Mary Beth Wilcoxson lives in the crux of irrepressible
dreams that, like the petals of a flower, gradually
unfold in a triumph of human spirit. Most recently,
she battled the ravages of cancer to march, strong and
smiling, across the stage at Bethel's spring
graduation, where she was bestowed the banner of her
accomplishment: a master of teaching and learning.
The accomplishment underscored her initial triumph
four decades earlier, when she became a certified
librarian, a goal set when she was in the fifth grade.
That success fostered many more victories in her role
as a librarian, successes that overflow into the
children she teaches at McKenzie Elementary School.
A year earlier, her educational goal had faded in the
face of the larger ambition of simple survival,
perseverance accomplished one heartbeat at a time.
Her ordeal began in February with what she first
thought was indigestion, then a stomach virus that
lingered. When, in March, she woke up "itching from
head to toe" she called her doctor.
"Come by Wednesday if it's not better," he'd advised.
Beth hadn't noticed the creeping jaundice that had
yellowed her skin, but it was the first thing observed
by her physician when the report day had brought no
relief. Blood tests showed an unrecognized childhood
bout of hepatitis A but insufficient clues to her
An ultrasound, however, showed her liver was swollen
and a CAT scan revealed her pancreas was swollen as
well, blocking the bile duct, which caused the liver
problem and resulting jaundice.
A phone call summoned Beth back to the clinic when the
results were received. "What does it mean?" she asked,
in a scene repeated countless times in endless
doctor's visits across the country.
The doctor said he was 85 to 95 percent sure she had
cancer of the pancreas. He had already arranged a
visit with oncologist Stephen Behrman in Memphis, who
recommended radical surgery, bypassing a biopsy which,
Beth says, would only loosen and spread the cancerous
The "Whipple surgery" Beth underwent, named after its
founding oncologist, entailed the removal of the head
of the pancreas, the gallbladder, and part of the
stomach and duodenum. Surgical treatment of cancers
involving the body or tail of the pancreas involves
the removal of the left portion of the pancreas as
well as the spleen, however, because the pain and
jaundice triggered by these cancers normally occur
only after the disease is well advanced, with
metastases to other organs, most pancreatic tumors are
"Everybody said the itching was the blessing," Beth
says, although at the time it was pure misery. John
Hopkins University, a leader in pancreatic cancer
research, says on their Web site that a rash is an
uncommon side effect of the disease, however, by the
end of March, Beth - so yellow she "glowed" - was
victim to extreme discomfort as lesions similar to
chicken pox spread over her body and the itching
It was then that the blessings of many prayers brought
relief from her affliction.
"I was lying there so miserable, then all of a sudden
it looked like this bright, white light was coming
from the ceiling, aimed at my belly," Beth relates,
moving her hands from her center to either side in
demonstration of the light's enveloping comfort. "It
was so calming, so peaceful, I slept about three hours
with no itching. I knew people were praying for me,
and that happened to me three times."
Since cancer cells were discovered in two lymph nodes,
Beth's treatment didn't stop with surgery. This week
she trades in five-day-a-week early morning radiation
treatments at Dr. Permenter's Cancer Care Center in
Paris, for chemotherapy: a three-day session followed
by treatments once a week for six months.
I hope to finish in December," she says wistfully,
hopeful to move on with life.
She's already passed some hurdles, checking her
insulin and watching her sugar and fat intake to guard
against the diabetes that can result from insulin
deficiency by a distressed pancreas.
But diabetes is the least concern for many victims of
"Of all the Relay for Life dollars, all the billions
of dollars raised for research, only .08 percent goes
to pancreas cancer research," Beth asserts, lips
tightened in frustration that so deadly and prevalent
a disease would go relatively unheeded.
The fact is, according to John Hopkins University
(www.path.jhu.edu/pancreas) pancreatic cancer is
difficult to diagnose, with no reliable screening test
available for early detection. Symptoms are vague and
can be confused with other diseases. Treatable with
early detection, nearly all cases are caught too late.
