Obituary: Ann Betz Walko / Poet, playwright and lifelong Wall resident

March 6, 1908 - Feb. 10, 2013


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Ann Betz Walko was the first in her family to read and write, the eldest child of East Slovak immigrants who in 1908 settled in the town of Wall, a hamlet in the Turtle Creek valley.

Ms. Walko would live there for more than a century, in two houses -- the one in which she was born in 1908 and the one in which she died on Sunday, at age 104. But despite that relatively circumscribed existence, she made her mark on the wider world as a writer, artist, teacher, playwright and published poet.

She studied with Robert Frost in Vermont and corresponded with "Doctor Zhivago" author Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union, graduated from college at age 63, published two books and, at 92, performed a short play she'd written at the Andy Warhol Museum. When she turned 100, she was profiled on public television about her research with a local musicologist on a book of Slovak folk songs and hymns.

"Mom was ahead of her time," said her son, John F. Walko Jr. of Penn Township, Westmoreland County, who noted that her 1999 memoir "Eternal Memory" was reprinted four times, followed in 2000 by "Every Day a Celebration," a collection of her light verse. "To do what she did -- that was Mum. When we were growing up, we thought, 'Everybody's Mum's this way, right?' "

In her poems, Ms. Walko examined the inner mysteries and pleasures of domestic life, faith, work and aging. In a poetry workshop with aspiring young writers, she wondered how they saw her -- "Probably something old./How could they know/I had just come in/Through flying rain/and gusty wind/From being seventeen?"

As the child "scribe" at her parents' modest boarding house, she read newspapers or translated letters from overseas for the adults. But when she was 13, her father, who worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad, was killed in an accident, which meant she had to leave school and go to work, talking her way into a clerical job at the Westinghouse plant in nearby Turtle Creek.

In 1935, she married John Walko -- the marriage would last 72 years until his death in 2007 -- and began raising a family while writing a newspaper column for the Westinghouse Valley News in the 1940s and later was hired for a secretarial job at the University of Pittsburgh, where she was encouraged to take classes. At age 63, she graduated from Pitt with honors in English, but not before winning a college student essay contest in 1961 from the Atlantic Monthly magazine.

"Our Boarders" recounted her childhood amid the rough Slavic immigrant railworkers who, when they weren't sleeping or working, were telling stories, a necessary entertainment in those days before television and radio.

"Our winter evenings glowed with stories like the coals in our kitchen stove," she wrote. "There were spine-tingling stories that sent us scurrying to the safety of the chimney corner, and the hard-to-believe stories called the old-old ones. These always began with 'My grandfather heard it from his grandfather who heard it from his grandfather,' and if just one person doubted a story, a few more grandfathers were added."

The Atlantic award led to study with Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. "They expected a 21-year-old," Mr. Walko said, "but she said that Frost seemed delighted there was another college student closer in age to him. Mom said she was like a starry-eyed teenager."

She also corresponded -- in Russian -- with "Boris Pasternak, until one day several men dressed in black showed up at her door.

"It was the FBI, at the height of the Cold War, and they wanted to know why she was writing letters to someone in the Soviet Union," Mr. Walko said.

That ended the correspondence with Mr. Pasternak, but not her efforts to write about the industrial culture of early 20th century Pittsburgh, said Jerry Jumba, a musicologist who worked with Ms. Walko on a collection of Slovak folk songs and hymns, which he hopes to publish soon.

Well into her 90s, Ms. Walko was teaching classes in creative writing at the Turtle Creek Human Services Center to seniors far younger than she, and in 2004, she performed a play, "Women's Liberation," at the Andy Warhol Museum. Like Warhol, she was a member of a Slavic ethnic group called the Carpatho-Rusyns, who lived in border areas of Ukraine, Hungary and Poland in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains.

Ms. Walko's life was, in fact, something of a "tri-cultural paradigm," said Mr. Jumba, "of American and Carpatho-Rusyn and East Slovak community interaction and outreach. The center of life in that boarding house was soulful kindness, hospitality and community, which personified all Ann's actions. All of her writing is about that hospitality."

"My very last thought is how, when she'd sign the title page of her books, it would read, 'Written with joy, with pleasure shared, Ann Walko.' "

Besides her son John, she is survived by two daughters, Maryanne Zaks of Naples, Fla., and Margaret Susan Miller of Marshall, eight grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.

obituaries

Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com.


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