Pearl Atkinson

Pearl Atkinson was born in 1914 and passed away at the age of 91 on Easter Sunday, 2005. She spent almost all of her lifetime in Portland, Oregon—much of it in the home built by her Swiss forebears where she grew up. She never married, but shared her home with one of the world’s most impressive collection of teddy bears, plus various dogs, cats, and many, many guests. Teaming up from Portland with her sister who lived in Corvallis, Hildred Rice, she was one of the major forces in the development of folk dancing in Oregon in the 1950s and 1960s. Her lifetime efforts resulted in her being named an honoree of the American Association for Health and Physical Education, and Recreation (AAHPER) for her service and dedication.

After receiving her B.A. in education from Oregon State in 1937, Pearl started out as a teacher of mathematics. But her desire to teach Physical Education led her to be a pioneer in P.E. instruction in the Portland high schools. Travel abroad during summers and a sabbatical year in Holland and Norway led her to pursue a Master’s degree in PE and to start specializing in folk dance. This, in turn, led to her taking on the job of Director of Women’s P.E. at Reed College, a job she held from 1959 until her retirement. Her dedication to the students at Reed is reflected in her being named an Honorary Alumna by the Reed Alumni Association—an honor that only a fraction of retired faculty obtain. But there is more to that story.

She was originally denied tenure in 1962, but the students rallied on her behalf and showed that out of the 5 most popular P.E. classes (including folk dancing), Pearl had started four of them herself. The decision was reversed. For the folk dance program, she taught beginning and advanced classes and hired students to teach Balkan and other specialties. Invited teachers, such as Stewart Smith, Gordon Tracie, and Vyts Beliajus, appeared on campus each year. Pearl also arranged for students to get Oregon Folk Dance Federation scholarships to attend dance camps, primarily Stockton. In 1961, she had a 4-day dance camp at Reed, with Vyts Beliajus, John Filcich, Athan Karras, Kurt Markstein, and Erma Weir. It was the first folk dance camp held in the Pacific Northwest.

Pearl did not restrict her folk dance efforts to students. She helped start Reed faculty and staff dance group that met on Tuesday nights. She assisted Grace Tigard Houghton in running it, and then took it over for many years, until she turned it over to Ralph Pratt. That group still meets at Reed College, although on Sundays instead of Tuesdays, and is the Kyklos group that is hosting this weekend’s workshop (2010 festival with Richard Schmidt). After retirement, she continued teaching dancing and exercise, shifting her interest to teaching elders. She kept teaching until well into her 80s, modifying her techniques to suit her elderly students. Even up to almost the age of 90, she was a frequent presence at Stockton camp, although, as she put it, she spent most of her time watching instead of dancing.

One of her early pupils at Reed wrote this testimonial to her:

“Folk dancing is the only thing in my life that I became reasonably good at in spite of having absolutely no natural talent, but by sheer force of will power. Pearl recognized that will power and fostered it. She encouraged me, taught me, provided opportunities for me to learn how to teach dancing, and enabled me to become a choreographer, master teacher and performer. Pearl was a truly great teacher, because she could take desire and create commitment and competence.”

Biography written by Barbara Shettler, a longtime Kyklos folk dancer, much beloved and missed.