Harriet Welty Rochefort has proved that starting in Shenandoah can help you make it in Paris!
By HARRIET WELTY ROCHEFORT SHS Class of 1963
This is another in a new series of columns by professionals in writing and other fields who are graduates of the high schools that are part of today’s Shenandoah Community School District.
Harriet Welty Rochefort, in one of the Paris cafes where she often writes.
PARIS, France, Dec. 27, 2020 – When I was a little girl in Shenandoah, I knew three things: When I grew up, I would be a teacher and a writer and I would live in France.
And I did!
So, what does that have to do with these “Alumni Reflections”? Just about everything, really.
Regarding growing up in Shenandoah, it was much more than that.
I am grounded in Iowa – literally. My great-great-grandfather, the colorfully named Andrew Jackson Welty, bought a half section of land near Shenandoah shortly after the state was founded in 1846 and put down deep roots. Those deep roots in a tightly knit community of family and friends, and living in a state that valued education, paved the way for me to discover new things without ever forgetting where I come from. I write these reflections sitting at my desk far away in France, but memories of my life as a youngster in Shenandoah in the 1950s and ’60s are sharply etched in my mind.
But back to the three things I knew I wanted to do in life – teach, write, and live in France:
--Teacher: My mother was a third grade teacher in the Shenandoah Community Schools, and after leaving the classroom to raise her four children, she applied her considerable pedagogical skills to us. At dinner we four children would sit at the table with Mom at one end and Dad at the other, and we each would be called upon to tell about our day at school. One day while illustrating one of my stories I got so excited that my shoe somehow ended up in my plate and we all laughed, but other than that we were supposed to speak good English, not interrupt and not horse around excessively. These at home “tell” sessions may have been inspired from the “show and tell” time at school which, as a shy girl, I dreaded –– but as time went on, I gradually became a ham like everyone else in the class. “Show and tell” was good training for the journalist and teacher I became.
--Writer: My desire to write stemmed from the numerous visits I made to the Shenandoah Public Library, a straight 10-minute walk from our house on Center Street. The books I found and read there, in addition to the ones we had at home, transported me to places I had never seen, gave me the opportunity to “meet” people I would never know, and entertain thoughts I had never had. I found myself wanting not only to read books, but to write them.
--Living in France: This was only a dream, fueled by the French people I met in Shenandoah. Those people included my own step-grandmother, Blanche Schweize Leonard, who had lived in France and had taught French at Grinnell College. She taught me French words. Thanks to her, I learned that a pig was a cochon (pron. “koh shown”) and a fork was une fourchette (“foor shet”). And she brought me books about that faraway country. Also in Shenandoah back then, there was the Simenel family who ran The Normandy Inn, a real, true French restaurant run by real, true French people right on Sheridan Avenue downtown, as I recall. Our families were close, and as a little girl I was enchanted to dine in that exotic place with red checkered tablecloths and antiques from the Simenels’ home in the port city of Le Havre. Their beautiful, spacious home in Le Havre had been requisitioned by the Germans, the town had been bombed to smithereens and after Micheline had married an American soldier from the Shenandoah area, the entire family eventually ended up in our hometown. I was fascinated by their French ways of dressing and speaking and being, and I vowed I would visit that enticing and enchanted land of France someday. How would I know that I would not only visit but end up living there for the rest of my life?
Harriet Welty, as a senior in the 1963 SHS yearbook.
In high school, I wanted to participate in the larger world but was way too young to go anywhere by myself. So, I contented myself with the writing I did for school and for the Shen-Hi-Can student newspaper, an entire page written by high school students that appeared once a week in The Evening Sentinel. This was no amateur hour. At one point we had an editor, assistant editor, typist, correspondent, photographer, sports editor, business manager and faculty advisor, and we were held to strict standards of spelling and syntax and deadlines, just like real-world reporters.
