Her First Husband
About the Filmmakers
IRVENE SENEY CAME FROM A FAMILY OF TEACHERS. Not only was her mother a schoolteacher, but two of her aunts and a number of her cousins were schoolteachers as well. Upon graduating high school, Seney attended the University of Northern Iowa, which is a teacher’s college. She became an English teacher and taught English there in Iowa for a number of years.
Although surrounded by teachers in her family, she said that she became an English teacher out of her love for children. She moved to Virginia after her first husband passed away in the war, and although she worked in the shipyard, she continued to teach at St. Andrews Episcopal Day School. “It kept me busy, that’s for sure,” she said. After a number of years, she transitioned to teaching in the Newport News Public School system.
While Irvene was showing us around her apartment in Mennowood Retirement Community, she did not address the Certificate of Appreciation from the Newport News Public Schools in her bedroom that was casually propped beside a picture of her mother. Instead of calling attention to her teaching awards, she fondly reflected on her mother as a librarian and how she and her sister got their love of books from their mother.
Irvene asked us if we had met the woman who visited her the other day. When we said that we had not, she recalled how she once had a Chinese student who needed a lot of tutoring. One day while she was tutoring him, his mother came in and asked if she could come to the tutoring sessions too—not to keep an eye on her son and the tutoring sessions but to learn English alongside her son. After a while of tutoring her student’s mother, she returned to China to be with her husband who is a dentist there.
Irvene said, “I hadn’t heard from her in the longest time and the other day there was a knock on the door and I opened the door and there she stood—she’s back here in this country. It was really neat to see her. I hadn’t seen her in over a year...her English is very good now; she has kept on working on it, and she can carry on a conversation without any problem with almost anybody.”
She was smiling while she said this but her expression became very serious as she said, “But she has worked very hard. She deserves a lot of credit for the effort it takes to put in for something like that—when the language is so different—there’s just really no tie between the Oriental languages and our language...”
Even though her student’s mother came back to visit her and could carry on a decent conversation with her in English, Irvene does not take the credit for the woman’s success. “She had the desire, and that comes from her,” Seney said. “She’s very bright, and that helps a tremendous amount...[she is] very sensitive to the sounds of language.”
We are sure there are many more stories like this one where Irvene changed a person’s life through her teaching, but she would not tell the story in such a way to give herself credit. She may be a retired teacher, but she is still teaching humility. ◊
The First Husband
Irvene Seney is just shy of 90 years old. She lives in Mennowood Retirement Community in Newport News, Virginia. Of so many years and so many experiences, she can still pinpoint the person who influenced her most—her first husband. They met in college in 1942.
“I didn’t know right away that he was the one, but it didn’t take very long. We got along beautifully. We thought alike and liked the same things,” said Seney.
She sat with her feet curled up on her burgundy recliner. A soft, shy smile sat delicately across her face, like a young school girl talking about a crush. They were married three years later in 1945.
“He was a serious student. A good student. He liked that kind of thing, but he was also fun. He loved to dance, and that was a new experience for me. Nobody in my family danced, so it was something I had to learn. Of course now it’s completely out,” she said, referring to her inability to walk after breaking her left shoulder, hip, knee and back in a fall two years ago.
Her husband was drafted into World War II in the Air Force shortly after they were married.
“This was World War II where almost all of the guys were pulled out of school and had to go. We used to laugh and say that my parents couldn’t afford to send me to an all-girls school so they sent me here. All of the boys were gone so it was essentially a girls’ college,” she chuckled.
The War completely altered the students’ lives and daily schedules.
“For instance, you couldn’t have your lights on after midnight. If you had studying to do, what we would do was get under the bed…literally, and use a flashlight,” Seney laughed heartily recalling the memory. “I burned up many a flashlight bulbs.”
Seney attended school nearly 200 miles away from home and was often unable to visit because of limited resources.
“There wasn’t gasoline for the automobiles and the trains ran on military schedules. They were almost always full with military men,” she said. “I went home once my senior year and didn’t get to go home for Christmas.”
