Eileen Beckowitz, 96, died peacefully in her sleep September 12th, 2020 in Tacoma. Born Dorothy Eileen Hankins July 24th, 1924 to Arthur and Metral (née Sellars) Hankins, they lived in Idabel, Oklahoma where her father was a barber. Both her parents came from large farming families with strong ties to Arkansas, Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South. Even after her parents divorced, Eileen (as she was called) kept in touch with her many aunts and uncles from both sides. Her mother’s entire clan moved west in the late 1920s with California as their destination. Upon reaching Phoenix, however, widowed matriarch Sally Diffee Sellars decided California couldn’t possibly be better than Arizona, so that is where they settled. Eileen’s mother Metral went to work as a practical nurse at a TB sanitarium just outside Phoenix while Eileen (AKA “Hankie”) began her education at Harwood Girls School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Eileen spent weekends and vacations with her Aunt Marguerite, Uncle AC, Grandma Sally, and even Great Uncle Emery and Great Aunt Ida back in Arkansas. Starting with her parents’ divorce when she was only five, until losing her father suddenly at age fourteen, these childless aunts and uncles tried to convince Eileen’s single mother to give them permanent custody, but Metral steadfastly refused. Because Eileen was raised an only child and had few same-age cousins, she instead listened to the adults in her midst and became the family’s story and secret keeper.
Upon graduating from Harwood Girls School, seventeen-year-old Eileen met John Beckowitz, a handsome flight instructor in Phoenix for what would become the USAF. She told him she was nineteen so she would seem more mature, but when her mother saw how serious they were, she invited John to Eileen’s eighteenth birthday party and the cat was out of the bag. They married January 1st, 1943 with her mother and new step-father Clyde Gilmore as witnesses. After living in Phoenix for a time, Eileen went to stay with John’s family in Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, where she learned their family stories as well. When WWII ended, Eileen’s mother and step-dad moved to Clyde’s hometown of Tacoma, Washington and John and Eileen followed. They bought houses across the street from one another on North 30th and lived there the rest of their lives.
Before her children were born, Eileen worked the switchboard at Peoples then Rhodes department stores downtown, but upon becoming a mother her full focus was being a homemaker. She was an excellent cook, known for her pies and cakes. She also perfected John’s Slavonian-Polish family dishes such as golumpki. She learned to sew and became an adept seamstress, making clothes for everyone in her family.
Eileen said when her parents were married they belonged to a new church every week, because her father had a beautiful tenor voice and was sought after to sing in the choir. Harwood was founded as a Methodist boarding school so if anything, Eileen was brought up Methodist. But since her husband was Catholic, Eileen became a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church near Ruston, and faithfully took her children to services there. She was just as dedicated to her children’s education, joining the nascent Mason Cooperative Play Group – the first co-op preschool in the North End of Tacoma. She supported her son Douglas and daughter Barbara in anything either showed an interest in: Scouts, music, swimming, dance, and more.
This paved the way for Eileen’s life-long career with young children. Building from her experience at Mason Co-op, she was hired as a teacher for Fircrest Cooperative Nursery School. Mrs. Beckowitz greatly enjoyed her sixteen years there while simultaneously taking every course offered on Early Childhood Education at Bates Voc-Tech. From there, she worked as a substitute preschool teacher and teacher’s aide around the city. Finally, she retired after nine years as an aide for the Tacoma School District, mainly at Wainwright Elementary. All in all, Mrs. Beckowitz was actively involved in enriching the lives of small children from 1951 until 1986.
In 1963, Eileen found the perfect outlet for her storytelling abilities when she joined Fireside Story League, part of the National Storytellers League. Here she shined, telling stories to young and old alike. Children were mesmerized. The elderly were entranced. Everyone in between was entertained. This skill enhanced her teaching methods and perfectly paired her two greatest passions: teaching and storytelling. She was often an officer in both the local and regional chapters of NSL and enjoyed attending national conventions all over the country.
Eileen was also a superb grandmother. She loved spending time with her daughter’s children Jenette and Erika, and looked forward to their visits, phone calls, and letters. She was so proud of their accomplishments and kept every drawing, note, and memento concerning them.
In 2010, Eileen was unexpectedly reunited with her half-sister after more than seventy years apart. The only prior time she met her sister - along with their brother - was at the funeral of their father Arthur, when Rita Jo and Dennis were still babies. Rita Jo and her daughter Dana had been searching for “Dorothy” for years, but it was not until online genealogy became commonplace that it was possible to find each other. Eileen admitted later she never thought she cared about “those people” until she met them. She loved having a sister and for the rest of her life, the only photo in her bedroom was that of her sister Rita Jo.
Sharing her family tree online also helped other genealogists fill in the blanks, due to Eileen’s uncanny memory for family lore. Distant cousins now had photos and stories of their great-grandparents that otherwise would have been forgotten.
Eileen sadly lost her husband John to Alzheimer’s after sixty-one years of marriage. Even as a widow in her eighties, she participated in Storyteller League events and faithfully attended Mass at Holy Cross. When it became too difficult to go out, she enjoyed sleeping through Dr. Phil, Family Feud, and especially the Seattle Mariners games. She could always dream of a better game than they could actually play.
John used to say a phone in Eileen’s hand was a deadly weapon. She loved to talk, write, and email, and kept up lively conversations with people all over the country. She could also take control of a room just by talking. Once her son stopped by to find the mayor of Tacoma sitting dutifully on the couch. He had been campaigning door-to-door and Eileen instructed him to come in and wait while she finished a phone conversation in the kitchen. She could charm anyone into doing nearly anything and make them think it was their idea.
When she died, a thousand stories died with her.
Predeceased by her parents, husband, brother, and sister. Survived by son Douglas Beckowitz, daughter Barbara Christoferson, granddaughters Jenette Davis and Erika Callahan, nephew Walter Jasina, special niece Dana Yerden Stuart, honorary granddaughter and baker’s apprentice Diana Stewart, and extended family.
Services will be held at Holy Cross Catholic Church, Friday October 2nd at 11:00. Please call 253-759-3368 to register. Private interment at Tahoma National Cemetery where Eileen will be placed alongside John. A Celebration of Life is hoped to be held locally in time for Eileen’s 97th birthday next year. Contributions may be made to Holy Cross Catholic Church: www.holycross-tacoma.org.
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