Madera County Historical Society
William Saroyan at Madera High School.
William Saroyan was apparently not the easiest person in the world with which one could deal. As talented and as well known as he was, he didn’t suffer a fool lightly, and he didn’t seem to need anyone’s approval. In fact this internationally acclaimed writer refused the Pulitzer Prize for his play, “The Time of Your Life.”
He almost never went to a college or university to speak because, as he said, “I can’t be bothered; it’s too much trouble and just a little silly.” However, on Jan. 27, 1977, he came to Madera High School to speak. Let me tell you how that came about.
It just so happened that Brenda (Najimian) Magarity was teaching English and drama at Madera High, and it also just so happened that her family knew Saroyan. If fact Brenda became his unofficial driver — not a chauffeur, but a friend, a driver.
At some point in the 1976-77 school year, Brenda decided that she wanted Saroyan to come to her class, so she asked him, and can you believe it? He said yes.
The date in January was set, but the young teacher didn’t tell anyone at school for fear Saroyan would back out at the last moment — something that occurred often, according to Magarity.
When she found out on that Thursday morning that Saroyan was indeed going to come to Madera, she told her friend and fellow teacher, Ben Bufford, and he helped her prepare for the writer’s visit to Madera, including a lunch in his home prepared by his wife, Milly.
When the students in Brenda’s first class came through the door that morning, they were greeted by dark-haired visitor with his trademark, drooping mustache that was nearly white.
Saroyan took to the Madera students immediately, and they liked him. He shared with them that the favorite books of his own were “The Human Comedy” and “My Name is Aram.”
One student asked him if it was really true that he dropped a cat off the water tower in Fresno as he said he did in “My Name is Aram.” Saroyan replied that the story was true. He wanted to see if it was true that cats always land on their feet; Saroyan claimed this one followed suit and ran away.
As Saroyan spoke and answered questions from the students, he did a strange thing. He asked the kids their names and then wrote them down. When he left Madera High, he put that list of names in his pocket. After lunch at the Buffords, Magarity took him home to Fresno.
Saroyan lived four more years, and before he died, he wrote one more book. He entitled it “Obituaries.” It was based on the annual list of important people who had died in 1976. Saroyan wanted to write about them, whether he knew them or not. Actually it was really a commentary on death by a man who was about to die, but in chapter 17, the author took a strange digression. He included a piece on the living, and those were the folks he met in his visit to Madera High.
He asked himself in the book why he got up at 5:30 in the morning in order to go to a high school and talk four times for free instead going to a college where he would be paid from $1,000 to $3,000 to speak once.
Saroyan wrote that the answer was simple. He had been asked by “a girl who teaches English and Drama there, and during the past three or four years, this Armenian girl has been a good kid at filling me in about life in a high school in a small town and has taken me in her Toyota to the laundromat and around and about. He was talking about Brenda (Najimian) Magarity.
Now Saroyan was in Paris when he wrote “Obituaries” which meant that he carried that piece of paper upon which he had written the names of the students he met at Madera High with him to France.
Here they are as they appear in Saroyan’s book—the Madera High kids with whom he was so taken: “Mary Elisalde, Donna Beckwith, Robin Dollar, Marie Catanezesi, Diana Seagraves, Debbie Fimbrez, Reida Irby (who Saroyan said was writing a novel entitled “Sharing Borrowed Treasure,”) Lori Kay Brady, Eleanor Hernandez, Shari Girardeau, Lisa Peterson, Darrell McCallen, Adolph Vizcarra, Gilbert Trujillo, Steve Funderburg, Tony Martin, Roger Accornero, Richard Flores, Rickie Elias, Jim Jenkins, Denise Hayes, Lesli Niino, Mary Ann Brown, Sherry Martinez, Julie Foresi, Kay Keating, McAllister Donnell, Toni Reno, Nancy Barton, Shari Mongaral, Debbie Ellington, Susan Munoz, Charlene Poore, Lee Ann Rutherford, and I guess that’s about it. All are alive and going to high school. They are good kids, and I liked meeting them.”
I think this is a good story; not because I wrote it, but just because it is good. A world class author who doesn’t like to speak to students comes to Madera High at the behest of one of its teachers and winds up recording the experience in the last book he would ever write.
In my view, that’s a tale worth keeping.