Chico High alumnus films retired teachers for inspiring documentary
The events of late summer 1978 had a profound effect on the life of filmmaker Brendan Hedges. He’d recently graduated junior high in the Oklahoma town where he’d spent his entire life when his father dropped a bombshell: He’d accepted a job as an associate professor, and the family was moving to California.
“A week later we were all piled in a moving van headed for Chico,” Hedges said by phone interview from his home near Yosemite. “A few weeks after that, I walked onto the Chico High campus, and it changed my life.”
Hedges adapted quickly. Not only was he happy to be able to wear shorts and sandals well into fall, but he also found a home in a pair of adjoining classes occupied by two mentors who continue to positively impact his life—English/journalism instructors Barbara Copeland and Patricia Wismer.
“Of all the classes I’ve ever taken, those classes—especially journalism—were as formative as anything I’ve experienced in my educational career,” said Hedges, who went on to study film and theater at the University of Southern California.
It wasn’t just the curriculum, but also the character of the two women that Hedges loved, so much so that 30 years later they serve as the inspiration for his latest work, a series of documentary shorts called Learning Never Ends featuring educators from what he calls the “Golden Age” of teaching.
“They couldn’t be more opposite,” he said of the two teachers. “They’re both wonderful in their own way but so different that there’s inherent comic value in their pairing. They’re like a classic comic duo. Of course they also adored and respected each other.”
Hedges said Copeland was tall and ran a tight ship, with a very clean and orderly classroom, while Wismer was short and a “hoarder of sorts,” her classroom filled with mobiles and other artwork, with stacks of papers and books covering her messy desk.
In recent years, Hedges said he’d had some success optioning a few screenplays he’d written, and was able to buy a high-quality Red Digital Cinema camera, the same type of camera used to film The Social Network and the most recent installment of Pirates of the Caribbean.
He’d also recently lost his mother, and regretted never taking the opportunity to interview her on film for posterity. That was the impetus for what would evolve into Learning Never Ends. He wanted to interview the two women just for his own archives. But they began to suggest other teachers to talk to, as did Alberta Simic of the Chico High School Foundation. Before he knew it, he had interviews with 25 retired teachers totaling hours of solid raw footage. Hedges decided to shape the interviews into more than a dozen shorts covering a number of topics in education.
Among the topics covered is one many of the retirees were particularly passionate about: the loss of electives in the school. One of the featured teachers, Cliff “Blackie” Gilbert, ran a popular forestry program, and Copeland was the longtime adviser to the Red and Gold, CHS’s now-defunct student newspaper. Though Hedges and the teachers understand the budget issues behind this loss, they are saddened that so many programs have been canceled or moved off campus.
He’d initially struck a deal with Chico State to use its studio for filming in exchange for use of his camera, but just before filming began he decided to film on the Chico High campus. Doing so, he said, helped the documentary series develop from a personal project to something bigger.
“As these retired teachers arrived they would see some familiar faces, get some hugs, walk past their old classrooms and through groups of current students,” he said. “By the time they sat down they were beaming, and it shines through on film. That’s when I realized I had something really special.”
The Pageant Theatre will be playing all of the shorts—a different one each week—before regularly featured films beginning in mid- to late-January. A Hollywood-style gala premiere, at which the teachers arrived by limo and walked a red carpet, was held at the El Rey last September. The event netted approximately $2,400 for the CHS Foundation, and Hedges recalls it as one of his proudest moments.
“I still consider Chico my adopted home, and I fell in love with film at the Pageant and the El Rey theaters,” he said. “I mean, I saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time at the El Rey, and my early film education came from watching classic, foreign and art films at the Pageant. To see my work, and my favorite teachers, up on those two screens is a big deal to me.”