Gertrud’s Last Year
By Nancy Littell (Photo – Gayatri Devi)
Our generous administrator of this site spoke with me at the 2017 reunion, and asked me to write something about Gertrud’s final days. This is difficult, but I will try to be as true to the experience as I can be and hopefully fill in some gaps. I graduated in 1975, the year WMS closed. Gertrud went to “visit” her daughter and son-in-law, the Ropers, who lived in Franklin, Michigan and ran their own school for gifted students. She was planning to go for 1 month. She did not know when she left Lenox that the school was likely to close. She was not told.
I had been very close with Gertrud while at WMS and was planning to return for a “gap year” after graduating and be a dorm assistant. Her daughter came to Lenox when I was visiting Gertrud also the summer of 1975. She told me “Mutti” was coming to visit them for an “extended visit”, and asked I come stay with Gertrud at their house in Michigan as an assistant/caregiver/friend.
I agreed, and shortly after her daughter flew with Gertrud back to Michigan. Gertrud was not told the school was closing until she had been out there several months. Her daughter and son-in-law told her while I was there. It was painful to witness, and now to recall. Gertrud was upset, shocked, cried, bereft, angry. She called Heinz and spoke with him also for about an hour, mostly crying and spoke primarily German so I don’t know the content of their conversation in detail.
After this news, as I helped her get ready for bed, she cried more, and said “what would Max think?” I cried a lot with her those days. I felt helpless at 18 to offer this woman comfort. At times she would say “but I still have you to teach” and I am happy to this day I served her in that way in this time. A tiny, tiny bit of return of the love she had showered me and so many students with over the many years. There were tense discussions between Heinz and Annamarie Roper about where Gertrud should live.
It was very difficult for her, on and off, the year I was there. There were times she was happy, reminisced a lot with me and others. She was angry and felt betrayed at times – that she had been kept out of the school closing discussions. She truly had no clue. She found a letter written by her daughter that was to be sent out to alumni asking for contributions to Gertrud’s support. She was devastated by that and I believe it was not sent out.
The McCormacks were in Michigan and visited Gertrud alot. Several other former students and her grandchildren visited her at the Ropers. She spoke by phone with friends, students, family over the year often in the beginning, less as the year went on. Heinz and Carolyn came out to visit, and she spoke with Heinz most nights by phone.
She taught me German and psychology the year I was with her. She would immediately snap into her amazing educator mode. At times she was in very good spirits as she struggled to accept that her beloved school was no longer. I tried to comfort her with the thoughts of how much of she and Max would always go on in the lives of the many many students they had taught and loved. She usually agreed.
Over the year she physically weakened, slept more, and withdrew some. She would always perk up when I brought her one of my “problems” to help me with. I had many, many that year both real and some invented, for the sake of getting advice from a legend and drawing her into conversation. Again, she would always be able to snap right into teaching me/giving me advice and I could see she loved this (as did I.) It was such a gift of mutual love, grace and privilege to spend that time with her. I did my very best to cheer her up and help her focus on how wonderful her life had been to date in so many ways and all the good she and Max and WMS had done for so many children in the world, including me. I truly think she believed my very sincere claims most of the time, and it helped her gain some perspective and ease the transition a bit.
I left Gertrud in Michigan a year later to go to college. We both cried the days leading up to the parting. She said she took comfort that I was on my way to follow her advice and her teachings and become an MD. We spoke during that transition every day. The Ropers had hired another live-in assistant for Gertrud. Gertrud had fought for several months the idea of going to a nursing home. Several months later, she was placed in a nursing home. She died about two months later, at the nursing home, in her sleep. She never had any real physical pain that last year and she was still on methadone until she died.
I have very mixed feelings about sharing this personal recollection of the last year of Gertrud’s life. While I do not think she ever recovered from the school closing, she did have some happy moments with friends and family the year before she died. I hope I have filled in some missing information about Gertrud’s last year.
If anyone has specific questions about this not-well-known last year, I will try my best to answer. She was a wonderful person to so many. I truly believe she and WMS saved my life. I treasure the memories of this last year with Gertrud, and I believe she would be fine with my sharing them with you all.