Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Carey honors teacher of generations

Orpha Smith Mecham taught a town

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Orpha Smith Mechan Photo by Willy Cook

As the Wood River Valley continues to grow rapidly, it seems there are fewer and fewer natives who can trace their roots to the area, or even Idaho.

One such native, third-generation Carey resident Orpha Smith Mecham, will represent Carey this summer as the town's Heritage Court Lady.

Mecham, or "Orpha" as she is simply known by the legions of students she taught during her life as an educator, was born on July 21, 1914, in Carey. She grew up as a farm girl, working alongside her father, Lafe Smith, ranching sheep and farming hay and grain.

Mecham's Carey roots are as deep as those of any longtime resident. Her grandparents, Joseph and Annie Smith, were Carey's first full-time settlers, officially staking ground on what had been the strict domain of cattle men and their herds in 1880.

In her 90 years, with over half of those spent as a teacher, Mecham has both acted in and witnessed Carey's growth as a town.

"I saw the electricity come into Carey," she said. Because her mother ran a guest house, the Smith's was the first electrified house in Carey.

What truly distinguishes Mecham in her small community, even more than her family's history, is her legacy as a teacher.

"You name 'em in Carey for 20 years and they were my students," she said proudly. Truly, a walk into almost any Carey establishment will produce several former "Orpha alumni." Indeed, from 1956 to 1976, anyone who passed through Carey's fifth-grade class did so under Mecham's tutelage.

Mecham was a teacher for five decades in southern Idaho. Looking back on her legacy of educating, she said, "I can't say I didn't enjoy it, except the first year."

Mecham's first year spent as a full-time teacher was in a six-student schoolhouse near Upper Fish Creek Dam northeast of Carey. At the time, Idaho set a six-student minimum for rural schools; this one just squeaked by.

Mecham had been working in a café for the summer and was planning on returning to college when she was approached by the school board and asked—or begged, really—to teach in the tiny schoolhouse far from anywhere.

"I didn't want to go up there," she recalled. Realizing the scarcity of teachers in the Upper Fish Creek area, the board made Mecham an offer she couldn't refuse: a fully furnished cabin, complete with firewood, meat, milk, bread and meals.

"I took it," she said with a smile. Unhappy with his daughter living in the middle of nowhere by herself, Lafe Smith sent Orpha's younger brother Cecil, 10 years her junior, along for two years of schooling.

"He still refers to it as 'the two years he went to jail,'" Mecham said with a hearty laugh. With family informality, Cecil took to calling the teacher "Orpha"; the singular name stuck.

In 1976, at the age of 62, Mecham took an early retirement. As a self-described "farm girl," she helped her husband, Lowell Mecham, farm grain and hay. Within two years, though, the Carey School came calling, this time in need of a reliable substitute. Mecham accepted and filled in as a substitute for another 18 years, achieving her long-held goal of teaching at 80 years old.

Her favorite memories as a teacher surround one idyllic fall, in the 1950s or '60s (she can't remember for certain), when her brother's rented house on Dry Creek became her classroom while a new school was being built.

"I knew the land and would teach science in the marshes and streams. It was an ideal place to teach," she said.

Today, Mecham's influence is everywhere in Carey. Her nephew and former student, Ken Mecham, is a history teacher for Carey High School. John Peck, the school principal, was in her fifth-grade class, as was Carey Mayor Rick Baird and three generations of assistant football coach Lee Cook's family.

This September, after 91 years in and around Carey, Mecham will move to live with her son in Cedar City, Utah.

"It's hard to leave," she said. "My roots are too deep."

Still, last winter was hard on Mecham's health. In a long life of practicality, this represents yet another educated decision.

Before she moves, though, Mecham will proudly represent Carey's Heritage Court with a ride in a vintage carriage in Carey's Pioneer Days, scheduled for July 22-23.

Heritage Court Ladies

The Heritage Court Ladies—Anita Gray, of Ketchum/Sun Valley; Orpha Smith Mecham, of Carey; Lula Banker Shoemaker, of Bellevue; and Gladys McAtee, of Hailey—will be honored Sunday, June 26, by the Blaine County Historical Museum at a coronation and pageant at the Liberty Theatre in Hailey. The four ladies will ride in a vintage carriage in Hailey's Days of the Old West Fourth of July Parade, Carey's Pioneer Days Parade, Ketchum's Big Hitch Wagon Days Parade, and Bellevue's Labor Day Parade.

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