Pancreatic cancer ranks fourth or fifth as the leading
cause of cancer death for both men and women in
America and is one of the deadliest of all cancers.
According to JHU, "This year 28,000 Americans will be
diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and about 28,000 will
die from it," and, they agree with Beth, "Despite the
high mortality rate, the federal government spends
woefully little money on pancreatic cancer research."
Nevertheless, the university's research department has
made advances every year, at least since 1994, and
five-year survival rates now "approach 40% if the
cancers are surgically removed while they are still
small and have not spread to the lymph nodes."
"It's a whole new world," Beth declares, leaning back
and rolling her eyes in hopeful optimism despite the
ordeal that has moved into its second year. "I thought
I had been in some different worlds... I had an
Like many of Carroll County's best citizens who
were introduced to the community through education or
industry and chose to stay, Beth and her husband, Dr.
Jerry Wilcoxson, moved to McKenzie in September 1967
when he joined the faculty of Bethel College. Best
known as Bethel's winning golf coach since 1968, some
of the many hats he has worn at the college include
athletic director, baseball coach, and assistant
basketball coach as well as a Professor of Health,
Physical Education, and Recreation. He is also a
member of the Bethel College Athletic Hall of Fame.
The couple had met when both were students at North
Texas State University in Denton, Texas, where Beth
was pursuing her first dream of becoming a librarian.
It had been a long road back to Texas, where she was
born, from the route her family traveled through New
Mexico from the time she was six months old, as her
father helped build the "super highway" that, Beth
explains, superceded Route 66.
"We lived in inaccessible places," she laughs,
spouting off names like Cimarron, Red River, Las
Cruces, and Roswell.
A part of life was the atomic testing that took place
nearby - "You could see the mushroom cloud," says Beth
- when her father was working at "Atomic City", Los
Fun meant visiting long abandoned cliff dwellings and
checking out the Red River and Little Beaver rodeos,
among other unique pursuits.
Beth recalls attending second grade in a Navajo school
where most of the children were Hispanic or Indian.
Home on the reservation in Bloomfield, New Mexico, was
an army tent with no source of running water.
"There was no housing for people on construction,"
says Beth, smiling as she recalls the Navajo gentleman
- dressed in jeans and levis jacket, his long braids
falling beneath a straw hat - who greeted her and
other children as they stepped off the bus each
morning, waving as he said, "Yá át' ééh, yá át' ééh...
(hello, hello...)" in his native tongue.
Beth and her brother entered the fourth grade in
Española, New Mexico, their first real hometown, where
the family lived until she was 15.
"The fourth, fifth and sixth grades were all taught in
one classroom, we just moved over in rows," says Beth.
It was during the fifth grade that Beth noticed a
woman came to the school every month bearing about 30
books, which fell to a student to check out to
children who wanted to read them.
"I asked for that job," says Beth, who later asked
what a person was called who took care of books in
"A librarian," she was told, to which she responded
with conviction, "That's what I want to be when I grow
Not dissuaded when told there was no accredited school
for librarians in New Mexico at that time, Beth tucked
her dream away for later.
She was 15 when she was holding the hand of her little
sister as they stood in the median waiting to cross an
icy road when an electrical truck whisked her sister
from her hand, killing her instantly.
After a time, the family returned to Texas.
"I was in a depression," Beth says, recounting a
newspaper article located years later by her sister
Jerrie that said the child had been playing in the
street. "I was holding her hand," repeats Beth, who
said she felt sorry for the man who was driving the
vehicle: "He went crazy, too."
In Texas, she says, "The high school librarian (Joneal
Condron) took me under her wing. She was my mentor,
she took me to college, introduced me to my teachers,
and helped me with my school wardrobe. She even gave
me my Webster's Ninth Collegiate dictionary that I
As a student at North Texas State University, Beth
also began working in the library, staring out in
periodicals before becoming assistant to the music
librarian for two years, a job she had learned while
working as music librarian for two years as a student
at Throgmartin High School.
