The guiding hands of Dolores Efthim

Photo by Linda Thomas

By Linda Thomas
Hometown Weekly Correspondent

All it took was a story about one young American soldier returning home from the war in Iraq to spark an idea that would have a profound effect on other veterans.

As terrifying as the war was for this soldier, one thing frightened him even more — how would his 3-year-old daughter react to seeing what the war had done to him?

Lying in his hospital room dealing with flashbacks of how his legs were blown off by a buried bomb, he confided his fears to his nurse.

The nurse left his room and soon returned with a hand-knit multi-colored afghan she’d borrowed from another patient. She moved the soldier to a wheelchair and covered him with the afghan — and what he’d feared most faded away. His little girl was happy to see her father.

It was simple as that.

It wasn’t until about ten years ago that a Walpole woman heard this story and was compelled to do something for veterans facing similar circumstances.

That woman is Dolores Efthim.

At first, the story made her angry. But with her inimitable force and sense of purpose, she put that anger into action.

“It grabbed me,” said the 86-year-old. “I thought - no, I knew - we had to do something for our local veterans.”

She gathered knitters in her hometown and went to work, and as a result formed a knitting group that meets regularly at the Walpole Council on Aging.

For the past nine years, the group has spent all year long knitting and crocheting afghans, lap robes and chemo caps to be delivered at Christmas to the patients at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Roxbury.

This year, the group delivered to the hospital 187 completed items — more than in prior years. Every year since this project began, citizens of Walpole faithfully have donated the yarn used for all of the knitted works.
 
“It’s truly a very personal connection Dolores has created between the veterans and the hand-crafters,” said director Kerri McManama. “She puts forth a passion into causes like this where she sees a need. It’s always a selfless piece of her she’s putting out there.”

Fate might have decided Efthim’s course for her.
 
No matter where life has taken her, she says she feels a presence — like a hand on her shoulder — that helps guide her toward unanticipated paths leading her to serving others.

Her life’s work has been serendipitous.

She didn’t plan on becoming a teacher. She was naturally meant to be one.

She didn’t plan on being the impetus to engage the senior community. Her strong voice said otherwise.

“My life has been a bunch of happy accidents,” she says.

Her influence on others has been similarly like a guiding hand.

One former student can attest to that.

“If she felt 'a hand’ on her at times, we could say 'God or Spirit,' she surely passed that spirit along — a spirit of power, honesty, and kindness,” said Rev. Ross Varney, minister at the Belleville Congregational Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Efthim would have been about 40 in 1970 when Varney first met her as a 13-year-old sitting in her Spanish class at the East Junior High School (now Bird Middle School). Such was her impact that he would return to visit her after graduating from Walpole High School or when back home from college and beyond.

Her wisdom and humor were irresistible; she was one of the caring and guiding hands in Varney's life. He actually followed in her footsteps, teaching Spanish for a few years after college.

“Mrs. Efthim, as we called her, was a force to be reckoned with — a unique presence both powerful and kind at the same time, also fun,” Varney said.

“What amazed me most was her ‘command’ of the classroom … to keep about 30 kids at attention, with a foreign language, whose drills could be somewhat dry in anybody else's hands.”

But she loved the subject matter, her native tongue, and delivered the verb drills with such energy and enthusiasm.

“Who could make conjugating a verb captivating? ‘I speak, you speak, he speaks, we all speak, etc.,’ could be really boring. She had us echo the words, like a choral chant, and she led the exercise with such delight and careful pronunciation.

“She commanded respect,” Varney said. “And I’ll never forget her addressing one student who had the nerve to stretch out her feet onto the rungs of the chair in front: ‘This is a classroom. You are here to learn Spanish. Do you think this is your living room couch?’ So forthright, firm, yet caring, all at the same time.

“Those feet retracted instantly.  

“But the same honest, truthful seeing that could correct behavior also let every student know they were seen, that they were cared for, that she enjoyed our presence and getting to know us.

“She could indeed speak the truth with love, genuine care, but also with incisive force as needed.”

The Early Years

Efthim’s paternal grandparents left Spain and didn’t want to learn English, so they went to Cuba when it was a Spanish colony. Her Cuban-born father came to the United States to study and met her mother.

Efthim was born in Boston on May 5, 1931, and her parents soon moved to Cuba. When she was 7, the family moved back to the United States and traveled on an ocean-liner heading to Boston facing rough waters, violent winds and rains hammering hard as the Great Hurricane of 1938 stormed into southern New England.

