A Flair for the Dramatic: Former La Jolla drama teacher celebrates 100 years with a cast of characters


By Ashley Mackin

On March 8, the question of the day at the Bird Rock home with Happy Birthday balloons out front, was “How do you know Dorothy?”

People were referencing Dorothy Haven, who was celebrating her 100th birthday that day with family, friends from around the world, and some of the many students she taught during her years as a teacher in La Jolla.

Answers included “she’s my neighbor,” “she is a friend of my parents,” “she used to be my landlord” and “she is my step-grandmother.” When she sat down to speak with

La Jolla Light

, she focused on the history behind the reply, “she was my teacher.”

Haven taught drama and English at La Jolla High School and at the Balmer School (now Wisteria Cottage), before it became La Jolla Country Day School, and then at La Jolla Country Day.

While her husband Franklin (now deceased) served overseas during World War II, Haven applied for a drama teacher position at La Jolla High because the previous teacher was leaving to get married. While there, she directed productions such as “Our Town” and “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Two of her “Our Town” actors — Val McClure and Erna Becker (nee Handley) — attended her birthday celebration.

“I just love her, she was always so special to us,” said Becker, giggling at the fact that, through the play, Haven got McClure to speak to her. “We played husband and wife,” she said, smiling.

Another of Haven’s students — Thelma Reahm (nee Hyder) — said the one lesson she learned from Haven was good posture. Standing to demonstrate, the 86-year-old held herself up gracefully with her feet at an angle. “It’s the dumbest thing, but it always

stuck with me,” she said, adding one trait she most appreciated about teacher Haven was her patience. “She was so patient. She always took an interest in us more than other teachers. Other teachers worked with you in the classroom and that was it. You didn’t get much attention afterward, but not with (Dorothy).”

When Haven’s husband returned, she quit her job so she could start a family and raise their two children, Jeri and Carter. She has no biological grandchildren, but step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren.

When Jeri and Carter were a little older, she returned to teaching at the Balmer School, with a first-grade class. While there, she experienced what she calls her “only claim to fame.”

In 1959, “Dr. Seuss came to my classroom to get some ideas from the children for characters for his books,” she said. “It was important enough that Life magazine covered it.”

An image in her scrapbook shows Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) sketching on the chalkboard based on ideas from her students in what is now the La Jolla Historical Society’s Wisteria Cottage annex.

As the Balmer School became La Jolla Country Day School in 1961, Haven went with it, and taught there for three or four years. From there, she worked under the head designer of the San Diego State University theater department.

During her own dramatic career, some of which took place alongside her teaching career, she performed in one-woman shows for 20 years and in community theaters. For one production, “Papa is All,” Haven took on the role a week before opening night. “The lead actress panicked and quit, so my friend who was working on the play asked me if I could learn the lines in a week, so I did,” playing the role of Mama in the production, she said.

“It was so long ago, but it was so much fun,” she added of her teaching and acting. Of theater today, Haven said she enjoys how people experiment and try new things. However, she said she doesn’t frequent the theater as much as she used to, instead she gardens in her La Jolla home (which her father built in 1950) and walks her dog.

Haven contributed to the La Jolla Historical Society’s 2012 exhibit “Living in La Jolla During the War Years.”

At her birthday celebration, she greeted each guest with the same surprise and appreciation. “Oh my goodness, you came!” she’d exclaim. Friends from as far away as Australia arrived, each with a story about the soon-to-be centenarian (her actual birthday is March 27). Thanking those in attendance, Haven toasted, “I hope I go to heaven when I die, and I hope I’ll be there for lunch. But if when I get there, you all are not, I’ll go to hell with the bunch!”