Thursday, May 16, 2013

“A Swell Wife”

It is sometimes interesting, in having reviewed a man’s life, to go back and take a look at it in retrospect—from the eyes of the subject, himself.

In the case of Samuel Bean, the Oakland Tribune feature gives us that opportunity. Written in 1948, when Sam had turned fifty two, the Hayes article provides a glimpse into Sam’s life as a review. Keeping in mind—as we’ve seen countless times in the case of other newspapers—that the reporter might have gotten the story wrong, we could just chalk up any errors or revisions to editorial negligence. However, in this case, I think some of the discrepancies we are about to review are more telling about Sam’s stage in life than the reporter’s prowess in getting the story right.

Like rehearsing a litany, Sam got the tale of his injury down pat—though we’ve certainly read different versions over the last several years of newspaper records.
“I was watching some boys on a Palo Alto playground when I was 13. One of the boys picked up a rock and threw it, only playing. It hit me in the head, caused intense inflammation and destroyed the optic and auditory nerves.”
Likewise, Sam’s take on his early years after the injury was straightforward:
Bean is the son of a former Palo Alto contractor and builder. After his accident his mother brought him to Alameda and he became a student at the California School for the Blind in Berkeley.
After that section of the article, Sam seems to stray from what we’ve already learned as the orthodoxy of his personal history. I can’t help but wonder what those discrepancies might be attributed to. What was he thinking? What caused him to remember some details so clearly, while others only incompletely?

Take Sam’s teacher at the California School for the Deaf and Blind. Her philosophy evidently was firmly imprinted on Sam’s mind—he was a dutiful disciple of her progressive views on the handicapped in society. One could almost say she made the man.

And yet, he couldn’t fully remember her name. Admittedly, the reporter inadvertently could have slipped the last portion of her name from the final copy. I wonder, though: could it have been Sam who didn’t fully remember Mary White Eastman?
“I had a wonderful teacher, Miss Mary White. She was blind herself,” Bean said. “She taught me that a handicap is a handicap only in the degree in which you allow it to master you.”
It was from this article that I first found mention of what had become of Sam’s wife, Maud Woodworth Bean. If you recall, I had had trouble locating any records online of her passing. While I tend to doubt the accuracy of the diagnosis Sam gave as the cause of her death—a case of rheumatic fever—if she had prematurely lost her life owing to Marfan syndrome, as I suspect, there would have been little chance that anyone would have known that in 1933.

And yet, having been married to Sam for twelve years—not to mention, being the mother of his two sons—one would think she’d merit at least a mention by name. Though the narrative rehearsed the usual—that he met her while she was serving as a teacher at the school Sam was attending, and that their marriage was a happy one—all Sam said about her was, “I had a swell wife.”

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Sam at this point. Maybe it was the newspaper that was getting it wrong. After all, Sam was already misrepresented as having “had two years of study at the University of California” instead of the California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley.

Despite the article’s flaws, it was here that I also found more details on the evolution of Sam’s business life. According to the Tribune, Sam had “expected to be a cabinet maker but the lure of living among people led him to become a salesman.”

The article also included a photograph of Sam with his “business companion,” Fred Schieff. The two worked in tandem for the Industrial Home for the Blind, where Sam was billed as star salesman of their products.

The Tribune article also confirmed other reports about Sam’s earlier business travels with his wife—those many times in which the two had toured, promoting his writings. The article closed with a taste of the simple sayings Sam used to remind himself to focus on the can-do, positive side of life.
            He and his wife traveled from coast to coast, Mexico to Canada, giving wide circulation among other things, to his philosophy:
            “The time to be happy is now; the place to be happy is here; the way to be happy is to make others so.”
            He presented to customers a little booklet, “Light in Darkness,” of his own poems. One states his theory:
            “Let grouch and pessimist depart—
            I want a happy cheerful heart.
            No matter if things go dead wrong,
            I’ll smile, or whistle, sing a song.
            I’ll rise in joy to greet the morn.
            And bless the day that I was born.”


  1. I suspect his brevity when speaking of his wife was due to pain of loss - my grandfather would only say "she was a saint" of my grandmother after she passed away.

    He might have known his school teacher by the name he used -

    1. Helpful insights to keep in mind. Thanks, Iggy.

  2. "Swell" - as a slang term it was at times rather controversial, wasn't it? So silly. But I bet Maud was indeed swell.

    1. I don't know why, Wendy, but reading that just put me off. But Iggy had a good point. Who knows what went into that choice of words...I'm probably reading too much into it.

  3. There is always the possibility that Sam mentioned Maud's name (and maybe much more) to the reporter, but it was edited out either for space or other reasons. Copy editors can be relentless. More than a few reporters have been frustrated when their published stories differed in length and tone from their original submissions.

    1. And you would know, Linda! I have to keep reminding myself of that dynamic. It pulled me up short to see Sam characterize his wife that way and nothing more.

  4. I have met people who will not speak of the dearly departed it is too painful for them. "A swell wife" could be worse I guess. The reference to them traveling kind of explains why he was not at his Dad's funeral..doesn't it?:)

    1. The note on traveling does help explain some of the blank spots in the timeline. But you know me: I want to know it all!

  5. Why do I always feel the need to advocate for Sam? Maybe I'm just a patsy. But calling his teacher "Miss Mary White" reminds me of how my literacy students call me "Miss Mariann." And wasn't it the age when "swell" was the consummate compliment? Anyway, I don't know many people who can make a philosophy of cheerfulness work, and stick to it.

    I think you are being careful not to idealize Sam, and understandably so. You don't want him to be a stereotype, and I respect that.

    1. Thanks, Mariann. I guess I feel the call to be the antidote to those breathless newspaper reports--although I, too, readily admit that Sam was a remarkable individual.


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