, was born in the U.S. to Norwegian immigrants.

Elder described her father as an intelligent hard-working farmer and her mother as a hard-working farmer’s wife.

Otterson was well educated, however, he continued farming to support his mother and siblings. Elder’s father nonetheless ensured education was stressed. Elder’s parents hauled her to school every day.

“Education was extremely important to my family,” Elder said in an interview with The Dispatch.

Number three of four, Elder and her siblings each received four-year college educations.

Teaching was almost inherent; eight family members including Elder’s older sister had received teaching certificates from Concordia University where she would also attend.

In the 1940s, during World War II, U.S. education concentrated on math and science while Elder earned a degree in home economics and a teaching certificate.

After teaching physics, general science and chemistry for a short while in Glyndon, Minnesota, Elder joined the Coast Guard for 18 months.

In an article published in “Faith of our Fathers, Living Still” in 2000, Elder is quoted saying, “The thrill of the morning exercise of standing at attention while the American flag was raised each morning… is something I doubt I will ever forget.”

While stationed in California, Elder fell in love with George Elder, the ship’s first class cook. They married at Long Beach, Ca. on Jan. 12, 1946. 

When the war ended the military discharged many units including most of the Coast Guard’s women’s unit.

Elder’s husband’s family was from Olympia Wa. and Elder found work as a barista with a friend at Boeing in Seattle making a move to Washington State ideal.

Boeing lasted four months. Elder’s father-in-law was friends with a gentleman whom had a resort on Mt. Rainier; he was a school board member at Eatonville.

“They were having coffee and my father in law said ‘my newest daughter in law is a teacher’,” Elder said. “That’s how I ended up living [and teaching] in Eatonville.”

Elder fell in love with Eatonville for its size and isolation.

Elder was hired as the physical education and English teacher at Eatonville High School. Physical education teachers also taught health, nutrition and wellbeing, making use of Elder’s home economics degree.

Sexual education became a staple in Elder’s teaching. Elder excelled and touched the lives of many students whom still visit and write her.

“I was open and frank about sex and sexuality. I didn’t hedge anything. And that is what [the students] responded to so well,” Elder said. “Everything was a secret. But in real life it can’t be, so I laid it all out.”

Elder’s niece and student Lynda Orstad in an interview with The Dispatch said, “Nobody could have taught it the way she did.”

Making life easier for people drove Elder. She expressed the need for guidance at such a young age when hormones are already making life difficult.

“I loved teaching,” Elder said. “I wanted all the time to make life easier for people… for them to grow up. Teenagers are always searching for answers and trying so hard to be noticed.”

Seeing her student’s expressions when they learned something they’d been pondering was Elder’s favorite part about teaching.

“The looks on their faces when something dawned on them with what I was taking about… is very rewarding,” Elder said. “They’d just learned something that they’d been wondering about.”

Elder retired from Eatonville School District in 1984, but continued teaching, volunteering and being a part of community outreach. She helped non-reading adults, established “Beta,” a fund for struggling mothers and helped found the Lady Lions group in Eatonville.

Before injuring her right hip, Elder volunteered for hospice bereavement services for several years.

“I worked there every day and called people who had lost their loved one and let them talk as much as they wanted to talk,” Elder said. “My job was to give them permission to talk and to feel bad and to hurt.”

Heavenly Acres Family Adult Homes in Graham, Wa. has cared for Elder for six years since her injury.

Elder’s birthday excited her because it would bring people together.

“[People] will have a chance to visit because you can stop and talk when you’re at a thing like that,” Elder said. “In the street you say ‘oh we’ll one of these days get together’, and you go and that doesn’t happen. But when you meet at a place like that, you can sit down with somebody and have a cupcake and chat.”

Elder’s 100th birthday celebration was hosted by her best friend Janet Luna, a retired teacher, fellow church member and fellow founder of the Lady Lions. A dozen nieces, cousins and family members attended along with over a hundred former students, community members, friends and caregivers.

Luna gave way to tears during her opening speech.

“Though she wasn’t seen a lot, [Elder] devoted herself to projects at the high school and church anonymously,” said Luna. “And she never wanted to be thanked. She has a heart of gold.”

Dave Clark, a caregiver of Elder told The Dispatch in an interview that Elder enjoys seeing the best in people.

“She wants to get the best out of you,” Clark said. “She’ll be really quick to tell you not to settle for anything else. Do the best you can get for yourself.”

Orstad added in response to Clark’s comments, “She’s the most perfect person I ever met. She doesn’t even work at it. We’ll go over and we’re down about something and we come home feeling so good.”

During her interview with The Dispatch, Elder gave some advice she’s learned in her long life.

“I was really old before I realized what you get out of life is what you put into it,” Elder said. “If you made a practice of hating things or complaining you’ll have a lot to complain about. But… there are many pleasurable and nice things that happen too. Enjoy when pleasures come.”

Elder added, “The only thing worthwhile is what you do for other people.”