A pioneer in teaching Russian to high schoolers

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October 12, 2008|By FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Earlier this week, I wrote about the death of Joseph Glus, 84, a longtime Charles Village resident who was hired as the first Russian-language teacher by Baltimore County's public schools in 1959.

Mr. Glus, who was the son of immigrant parents from the Carpathian Mountains, grew up in McKeesport, Pa., in a bilingual household, where he learned Russian.

Across town, he would eventually become acquainted with his counterpart at the Friends School, Claire Groben Walker, who had introduced the teaching of Russian at the North Baltimore private school in 1956, a year before Sputnik 1 spurred the teaching of the language in high schools and colleges across the nation.

Last Saturday morning, nearly a hundred people filled Stony Run Meeting to remember Walker, who had died in August at age 97 in Scottsbluff, Neb., where a son resides.

Walker, who was born in Oakland, Calif., and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., decided to learn Russian in the 1920s after seeing the movie The Volga Boat Song.

Her desire to study Russian was not supported by her parents, and there were no courses available in the Buffalo of her youth.

"So, she taught herself Russian by reading Russian novels," said Zita Dabars, a respected leader in Russian language education, who succeeded Walker at Friends when she retired in 1975.

She was 20 when she earned a degree in history and Greek from Mount Holyoke College in 1931. She later earned a master's degree in history and political science in 1937 from the University of Buffalo.

While studying for her doctorate in history at the University of Minnesota, she met and fell in love with her husband, Kenneth. In 1945, the couple moved to Baltimore when he joined the Goucher College faculty.

In 1947, she joined the faculty at Friends School, specializing in teaching history, English, geography and Latin.

Walker, who had never lost her zeal for teaching Russian, was able to change from teaching history to Russian, after her students circulated a petition urging school officials to get Russian into the curriculum.

However, at the time, the Cold War was raging and the machinations of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt a few years earlier were still fresh in the minds of many students' parents, who raised considerable opposition to the plan.

But Friends was not to be deterred and stuck by its commitment to initiating the class that was to be led by Walker.

"She brushed aside the concerns that her actions were 'un-American' or that teaching Russian was somehow supportive of Communism," wrote Dean R. Esslinger in his book, Friends for Two Hundred Years: A History of Baltimore's Oldest School.

The Russian course that Walker had designed was eventually used by high schools and colleges nationally.

By 1961, she was distributing a newsletter for other Russian teachers that eventually was distributed by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages.

She was the founder of the Russian Packet, which supplied necessary materials to teachers.

"I had the privilege of playing a part in the development and expansion in the 1960s and 1970s of not only the study of the Russian language throughout this country, but also the establishment of educational exchanges with the Soviet Union in those decades," Walker wrote in a 1996 biographical sketch.

When the first Olympiada of spoken Russian was being held in Moscow in 1972, Walker rushed to gather and enter an American team.

"I had five days to select American students and get them prepared to participate in the Olympiada. I took three of my own students and they all won medals," Walker told The Sun in a 1981 interview.

Honors continued to come Walker's way. In 1981, she was the first American to be presented the Pushkin Medal from the International Association of Teachers of Russian Language and Literature.

"She was a very positive person," recalled Dabars. "She was forthright, clear, positive and, at all times, encouraging. In other words, you always knew where you stood with her."

Walker and her husband had played a role in the planning and building of Broadmead, the Cockeysville retirement community, where they lived until 1992 when they moved to Seal Beach, Calif.

"I've had a very, very lucky life," Walker said in The Sun interview. "All sorts of things I never dreamed of have happened to me. The rest of my life will be frosting on the cake."

This past spring, she lost her beloved husband.

"I think it was the end for Claire, too," wrote a son, Terry Walker, in an e-mail. "They had promised that they would always be together and I think she wanted to join him."

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