Reading Clinic founder turns 100
Elizabeth Kitson isn't all that impressed about turning 100.
It's understandable considering her life experiences.
She remembers being wonderstruck by electricity when it was introduced here; equally unforgettable is a journey to Britain during the Second World War when the ship she was travelling on was torpedoed. And then there are the hundreds of children she's helped through the charity she founded 50 years ago, The Reading Clinic.
“It's just another birthday,” she shrugged, although she admitted she was looking forward to the tea party her family has planned this afternoon in her honour.
Mrs Kitson grew up on Pitts Bay Road, Pembroke, the fourth of five children. Her father, Arthur Gorham, was a Front Street merchant; her mother, Muriel Masters, ran the busy household.
“Bermuda was a lot quieter then,” she said.
She remembers the day her family got electricity for the first time.
“It was very exciting. I'd started school, so I had to have been at least 5. My father had us all stand around in the house. He pointed to a lightbulb and said, ‘At 6pm, that light will come on'. We all stood there. When the light came on it was a miracle to us.”
Oil lamps had provided lighting for the family until then.
“Someone came every day just to clean them,” Mrs Kitson said. “They got soot all over them.”
At 17, she got her first summer job, writing a social column for The Royal Gazette.
“I did the best I could, but I was terrible,” she laughed. “But people seemed to like it, so I did it. Of course, I was careful not to offend anyone. I wasn't stupid.”
It was around that time that she met her future husband commander, Geoffrey Kitson, a Scotsman here working for the Admiralty.
They shared a love of amateur dramatics and met while auditioning for a play.
War was declared on September 3, 1939. Worried that Commander Kitson might be sent elsewhere, they married on September 17.
A son, Kirk, was born the next year. Soon after, Commander Kitson was called to England to work for the Admiralty.
Mrs Kitson decided to go as well even though friends and family warned her against it, pointing out the dangers.
She and her son travelled by ship to England via Nova Scotia, leaving Commander Kitson in Bermuda to follow later.
Two days out of Halifax their ship was torpedoed.
“Kirk was a baby in his crib in the cabin,” Mrs Kitson said. “I remember the alarm went off. There was this bowl of fruit on the bureau, it went up in the air and the lights went out.”
All the passengers got into lifeboats and waited throughout the night.
“Kirk just slept in my arms,” she said. “He never woke up.”
Eventually, it was decided that the ship, while damaged, wasn't sinking. They reboarded and returned to Halifax.
There, Mrs Kitson stayed with a cousin while she waited for another ship. They were eventually joined by Commander Kitson; the family sailed on to England together.
“In London, we lived opposite Richmond Park,” she said. “They had the anti-aircraft guns going off there. I could go outside and watch them trying to catch the German bombers in their sites. It was interesting.”
She took shelter in a tiny bathroom under the stairs of their home during air raids. She would sit on the toilet while her son lay on a towel on the floor.
“It was just a toilet and basin and was reinforced,” she said. “It was the only place in the house that was about as safe as you could make it, except for a direct hit.
“I'd have to sit there in the dark. People think that war is exciting but really, unless you're being shot at, it's really boring.”
The Kitsons returned to Bermuda a few years after the war with a second son, Richard, in tow. They later had a daughter, Susanna.
Commander Kitson, who had left the Navy, started Kitson and Company offering real estate, insurance and travel services.
Meanwhile Mrs Kitson's interest was piqued by a private home on Pitts Bay Road which had fallen into disrepair.
She bought it and turned it into a hotel in 1954. Rosedon Hotel is now run by her grandchildren, Lee Petty and Scott Kitson. Commander Kitson died in 1997, aged 80; Mrs Kitson now lives in a building near the Pitts Bay Road property.
Reading keeps her busy.
“I go through a lot of books,” she said. “I can't always be bothered to finish some of them, they're so badly written. I pitch it and get another one.”
In her early forties, she enrolled at Columbia University in New York to become a reading specialist, concerned with the many problems that prevented young children from learning.
“I couldn't imagine not reading,” she said. “That would be a terrible handicap. I don't know if people thought it strange that I went back to school at that age. If they did, I didn't know and really didn't care.”
She returned home in the 1960s and started doing reading assessments, but quickly found it wasn't enough; there were no follow-up services. In 1968, she started The Reading Clinic, offering specialised instruction out of her home.
“Good Lord,” she said, “People just came out of the hills. There was a real need in the community.
“I just did what I could. That is how most things start. The thing is, you have to start. That is the hard bit.”
Some of the children she worked with had dyslexia, others had simply fallen behind in reading and needed some extra help.
In 1991, a former student who sat on the Bermuda High School for Girls' board helped secure a piece of land on the school property, giving The Reading Clinic a permanent home.
Mrs Kitson retired from her work with the charity in 2000, having helped hundreds of children learn to read.