Luckily, the family survived.

They settled in Cambridge then moved to Watertown.

Efthim graduated from Watertown High School in 1949. She then enrolled at Northeastern University where she met her future husband, Nick. Both worked hard putting themselves through college on the co-op plan.

A year later, the couple married. They raised a daughter, Carole O’Rourke, and have two grandchildren, Jill and Nicholas.

Soon after she and Nick moved to Walpole in the summer of 1964, Efthim took then 6-year-old Carole to register for second grade at the Plimpton Elementary School.

Call It Kismet

“Why aren’t you teaching?” she remembers then principal Harold LeBlanc asking her. “We need teachers in the language department.”

LeBlanc worked in Central America prior to coming to the Walpole school district and thought Efthim and her daughter might possibly have been from Costa Rica, since he’d seen the little girl carrying a pocketbook with Costa Rica engraved in the leather. Efthim explained that she lived in Cuba as a little girl, and that Spanish was her first language.

Despite little to no training as a teacher, it didn’t take long for that hand to point her right inside a classroom teaching Spanish to the students at the then-East Junior High School.

“I think I found my spot but with no help from me,” she said. “It was that hand opening up different things I really never thought of. It just came out of the blue.”

She taught for the next ten years, and then joined the faculty at Walpole High School as a guidance counselor. She retired in 1986, but soon thereafter she was called back to teach at the high school, where she stayed for the next three years. She taught for another ten years filling in at various other school districts.

“She’s a gem,” said George Watson, former chair of the foreign language department at Walpole High School.

Watson describes Efthim as a dynamic, caring, sociable and fun-loving person — traits that translate well teaching communication skills in a language classroom.

“Those characteristics made her a great teacher,” Watson said.

“In a language classroom setting where we’re putting emphasis on interpersonal communication, communicating with kids and the back-and-forth communication, Dolores has that personality to make kids feel comfortable in speaking and making them feel comfortable to talk about things in their own lives,” said Watson, now teaching in the Hispanic Studies department at Wheaton College.

“And the fact she was a guidance counselor is another example of how those interpersonal skills were put to great use the way she counseled the students. She’s worn two different hats, but in a way, given her personality, both those roles allowed her to connect with kids.”

When Carole O’Rourke started sixth grade and learned she’d be taking Spanish, she knew she’d be sitting in her mother’s class.

“I had no choice,” O’Rourke said. “My mother was the only Spanish teacher in those days.”

She also knew she wouldn’t be getting special treatment.

“The principal sat us down to make sure I understood I would be treated the same as any other student,” O’Rourke recalled. “At the time, I was very intimidated and told the principal, ‘yes, of course,’ and I treated my mother just like any other teacher - quietly, respectfully, afraid to get into trouble. Nothing was awkward about it, except it was hilarious when another student spoke out in class and my mother gently said, ‘Please refrain from talking during class.’

“But if I spoke out, it would be, ‘CAROLE.’ I got the harsh words, and the tone of voice was very funny. The other kids in class had noticed it, too.”

A Spirit-Led Woman

When Kerri McManama took on the role as director of the Walpole Council on Aging last year, Efthim was stepping down as chairman of the board but continues to serve as a regular member. Efthim introduced her to the board and emphasized the importance of a building for the seniors.

“She was chairman not because it was being the chairman,” McManama said. “She was doing it because someone needed to stand up — and she was okay being that person to stand up for others. Dolores sees a need here and she’ll say, ‘I’m not just going to recognize that there is a need here, but I’m going to assert myself as something is compelling me, and I’m going to put my all into that.’

“It’s not ever about her,” McManama said. “It’s always about others. And I’m better for knowing her.”

Not long ago, Varney spoke with his former teacher and listened while she shared with him how she voiced her support of a new building for the senior center at a recent town meeting.

“If you don’t make some progress on breaking ground on the new senior center, you will see a bunch of white haired ladies with shovels out there doing so … with all the media present to witness it.”

Varney was not surprised.

“Now,” he said, “at 86 years of age, she still shows the same guts, tenacity and truth-telling.

“What an amazing, feisty, spirit-led woman.”

Editor’s Note: Linda Thomas writes for Hometown Weekly Publications, Inc. For comments and suggestions she can be reached at lindasfaces@gmail.com

Author’s Note: Dolores Efthim is grateful for her fellow knitters and citizens of Walpole who continue to make this project a success. The group has already begun work for next year.

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