I don’t know how things are now at SHS, but back in the day our teachers didn’t hesitate to tell us that homework we had tossed off in about five minutes flat so we could go out to play, was just plain bad – no excuses. My teachers and mentors at SHS gave me my first and most valuable lessons in writing and reporting. Get the facts right, spell names correctly, and be clear. This last item was sacrosanct. If someone has to read a sentence or paragraph more than once to understand, they told us, you have failed. Seeing my byline on articles I contributed to the Shen-Hi-Can was the beginning of my desire to become a journalist and see my writing in print.
The lessons I learned about reporting and writing in Shenandoah served me well in my career as a freelance journalist in Paris, where for many years I worked as a “stringer” (an on-call freelance reporter) in the Paris bureau of Time magazine. I also contributed articles to many magazines and newspapers, including “the Trib,” the nickname for the International Herald Tribune, which later became the International New York Times.
But let me go back even earlier in this reflection, way back to my first days in the Shenandoah school system which were, as I think about them now, auspicious.
My older sister, Miriam, and her best friend, Mary Ossian, who lived down the street, have vivid memories of dragging my resisting, bawling, unhappy four-year-old self to Central School, where I spent an agonizing day waiting to be picked up and taken back home. (I had decided at that young age that there was no place like home with Mom). But I survived the initial shock of being wrenched from my comfortable nest, and actually grew to like school – especially the social part.
I loved my English classes, which were easy for me.
But surprisingly, when I look back, my most vivid memories are of my junior year of high school and an American history class taught by Ralph Remmes, an unconventional teacher who encouraged me to read books above my age which were not part of class assignments. One day, as we crossed paths in the hall between classes, he thrust a tome at me, saying “I think you will like this.” It was the story of the Russian revolution in October, 1917, by John Reed, an American journalist and socialist who was on the spot as an eye witness. I devoured the book, fascinated by the account of a person who was there in the thick of the action, following the prominent Bolshevik leaders, and who had managed to convey this earthshaking moment of history through his words. The beginning of my desire to be a journalist? Most surely.
I also remember world history class with Muriel Keenan, she of the white hair, (or was it metallic grey?), sharp blue eyes and firm jaw, who taught us that there were only two things in life no one could escape -- paying taxes and dying. The least one can say is that she got to the essential! (That’s important in writing as well.)
I confess with no pride that I did not excel in math and science and managed to escape any of these courses that were not obligatory. My advice to those who would do the same: Don’t. Take all the courses you can even if you don’t get A’s and B’s. Study science and math and languages and read books, real print books you can open up, plunge into and make your own. Knowledge does wonders for the mind and soul. Sure, you can always look up what you don’t know, but it is even better if you build on a firm foundation. Be curious and explore.
One never knows. Maybe you too will stray as far as I did. But even if you don’t, we’ll always have one thing in common – a great hometown and a great school.
Harriet Welty Rochefort and her husband Philippe Rochefort walking on the coast in western France.
Harriet Welty Rochefort, the 1963 graduate of Shenandoah High School who wrote this column, grew up in Shenandoah the youngest of the four children of Paul and Doris Welty. Of her siblings, Miriam Welty Trangsrud lives in Tucson, Ariz., brother John Welty is deceased, and brother Ward Welty lives in Huntsville, Ala. Harriet did her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned a master’s from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She then followed her dreams to France, where for 50 years she’s been a journalist covering all areas of that country, is now an author of four books, has taught at the university level, and is a popular public speaker. She is married to Philippe Rochefort, an international banker with a Ph.d in History from the Sorbonne which he earned after retirement, and they have three grown sons. The Rocheforts split time living in a garden apartment in Paris and their get-away condo that is part of a 14th century castle in western France. Iowa writer Chuck Offenburger, another Shenandoah native, recently did a long profile of Harriet’s life and career, which you can read by clicking here. Harriet’s first three books are her humorous observations of the differences in life in France and the U.S. Her most recent book, her first novel, “Final Transgression,” which came out this year, is a fascinating work of historical fiction based on an incident that actually happened in Philippe Rochefort’s family during World War II. You can read more about Harriet’s books, which are all in English, and even order them by clicking here. You can write Harriet directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.