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Miss Greenslade Conquers the Canyon

Riding a scrawny horse to the Trabuco schoolhouse, the determined though fragile-looking teacher defied the first of many odds.

Perhaps it was her name that gave her that air of no-nonsense, take-charge authority. Certainly it wasn’t her physical appearance, for at first glance, Calla Lily Greenslade seemed rather—well, spindly. Plus there was that nagging cough ... surely a sign of a weak constitution.

But however unpromising she may have appeared, Calla made up for it with tenacity. She was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, 1883 and had just graduated from normal school and was coming up on her 21st birthday when she accepted her first teaching assignment: educating the children of homesteaders in Orange County’s rugged Trabuco Canyon. 

In those days, it was typical for first-time teachers to be offered employment in remote areas. This meant they'd be boarding with a family they'd probably never met. Within reasonably well-populated communities such as El Toro, however, the issue wasn't quite as critical. Until automobile travel made commuting relatively easy, Edna Nichols and other El Toro grammar school teachers would find appropriate lodgings at one of several nearby homes.   

But the situation in rustic Trabuco presented far fewer options. Calla ended up staying with a family whose home—situated on property now occupied by the Ramakrishna Monastery—was three miles away from the schoolhouse. She also had to pay $20 each month for her room and board—more than half her monthly $35 teaching salary.

Being a first-year teacher in a remote, sparsely settled area, her financial resources limited, Calla had no other option but to walk both to and from her job each day.  

TWO TRABUCO NOVITIATES Calla, however, wasn't the only newcomer to the Trabuco schoolhouse.

During the past few years, George Osterman had seen his older brother Bennie trudge off to school. Now he was old enough to join Bennie and the other canyon children.

For a little boy, it had to have been a big jump.

His aunt and stepmother, Mary Lillian—a younger sister of his late mother, Sadie Anette—had taken great joy in sharing her love of stories and poetry with the two little boys.

Now, however, he'd be sitting at a desk and trying to assimilate an entire scope of subjects—something Mary Lillian, with her numerous chores, didn’t have the time to provide. 

Years later, George would reminisce about Miss Greenslade. "She was my first teacher and a good one," he'd state in his plain, unadorned fashion.  "She taught us the three Rs. Nothing fancy. There were nine students in one room, first grade through eighth."

When asked if Miss Greenslade ever had to discipline him, George replied, "No, she never whupped me.  But she whupped this big old guy one time. He behaved real good after that."

As for Miss Greenslade as a teacher? "She had just got out of a two-year teachers college that they called 'normal school' in those days, and she was very dedicated.”

MOUNTAIN RESPITE Dedicated and not afraid to discipline one of the bigger boys, but also, Osterman remembered, "frail and not in too good health."

What no one knew at the time—Calla included—was that her coughing was caused by tuberculosis, the very condition that had brought about the death of Sadie Anette Osterman. Many years later, by the time health exams were customary for all new hires, she'd admit to a misdiagnosis on all sides, stating that both she and "the people who hired me thought I had bronchitis." 

Despite her cough, Calla seemed to have thrived during her years as  Trabuco's schoolmarm. "It was a quiet, more peaceful time in history. The environment was clean, the undeveloped countryside was verdant, and the clear view of Saddleback Mountain, above and beyond the great trees of the area, was a treasure to behold."

Besides, after that initial year of a daily six-mile "shanks' mare"  commute, Calla Lily had saved enough to acquire alternate transportation. Her new horse wasn't young, but he was good-tempered and, like his owner, wiry. So in honor of his less-than-sleek appearance and the somewhat impaired riding comfort he provided, Calla dubbed him Boney Part. 

Two years later—right around the time —Calla Lily transferred to the Aliso school near present-day Cooks Corner. Since she continued to board with the same family, the closer location was an undoubted convenience for both Boney Part and rider.

ROMANCE AT THE RANCH Calla Lily's cough continued to trouble her, though, and after a year at the Aliso school, she took time off to live in Ventura County, where she picked up occasional work as a substitute teacher.  It was while visiting the famous Russell Ranch —today the site of Westlake Village —that she met the man who would become her husband.

Phillip MacPherson, a native Scotsman and decorated veteran of the Spanish American War , was working nearby on a construction project. They fell in love and courted for many years until marrying in 1916. A few years later they moved to the desert community of Blythe. Within a short time the area's dry climate had vanquished her long-term ailment.

Eventually the MacPhersons moved to Laguna Beach. Calla tutored and occasionally served as a substitute teacher, while Phillip's master carpenter skills were in demand at the burgeoning seaside community.

Both also were interested in the arts. Early on, Calla became a volunteer for the Laguna Beach Art Association, founded by artist Edgar Payne . Eventually the association was instrumental in founding an arts festival, out of which developed the now world-famous Pageant of the Masters . Phillip lent his considerable carpentry talents to this festival, developing stages and assisting with various other aspects of production. 

NEW CHALLENGES In 1956,  after 40 years of marriage, Phillip passed away.

Calla soldiered on, teaching until she contracted polio shortly before the vaccine was made available in the early 1960s.  Despite being left with some physical disability in her legs, however, she continued to live on her own, involving herself in a number of volunteer activities and each year attending the famous art pageant. By 1980 she also attended the 100th anniversary of the Trabuco Canyon School, meeting once again with George Osterman and other former students.

The following year, at one of her volunteer activities, a nearby smoker reactivated her bronchial cough. Calla, now 98, was hospitalized and while at the nursing home persuaded to give up her apartment and enter assisted living.

Still, with the help of friends, she managed to attend the annual Pageant, informing a newspaper reporter that her new goal was "to reach my 100th birthday, because my friends have asked me to, and I don’t want to let them down."

ONE HUNDRED ... AND COUNTING! She didn't. On Sept. 1, 1983, Calla was the focus of many well-wishers as friends and the staff of Beverly Manor threw her a birthday party. George Osterman wasn't well enough to travel to the event, but he provided several lively phone interviews to the attendant press, and among Calla's cards was one from then President Ronald Reagan.

Despite her decreased physical mobility and increasing deafness, Calla continued to enjoy her life, which she'd always found "so interesting!"

The woman who'd persevered despite early ill health and challenging teaching assignments passed away two months after her 102nd birthday. A few days later she was interred next to her beloved husband, Phillip, at Harbor Lawn Memorial Park in Costa Mesa.

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