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Rebecca Nace Koch ’48

Becky was the fifth child of Congregational missionaries Israel George Nace and Mary Rosa Keifer, born in the winter of 1927 in the small Japanese town of Akita. Mary was a marine biologist who passed her love of nature to her children. Becky’s childhood unfolded in Japan, then at an orphanage run by her grandfather in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Finally the family moved to Tillamook and then to Portland. Becky was a peripatetic little girl, traveling around the world by ship, and across the country by car. Experiences at Bible camp, Girl Scout camps, and summer camps on the Oregon coast and at Mt. St. Helens fostered her love for the outdoors. She even worked as a fire lookout in remote towers in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Becky’s interests also included knitting and sewing, playing the bass in the Portland Junior Symphony, and making friends.

Graduating from Grant High School at the age of 16, she followed her older siblings, Margaret Mitter ’39, George Nace ’43, and Robert Nace ’45 to Reed. She was particularly fond of reading sessions at the home of Prof. Ruth Collier [English 1933-52]. Later, when Becky taught in Japan, she invited her students to potluck suppers at her home where they read aloud from their literature assignments.

She had the idea of teaching outdoors where she could combine her love of children and nature. Leaving Reed, she finished her bachelor’s degree at Springfield College in Massachusetts, in the first class of women admitted to the previously all-male college. But she always regretted leaving Reed and said, “There is no way to describe the extent of my Reed experience for it permeates all my activities of life.” She met her first husband, Bill Koch, at Springfield.

A natural leader and teacher, Becky’s early career revolved around teaching and directing a variety of summer camps, and she taught at the first outdoor school in the nation. She spent more than 30 years working in outdoor education, and with the developmentally disabled, criminal offenders and senior citizens.

Becky, Bill, and their five children lived in Texas, Phoenix, Chicago, New York City, and North Carolina, before establishing a long-term home in Madison, Wisconsin. They built their careers on helping people in tangible ways, working for civil rights, gay rights, desegregation, the war on poverty, and marginalized populations. They advocated for people with disabilities, and taught children to conserve nature and make a difference wherever they happened to be. When their marriage ended after 25 years, Becky moved back to Portland in 1978 and started her next chapter. She became an advocate and volunteer coordinator, recruiting foster grandparents for kids, advocating for people with disabilities, and spending time sharing her love of Oregon with her own children, relatives, and a handful of foreign exchange students.

A topnotch tennis player, she enjoyed games and puzzles of every kind. On weekends Becky worked at the ski lodge at Mt. Hood Meadows because she loved being at the mountain around interesting people. She also played in her church bell choirs for years.

When her last child went off to college, Becky taught at Kwassui Women’s College in Nagasaki, Japan, and then at the IEC Foreign Language Institute in Yatsushiro, where she chaired the English department.

She returned to Reed in the 1990s as a member of the Women’s Committee, and audited several classes. She particularly loved taking Hum again. In 1995, she traveled to Poland with a team of volunteers to teach English to children, most of who had never met an American.

“I didn’t go with the attitude that I would change the world overnight,” she said, “but every little bit helps.”

In retirement she volunteered at the Rhododendron Garden and ushered at the Performing Arts Center and Chamber Music Northwest.  She moved to Terwilliger Plaza, and made it her responsibility to recruit and welcome new residents. At the age of 80, she shocked everyone when she fell in love with and married Peter Serrell, another resident at the Plaza. Peter died in 2008. Becky is survived by her children, Susan Keifer Gegenhuber, John Koch, Emily McGowan, Theodore Koch, and Sarah Koch, her stepdaughter Barbara Serrell Hansen ’62, and granddaughters Izzakate, Crystal, and Brittany.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2016

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