There’s almost no doubt Julie was the most popular, the most beloved Sunny Hills teacher of the 1960s, and likely until her retirement in the 1990s.
She was simpatico, and we learned that right away when we saw her. She was like a big sister to us, or a favorite neighbor who was just a little older than we were. We trusted her, and many of us learned we could talk to her confidentially, almost intimately. Kids hung around her before class started, and class members arrived to talk to her and listen, and as soon as her classes were over, people from the next class came early to talk to her. After school, kids would talk to her in Julie’s classroom for an hour or more, and recent alumni would stop by, too. She was the faculty advisor of the Pep Club, and I’ve never understood how she found the time.
She wasn’t a kid herself then, and she was clearly an adult, a teacher, but her interest in and affection for us, and her patient, non-judgmental nature, and her offer of friendship to everyone — well, she was unique among our teachers. No one was more accessible.
Her classes were relaxed discussions with enough preliminary, specific, current conversation to draw us all in.
“Buddy hurt his knee? How? Can he play tomorrow? What day is the Christmas dance? I’ll find out, Stan. The Doors? Is that their name? No, I haven’t heard them. Are they good? Russell, am I keeping you awake? [Laughter] You saw Bob Dylan on Sunset Boulevard, Glenn? What was he doing? Paul, could you open the door, please? It’s hot in here. All right. Did everybody finish ‘The Bride Comes To Yellow Sky’? Lindee, tell us what the theme is ..”
I think even kids who didn’t like to read much enjoyed Julie’s classes. She was the first teacher I remember who applied the questions and ideas of what we read to controversies and subjects outside school in society. “Would you have done what this Hemingway novel character did, even though you might go to prison for it? Why, Buck?”
Julie usually taught standing behind a podium. Didn’t she sometimes sit in an elevated chair, too? She knew how to coax people into making comments. The discussions were low key, and rarely passionate. Her favorite novelist was Hemingway, and she emphasized how his main characters lived by a code. That kind of idea was new to us.
We knew Julie was from Long Beach, and went to college at the University of Colorado, Denver. That was “cool” to us. She looked like a California woman, blonde and athletic. We knew she lived on Balboa Island, and for the ’66 students, she invited hm down to her house for discussions. Monica Maluy, ’66 remembered that.
Julie established a rapport in us, and she was the youngest teacher at school. She cared about and for each one of us. She taught us in a way that made reading short stories, novels and poems natural, and natural to write themes about them, too. She loved her profession, and she loved high school.
And the proof of that is in the pudding, because I know of 3 classmates who have driven up to the Wine County to visit Julie. There must be a lot of visitors from later classes at SHHS.
I visited with Julie twice at wine exhibits at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana. As soon as I saw her, well, I can’t say we fell into each other’s arms in a weepy sentimental hug. Of course not. But immediately I began to talk about my life, and Julie listened intently. Nothing had changed.
Sunny Hills High School would not have been the same without Julie Ritner Simpson. Not by a long shot. I already wanted to become a writer in her class, and in the diaries she asked us to keep, I wrote “Some day I’ll write massive novels of character development.” (Ha!) She wrote an exclamation point beside that — I can still remember her handwriting, sized fine. When I had to confess to Julie, 45 years later in Santa Ana, that I’d never published a “massive novel of character development”, she gave no sign of being disappointed in me.
That alone is reason enough to love Julie.