Earlier this week The Times ran a news obituary of Rupert "Rummy" Deese, a Claremont studio potter well known in Southern California art circles who died July 12 at 85. Part of what made that story poignant was the fact that his death came only weeks after that of his wife of 59 years, Helen Deese. She died at 84 on June 4, 2 ½ years after she had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Rummy had cared for her at their home in Claremont the last few years, and his health deteriorated rapidly after she died.
I had the great fortune to know Helen, who taught English at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles in the 1980s. I remember her as one of my most enthusiastic professors, someone who genuinely cared about her students and wanted to share her passion for literature. My best memories revolve around her Shakespeare and drama classes because there were field trips galore. She arranged for us to attend as many plays as we could fit into our schedules, mainly at the Mark Taper Forum. And she introduced college students from all over to big-city hangouts like Gorky’s in downtown L.A.
Helen wasn’t just dragging her students to theater productions because it was her job. She really loved the theater. In an interview her daughter, Mary Ann Brow, said that Helen and Rummy trekked every summer to the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park. When each of their four children were old enough, they tagged along too. But the kids didn’t just watch the plays. They were required to read the text of the plays first. Then, in the car, on the drive from Claremont to San Diego, Helen led rolling tutorials, discussing with the family what they would be seeing. And if it was Shakespeare, she made sure they understood the inside jokes and bawdy comments. Many teachable moments indeed.
Helen was born Sept. 15, 1925, in San Diego, and was from a Marine family, as Rummy was. He was born on Guam, when his father was stationed there. At some point she lived there too when her father was posted on the island, but it was not at the same time as her husband’s family. She met her future husband in junior high when both of their fathers were stationed at Parris Island in South Carolina.
Helen attended UCLA, where she was an English major, but she left a few credits shy of a degree in 1947 to become a social worker in San Diego. She and Rummy reconnected after she left UCLA, they married in 1951 and they raised four children. She later returned to school and received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in English from UC Riverside.
As she said in a Contemporary Authors biography: "In 1967, when I re-entered the University of California after a twenty-year absence in which I had done my best to promote the baby boom, I was one of the first 're-entries' or 'nontraditional students,' both rather inelegant labels. To my own mind I was then what I think myself to be today--a student, still trying to understand what it's all about. And it--whatever 'it' refers to--seems to be about human achievement in art, about the creating human imagination whether its material is the matter of science or of poetry."
She went on to teach college English, mainly at Mount St. Mary’s College and UC Riverside, and co-edited academic works on Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. She retired in 2005.
A joint memorial service for the Deeses is planned for Oct. 2 in Claremont. Another is scheduled for Oct. 4 at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, where they will be buried.
-- Claire Noland
Photo: Helen and Rummy Deese on a summer vacation.