Monday Mystery: Why did America's foremost poet keep the work of an Augusta teacher?

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A photo of "Miss Dickie" Puryear sent and kept by poet Robert Frost. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)
A photo of "Miss Dickie" Puryear sent and kept by poet Robert Frost. (Courtesy Dartmouth College)

On Christmas Day 1955, a retired Augusta first-grade school teacher sent a note with a package to Robert Frost, perhaps America’s most noted poet of that era.

The package included half a dozen poems she had written over the years, and she asked his help in getting them published.

We know this because he kept them and her photo. They are with his papers at Dartmouth College.

The teacher was Richardene Puryear, known as “Miss Dickie,” who taught at the old Houghton School on Greene Street for 47 years before retiring in 1945.

She is one of our town’s public mysteries – a person well known and liked, and a person perhaps no one knew.

Miss Dickie and her older sister “Miss Willie” Puryear taught a combined 97 years at Houghton, mostly first grade.

It was a familiar life. They lived in a house next door to the school and had grown up on the 300 block of Ellis Street, right behind it.

The Puryear sisters were considered such strong influences on their young charges in the early 1900s that political candidates in later years would invoke their names and the lessons they taught. When the sisters finally did quit teaching, The Augusta Chronicle did a long feature on their years in the classroom as they leafed through their scrapbooks and talked about their former pupils.

Then they began to fade from public view. When Miss Willie Puryear died in June 1963 in a North Augusta nursing home, she had a very brief funeral notice, but it included a surprise. Her younger sister Miss Dickie was now Mrs. Carroll Byers, of Tampa, Fla.

Yes, somewhere in her 80s, Miss Dickie married and moved to the Gulf Coast … and had quickly become a widow. Mr. Byers, described as a longtime Tampa hardware store purchasing agent, died in 1960 at age 64, according to his Chronicle obituary. He would have been about 20 years younger than Miss Dickie.

The now “Mrs. Dickie” buried him in the Puryear family plot in Magnolia Cemetery. That's where she joined him – and her sisters and her brother and her parents – when she died in 1970 at age 92.

And that’s about it – a long life with many mysteries.

Did Robert Frost respond to her poems? Did he like them?

Why, after living within a block of Houghton School for eight decades, did she move to Tampa and get married? And what did she do in those final years?

Where are the scrapbooks of old students mentioned in The Chronicle story?

That’s what sometimes happens when you’re the last to go in a family with no heirs.

There’s no one left to tell your story.

(Bill Kirby has reported, photographed and commented on life in Augusta and Georgia for 45 years.)

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Augusta first-grade teacher sent work, photo to poet Robert Frost