Serious illness usually curtails a person's career activities, but not so with retired educator Irene Caldwell Hypps. A stroke she suffered three years ago led to a new career: The 83-year-old widow has become a published poet.
"It was not until my field of activity became limited that I began to produce seriously," said Hypps, who regarded her writing as a hobby for more than 60 years.
In her book, "Dimensions Poems and Prose-Poetry," Hypps spins 90 yarns about friends, family and nature. One of her favorites, "Beginnings," tells of a special fig tree in the back yard of her childhood home in Mobile, Ala.
The fig tree mothered me,
And the black birds flying home
Were the cousins of my childhood.
"I used to sit in that tree all the time. I could see everything from there and no one could see me," she laughed, clasping her arthritic hands over her knee. "I didn't like anyone to see me cry. So when I caught a whipping, or if somebody hurt my feelings, it was just a comforting place to be."
The younger of two daughters of educators, Hypps said she attempted to avoid a teaching career despite her training at New Orleans' Straight College, now Dillard University.
After college, she got a government job in Washington during World War I, but after a few years she decided it was not the way she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
A stint at Howard University for an English degree led to a two-year teaching position in 1926, which later would blossom into a 40-year career in District public schools.
Although she recalls writing her first poems in the 1920s, it was during her post-graduate work at New York University that she discovered her talent for poetry and prose. While in New York, Hypps earned a master's degree in journalism and later commuted from the District to complete her PhD in education.
A stint as a reporter for The New York Amsterdam News turned Hypps from journalism. "The pace was too rapid," she said during an interview at her apartment in Silver Spring. "I like to verify things."
She was married in New York in the early 1930s to Albert Hypps, who worked in advertising, and shortly afterward they moved to the District, where she resumed the teaching career she had started several years earlier.
During her years with the District school system, Hypps also was active in civil rights organizations and educational reform movements. Always shunning publicity, Hypps says her rewards came from organizing and formulating programs, and "staying in the background."
"When I was president of the District Urban League, she was on my board," said former City Council chairman Sterling Tucker. "The one thing about her was that she was creative, she always found new and innovative ways to do everything."
After the death of her husband and her retirement as assistant supervisor of business education for the District school system, Hypps became a consultant and lecturer.
"I had intended to take contract jobs forever," she said. "But nature saw to that. . . . I had to stop and be still."
She says it was during her convalescence that a friend suggested that she write and publish her poetry.
Aside from a poetry workshop at the University of Vermont in the early 1970s, Hypps had no formal literary training.
"It is important for everybody, especially young people, to be cognizant of the fact that everybody has more potential than they will ever use," she said in the halting speech that has plagued her for the last three years. "We should always be striving to produce that outflow."
With her first volume behind her, Hypps says she has plenty of material for a second, but her health is her main concern now.
"I really don't have that much strength," she said wistfully. "And I find the funniest thing is that most things don't interest me now. . . . I guess it's just age."