Former Cathlamet teacher made a family
June 25, 2014
Probably the most telling moment of Fred W. Beck, Jr.’s life was on an early day in July, 1972, when he and his former wife, Joanne, decided to adopt six kids.
It was his biggest challenge and became his greatest role. The three boys and three girls ranged in ages between nine and three. Some of them already knew more about a hard and mean world than he ever would.
Fred Beck was born in Pontiac, Illinois, in 1940 to Frederick William Beck and Annabell Sable Beck. He received a degree in education from Illinois State and a Fifth Year Certificate at the University of Washington. He met his wife, Joanne, also an educator, while teaching in Illinois schools, and in 1967, the couple relocated to Cathlamet. He taught math and entertained students at Wahkiakum High School from 1967 to 1984.
The six kids that the Becks brought home that day in 1972 were Burkley, nine, Tawny, seven, Joe, six, Kathy, five, Mike, four and Kim, three. The state would have split the six up if the Becks hadn’t stepped in.
Each child had different needs and different expectations and it surely wasn’t easy. But Fred was a kind and generous, fun loving man, according to Joe Beck, now 48.
Fred lightened the mood and encouraged the kids to talk about what they were feeling and about the past. That was just one way that he was a little bit ahead of his time. He also took up jogging before it became popular and created his own Christmas tree tie using green felt over a clip on tie and attaching colored lights attached to a power pack.
Fred was a joyful and eccentric soul, but there were times when he was sad, sensitivity being the counterpart to his wacky sense of humor.
“That’s how he came up with the name ‘Frisky Fred’,” said Kim Beck-Birchfield, now 45. The name was a reminder to keep his chin up and keep the kids laughing.
The couple would take the kids up the Elochoman River and put them in a raft, trusting them to make it to an appointed place safe and still in the boat.
Joe laughed at the memory, thought about it for a moment and then laughed some more.
Fred and Joanne did their best to normalize the children’s lives, taking them to Disneyland and on family trips to Arizona. Fred loved the Blazers and would buy season tickets just to take the kids one at a time or three at a time, depending on whom you ask.
“Rrrrrriiiiip City!” he’d yell, to Kim’s delight.
The kids climbed trees and would giggle when Joanne would yell, “If you fall out and break your leg, don’t come running to me!”
The six would break into the pool at night, feeling safe because one was a lifeguard. On one occasion, police arrived and the four oldest got out in time, but Kim was little and too slow. Her brother Mike, who was one year younger, refused to leave her behind.
“Mike convinced me to hide in the gutters,” Kim laughed. “There was plenty of room and we watched the light from their flashlights move around the water until they left.”
Fred was an avid gardener, and Joanne could cook and sew. Being teachers, they shared their hobbies with the kids, teaching them everything they knew.
“Dad was a steward of the land,” remembers Kim. “He took great care with his roses, rhododendrons, tulips and daffodils and he grew what seemed to me the largest garden ever, probably to feed the people he’d just adopted. He would wear shorts and black dress socks, with another pair sewn together to create a sweatband.”
One time he made dinner and when Kim asked what was for dessert, he replied, “Rutabagas!” She cried, but the other kids knew better and just laughed.
The only downside to the garden, besides the rutabagas, was its size. It required a lot of weeding, and the kids had to help. Kim remembers one Saturday when Fred was thrilled to have finished the chore in two hours flat and took them all to McDonalds for ice cream.
Joe remembers going to the movies in Longview. It might have been Star Wars or Grease, movies that the kids would not want to miss. The moment that they stepped into line at the box office, Fred would inform them that it would cost them all three hours of weeding in the garden.
They would groan and Joe remembers considering sitting in the car for the duration of the movie, just to get out of weeding.
“He had nicknames for each of the kids and had a way of making everyone feel special,” Kim said. Tawny considered him her protector and despite his large size, he proved it true when he climbed a tree to save Joe from bees.
Contributing to Beck’s sadness was the divorce from his wife in 1979. The children weren’t enough to mend the problems between them, despite their common desire to provide for their beautifully handmade and beloved family.
“When he told me he and mom were divorcing,” Kim said, “he slid one of those plastic pop can holders over both my hand and his, like little cuffs. He told me that even though we wouldn’t live in the same house anymore, we would always be connected.”
The girls headed north with Joanne and the boys stayed in Cathlamet with Fred.
Fred was so frugal, according to Joe, that after they moved to Longview he would purchase coupon books and pull out all the coupons for free meals. It didn’t matter whether he had one kid or six staying with him. It didn’t matter that all the coupons were for different restaurants. He’d drop them off one at a time all over town so they could eat for free. Alone.
“There are six very different perceptions of Dad,” Kim said. “And very different realities of exactly who Fred Beck was to each person. To me he was a hardworking, fun loving, live for the moment, get mad quick, get over it even quicker, silly wacky and frisky fella.”
"Adopting you six kids was the best decision I ever made," he told Kim. When she asked if he ever regretted his decision, his answer was easy.
Fred Beck passed away on June 8 in Palm Springs, Calif., after contracting pneumonia for the second time in two years.
The six children are still learning about the man who adopted them. Kim recently discovered that he had kept a file on each of them, collecting every card, and reminders of little treasures of affection they each shared with him.
The six will gather to remember their dad next week and celebrate the day he chose to keep them, by having ice cream, just like they did on that day, so many years ago.
Fred's one regret, the children said, was that he never put a headstone on his father’s grave. He made the decision to pay for his own cremation and headstone.
Initially, the decision was a little confusing, but it dawned on the six that they could honor the man and his father. They have gotten permission to place their father’s ashes in their grandfather’s grave. There they will place a headstone with the names Frederick William Beck and Frederick William Beck, Jr. And under their father’s name, will be a reminder of his happy soul.
Frisky Fred, it will say.
(Editor's note: The memorial service for Fred Beck will be July 3, 2 p.m., in the Cathlamet United Church of Christ.)