She was a college sophomore when she met Jerry, a
senior. The couple married on January 27, 1962. Almost
a year later their first daughter, Katie, was born on
December 9. Beth had taken a leave of absence from
school and work when she learned of an opening as
assistant to the government documents and legal
librarian. She took the position and, upon graduation
two years later, was grandfathered in as an assistant
Their second daughter, Annette, was eight months old
when Jerry, who by that time had 24 hours completed
toward his doctorate, was accepted into the staff at
Bethel. When the family arrived, two young daughters
in tow, there was no housing to be found. They spent
two nights at the Shannon Lee Motel before opting for
a mobile home while continuing to search for a house.
With no job waiting for her, she helped Jerry organize
his schedule and performed research and typed for him.
Then, she learned of an opening in Atwood for a second
grade Title reading teacher. That February, in 1968,
she recalls "gigantic snows" that kept schools closed,
preventing public school teachers from getting a
paycheck in the days when payday came after every 20
days' of time spent in instruction.
In the fall of 1969, Beth succeeded former elementary
and junior high librarian Mary Nell Bryant in becoming
the librarian for the elementary school, where she
"I love my job," she says sincerely, "I love kids and
I love working with little kids; trying to create a
love for books and reading in these children."
Her tenure began in the upstairs library of the old
elementary school, which was located where the middle
school sits today. After two years, the elementary
school moved to its present location, where the junior
high school was previously located, and the junior
high moved to its present location.
She recalls the excitement computers brought to the
classroom when, in the '90s, the I.G.A. grocery store
participated in a "computers for education" program,
in which children and parents saved receipts toward
the purchase of classroom computers.
"We got five computers from IGA," says Beth, "two
printers and a rolling table. And the kids did it, and
During the same time period the "Accelerated Reader"
computer program became available, a system by which
children can test themselves, usually through a
ten-question quiz, in order to gauge their
understanding of books read.
"Kids love it, it's like a challenge," says Beth.
She teaches children to read short stories three
times: the first time, she says, is like saying,
"hello"; the second time they're getting acquainted
and the third time they're good friends. With chapter
books, she suggests the more practical approach of
stopping at the end of each chapter to ask who, what,
where, why and how.
"If they can answer that, they understand it," she
She's also a big fan of another Advantage Learning
program called STAR (Standardized Test for Assessment
of Reading). The results correspond to TCAP scores
without waiting a year for the results, Beth says:
"The neat thing about the STAR test, is if they pass
the three questions, they get to go on to the regular
test; if they don't pass them, they're not really
ready. In ten minutes, they take a test and it puts
them at their reading level; it's so quick.'
She typically uses the system to test reading
readiness in kindergarten and first grade and
throughout the second, third, and fourth grades and at
year's end to gauge progress, though, last year, she
says, "I got waylaid with cancer."
One of the things she's loved best about being a
teacher is walking into local stores and being greeted
by teens who remember her from elementary school.
"My grandchildren in Jackson can't even tell me their
librarian's name," she says, "I want them to know who
I am and like to come to the library."
This year she got an early start on that appreciation
when her current students showed how much they cared
during her illness. "The children at school wanted me
to see their (Relay for Life) stars; it was just
really so overwhelming. This huge glass map of the
whole world was totally covered with stars and I
couldn't believe so many were mine."
On the last day of school, she was chosen as
Elementary School Teacher of the Year at the McKenzie
Education Association end of year awards banquet.
"I was awfully proud of that," she says. And at the
North Carroll Relay event, she says, "15 students
sponsored me; it just made me cry, I couldn't believe
those kids wanted to do something like that."
As for now, Beth says, "I just have to believe, you
hope that you're going to survive. Pancreatic cancer
is not best cancer to have but the doctor tells me he
plans to see me year after year for awhile.
And she remains thankful for the support she's
received from all points in the community: "I'm just
overwhelmed when people say I'm on their prayer list:
'There's a lot of people been praying for you.' That's
the sweetest music to your ears."