Teachers recall students they lost in Jonestown in ‘And Then They Were Gone’

San Francisco Chronicle, Datebook/November 16, 2018

By Sam Whiting

Each November the names of the dead come to Judy Bebelaar as if she’s back in class for roll call.

Rory Bargeman, Wesley Breidenbach, Marilee Bogue, Joyce Brown, Dorothy Buckley, Cindy Cordell, Cleveland Garcia, Amondo Griffith, Lisa Lewis, Teddy McMurray, Kimberly Fye, Mark Sly, Ollie Smith, Willie Thomas, Cornelius Truss …

These teenage victims of the Jonestown massacre had all been students at a San Francisco continuation school called Opportunity II High School, where Bebelaar either taught them or counseled them. She considered many of them her friends, before the Rev. Jim Jones transferred them to his own school in the jungle of Guyana, leaving Bebelaar with nothing but a stack of attendance cards signed by her students, held together by a rubber band.

These cards and stapled-together class poetry anthologies later became primary resources for her new book, “And Then They Were Gone: Teenagers of Peoples Temple From High School to Jonestown.” Bebelaar is scheduled to read excerpts from the book Thursday, Nov. 15, at East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, in time to commemorate the tragedy’s 40th anniversary.

“This is the only book about the Peoples Temple teenagers,” says the 78-year-old Bebelaar, a retired English and creative writing teacher, who lives in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. “The only one that approaches it through their eyes.”

“And Then They Were Gone,” co-written with Ron Cabral, who was Opportunity II’s journalism teacher and baseball coach, re-creates an obscure chapter in the Peoples Temple story.

In the fall of 1976, the renegade preacher Jones, who had brought his flock down from the Redwood Valley, was able to circumvent the school’s protocol and enroll about 80 of his disciples into Opportunity II, increasing the student body by one-third. Jones used Opportunity II as a holding station, pulling children out of class at will to populate rallies and other Peoples Temple events. But he gave his word that when they were at school, his disciples would not cause a problem.

“The Temple kids had this energy, and they wanted to be good students and do interesting things,” recalls Bebelaar, who taught creative writing and ran the school’s literary journal. “They were informed. They were articulate. They had opinions about things.”

Though they stuck together and were sometimes guarded about their Peoples Temple connection, the students participated in the school poetry journal, In Small Dreams, hosted the radio show “Natural High Express” on KALW-FM, and helped form the school’s first sports team, in baseball.

But Opportunity II never put out a yearbook, and the San Francisco Unified School District could not find any record of the institution. Bebelaar, who retired after 37 years with the district, contacted her former employer to get the attendance list for Opportunity II’s classes of 1975 and ’76. She couldn’t obtain it “due to legal reasons,” she was told.

“Even today, Peoples Temple and Jonestown is a sensitive topic,” says Bebelaar. “I think the school district may not want to be associated with it.”

Bebelaar knows that Opportunity II, a branch of another alternative high school, existed, because she helped create it. The concept was to help children struggling with their grades, or who had truancy or pregnancy issues, graduate by giving them more attention and a different curriculum. The teachers would also serve as counselors, and grades would be mixed together with no class exceeding 15 students.

Fundamental to the whole concept was an interview before a panel of teachers and students to make sure each applicant was right for Opportunity II.

Bebelaar was on the faculty when Opportunity II opened at 739 Bryant St. in 1972, and stayed with the school when it moved to a two-story corner building at 160 S. Van Ness Ave., at Plum Street, in the fall of 1975.

It was Opportunity II that Jones selected for the Temple’s high school students, many of whom lived in communal homes in the vicinity of the Peoples Temple on Geary Boulevard. Most of them had attended George Washington High School, the big public campus in the Outer Richmond. None of them was submitted to the personal interviews required of all other candidates for Opportunity II.

“They just came,” says Bebelaar. “The principal told us that Jim Jones was her No. 1 and made arrangements to comply with his request that all the Peoples Temple kids come to Opportunity.”

Bebelaar recalls that the students arrived over several weeks, so as not to swamp the system. In the first batch came Stephan Jones, the only biological child of Jim and Marceline Jones, and his adoptive brothers Jim and Tim Jones.

They were followed soon by their father, who came to the school’s open house and returned to speak to the students. Bebelaar recalls that one child, not a Peoples Temple member, asked Jones why he never took off his sunglasses. That earned the student the ire of the school principal, Yvonne Golden, but Jones ignored the question and kept his shades on.

“He was impressive,” Bebelaar says. “He talked a good line.”

The two-story school had no gym or athletic facilities. But Cabral, who had been a catcher at Poly High School, had been determined to form a baseball team (he even got The Chronicle to write about the team in 1974).

He never could muster nine players until the Peoples Temple students arrived. The Cobras, as they called themselves, had to transfer buses to get to the assigned practice field, in the far south reach of the city. But they qualified to join the Academic Athletic Association as a junior varsity team and swept the practice schedule against the big athletic schools like Mission, Wilson (now Burton High) and Washington.

Uniforms arrived with an O on the cap and the Cobra logo across the chest. It was like something out of “The Music Man,” until one of the stars, pitcher Tim Jones, was abruptly pulled from school in March, to help out at the Peoples Temple agricultural preserve in Jonestown, Guyana.

“We were a great team, and we would have won the championship for sure. But after we lost Tim, we were mediocre,” recalls Manny Blackwell, a catcher who left the Peoples Temple while at Opportunity.

That spring, the population of Jonestown increased from 65 residents to 350, and the student body of Opportunity II decreased accordingly. All three of Jones’ sons and half the starting nine on the Cobras baseball team were among the students pulled out of school to go to Jonestown.

Then summer came and with it the publication of the first exposé on the Peoples Temple in New West magazine.

“That’s when Jones started shipping people off in the middle of the night,” Bebelaar says. “Some of them traveling across the country on buses so the public wouldn’t realize there was this huge exodus.”

In the fall of 1977, Opportunity II lost its campus in the urban core and was relocated to a facility on the San Francisco State University campus. The California Department of Education, the statewide record keeper, has no record of Opportunity II.

Bebelaar says it later became Ida B. Wells High School, next to Alamo Square Park. The Opportunity II campus at 160 S. Van Ness is now the Department of Human Services for the city and county of San Francisco.

A year after the Peoples Temple children all left, Bebelaar moved to Galileo High School to teach English and creative writing. She was just getting acclimated when the shock surfaced of mass deaths from drinking cyanide-spiked Flavor Aid, on Nov. 18, 1978.

“I was used to having one or two students die a year because these were kids who had difficult lives,” Bebelaar says. “That was what Opportunity was for. There were auto accidents and drug overdoses.”

It took until Dec. 17 for the Sunday Examiner & