Alan Chartock: McDermott; ‘Bat Woman’ of her time

As people age, they lose friends who impacted their lives both positively and sometimes negatively. Roselle and I showed up full-time in the Berkshires in 1971, and the fabulous and forward-thinking Jack Spenser hired Roselle to teach at Monument Mountain.

She spent 15 years in the History Department there before she finished her doctorate and began a wonderful career teaching at what was then North Adams State College.

It was at Monument Mountain that the Chartocks came to know an extraordinary lady who I think about all the time. Upon entering Monument Mountain, you will see the Kathleen McDermott Auditorium. Sadly, most kids who attend the school will have no idea who the late Kate McDermott was. I loved her.

She made up her own set of rules, and if she was your friend, she was a friend for life. She was the long term vice principal of the school, and she was the enforcer. For wrongdoers, she was the Bat Woman of her day.

She was a bit of a vigilante. She sometimes strayed from the rules but always in the name of what she considered justice. While I consider myself a civil libertarian, I guess I have my failures in that department, too.

I remember one time a female teacher was experiencing thefts from her desk. When she taught, this young woman would leave her handbag in her top drawer. The teacher, recently married, had very little money and in fact had to run to the bank to make sure that she and her husband had enough to pay the bills.

One day, two 10-dollar bills disappeared from her bag and, very concerned after this latest theft, she went to see Kate. Kate said, “I’ll handle it; you stand in the next room.”

Kate called in the young man who had been hanging around the department where the teacher worked and confronted him and asked if he had taken the money. The kid grew very agitated and threatened to sue Kate and to bring his parents to school. Kate was hearing none of it and ordered the kid to empty his pockets.

The young man did, and there were the two ten dollar bills, still rolled up just the way they had been in the desk. Kate then asked the young would-be perpetrator where he got the money, and he said that his friend had given it to him to buy marijuana.

As fate would have it, the friend was out that day so Kate called him at home and immediately asked him whether it was true that he had given his friend twenty dollars to buy grass.

Not surprisingly, the kid said no. Kate hung up and confronted the suspect who was still protesting that the other kid was lying.

Kate gave the kid one more chance to ‘fess up but said, “Now I am going to tell you that these two bills were marked money.” The kid broke down and started to cry.

He apologized to the teacher, the thefts stopped and the young man promised never to do anything like that again.

Hold your letters. I get it. Young people have rights. We have constitutional protections but Kate had her ways. If the kid had been innocent, a grave miscarriage of justice might have occurred, affecting the kid for the rest of his life.

Once in high school I was called into the principal’s office and accused of cheating on a Regents exam on which I had done very well — I think 100%.

The principal was convinced I had cheated and said there was proof. When I asked about his so-called proof, he said that a Yeshiva in Brooklyn had experienced a break-in and a copy of that very exam had been stolen.

“What does that have to do with me?” I asked.

“You’re Jewish, aren’t you?”

Boy, was my mother angry about that one. And here I am, all these years later, writing about it. I take it you get my drift.

Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 3/23/13

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