Ex-teacher shares life’s memories with former students as she turns 97

When she was still traveling, and at 84 she was climbing mountains, someone asked Azella Taylor if she’d ever married and had children.

“I never married,” she responded. “But I have 20 or 25 children.”

The retelling of that story last week in the living room of her Steilacoom home drew laughter from the 10 younger women surrounding “Miss Taylor,” as each calls her.

Seven of those women were elementary students of Taylor in the 1950s. One is a teacher who had been inspired by Taylor. Two are granddaughters of one of the former students.

All were there for Taylor’s 97th birthday celebration.

“Some teachers make a difference in the lives of children,” Sandy Flatness said. “She made a difference in the lives of adults.”

Taylor taught for eight years at Olympia’s James Madison Elementary and another 23 years at Central Washington University, and she introduced her students to a world outside their hometown.

“She was our Forrest Gump,” Paige Porter said. “If there was something important that happened, it seemed she’d been part of it.”

Taylor was born in China, to a Russian mother in the tea trade and an American father in the oil business. As a child, she watched her grandparents play cards with Chiang Kai-shek, who later became chairman of China.

She sailed to America at 19 on a tramp steamer, wound up at the University of Washington and, en route to a master’s degree in drama, became a master puppeteer.

She and a friend toured Hawaii, using handmade puppets to entertain school children and prison inmates.

“We made a good living,” Taylor said.

In Hawaii, she said she met Ernest Hemingway at a gathering of artists and writers in 1941 — and she didn’t like him.

“He was full of himself and foul-mouthed,” she said. “I liked his books. I wasn’t impressed with him.”

Back on the mainland before World War II broke out, she joined the Women’s Land Army of America, a controversial-at-the-time government-sponsored group of women ages 16 to 35.

“Women from all over the country came together to plant and harvest crops because men weren’t available. I went to Bakersfield (Calif.), and we lived in box cars, picked grapes and plums.”

Why controversial? It marked the first time women took over men’s jobs, worked under female supervisors and were paid the same wage as men for doing the same job.

Later, she went to work in Yosemite National Park, which during the war had become a naval hospital. It was there she met photographer Ansel Adams, helped carry his cameras and dined with him and his wife each Sunday.

“He was a charming, delightful man, down to earth,” Taylor said. “He wanted to show the world what Yosemite was like.”

After the war, she returned to Washington and college, deciding to try her hand at teaching. She got her degree, would later get her doctorate, and was hired by the Olympia School District.

Madison Elementary was in a low-income neighborhood, and children often had rough lives away from school. Taylor had success with troubled kids, so the school did something unusual.

“They gave me a fourth-grade class and let me keep them through fifth and sixth grades,” she said. “They became my kids.”

It was the late 1950s, and a lesson learned as a puppeteer served her as a teacher.

“A friend asked me to bring a puppet to a special ed class. I approached a young boy and showed him the puppet and said, ‘He wants to talk to you,’ and the boy said, ‘Hello.’ The teacher told me he hadn’t spoken a word in months. I realized the power a puppet might have in a school setting.”

Taylor’s class began making their own puppets. Christine Hicks still has hers, and she brought it to Taylor’s home last week.

“She used puppets to teach us everything from geography to politics, history to culture,” Hicks said. “We’d make a puppet — mine was Genghis Khan — and do a report on everything about the character: where he lived, what his country was like, how he dressed.”

Katherine Haskett recalled more.

“On her own, Miss Taylor brought in a woman once a week who taught us Spanish for 20 minutes,” Haskett said. “I learned enough that I can still go to Mexico and ask questions, be polite and order off a menu. She was well ahead of her time.”

After retiring 35 years ago, Taylor pursued art and became so proficient at wood carving and watercolor that she began taking commissions.

A few years ago, her eyesight began to fail.

“I can’t see well enough to write a check,” Taylor said. “At my age, life is memories, and I have wonderful ones.”

She waved her hand across that living room crowded with former students who visit each month.

“This is my family, I have no other.”