A few months after they were married, her husband was killed when his plane was shot down. ◊
Muffie Irvene sat in her dim living room in her electric wheel chair. A fluffy white and brown cat strutted past her chair, hitting its head against her hand before rolling on the ground to reveal its snow white tummy. The room was still and quiet as they looked at each other, one looking down lovingly, and the other looking up expectantly. Irvene lost her ability to walk after a fall two years ago that broke her left hip, shoulder, knee and back. She was still coping with her loss of independence and move into Mennowood Retirement Community. About a year ago, Irvene sat in the same chair one evening when she heard a soft rustling at her patio door. She turned her head toward the door. The noise turned into scratching. Something wanted inside. “I could hear meowing, or more like mewling, and I knew it was a cat,” remembered Irvene. Her night aide who comes every evening to assist Irvene ventured to the patio toward the noise. She returned with a meowing, brown crusty ball. Irvene immediately thought, “Poor little thing.” The air had a slight chill, not quite enough to be cold. The small wet kitten, however, was shivering. Misery was clear in the darkness of the kitten’s eyes. She smelled unpleasant and earthen, but not enough for Irvene to turn away. The pair rushed the kitten to the bathtub to warm it up with a hot bath. “The kitten hated that tub and was clawing to get out the entire time,” Irvene remembered watching. As the aide washed the kitten, more colors began to appear. They weren’t able to see before that the cat had bright white fur buried beneath all of the dark brown mud. The kitten was actually calico. “She was so covered in mud we couldn’t see the white parts of her fur,” said Irvene. “It was more than her little tongue could take care of.” They wrapped her in a towel and she stayed curled up inside, not moving for quite some time. Irvene thought that was funny because most of the time cats do not like to be wrapped up in anything for a long period of time, but Muffie just stayed wrapped in it. The next concern was food. The only option was a scrambled egg, and the kitten gobbled it up quickly. The room had excitement and a livelihood that had been missing since Irvene moved in. “My children were always wanting to bring cats into our home when they were growing up, and I always had to say no,” said Irvene. “I guess the roles are reversed.” The aide liked animals just as much as Irvene and encouraged her to keep the kitten. “I felt so sad to see the kitten completely helpless. How could I shut the door on her?” Irvene said. “She was just a little rag-a-muffin. That’s where I got her name-Muffie.” A year later, little Muffie has made no effort to leave since. Muffie fluffed her puffy tail around as she lay out beside Irvene’s chair, quiet and content with her home.◊
LAUREL MANGES is a 2012 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and minors in Journalism and Leadership Studies. Laurel danced for the university's Silver Storm Dance Team from 2008-2012; she has been dancing since she was three years old. She was the student newspaper Lifestyle Editor during her junior year. Her favorite parts of the Documentary Studies class included learning a new skill and having the opportunity to see and hear a story, instead of reading it. Laurel enjoyed getting to know Irvene and Muffie the cat throughout the documentary process. Laurel hopes to work in the non-profit field and pursue her passions of working with food and children.
MARLAINA PEELEN is a May 2012 graduate, with a major in English, a concentration in Technical Writing and a Leadership Studies minor. She has worked on the Undergraduate Leadership Review since her sophomore year, climbing the ranks from copy editor to student reviewer to co-managing editor. She is a part of the President's Leadership Program and was a Summer Leadership Adventure Program facilitator. She recently found a new hobby, photography, making black-and-white photographs with an old film camera and developing them in a darkroom. Her favorite parts about the Documentary Studies class, however, were having the opportunity to capture a person's story through the use of a video camera and learning more about filming. Marlaina is the type of person who tries to find the beauty and humor in each day while brightening the days of others. In the future, she hopes to better organizations and companies through her writing skills and detail-oriented nature.
"Tossed on an Island" (6:46)
a film by Laurel Manges & Marlaina Peelen
"My aunt, my cousin and I rode our bikes across the country, literally. We rode to Boston from Iowa on our bikes. We stayed in youth hostels along the way, which was really great and fun. We got to see a lot. We got to do a lot of things."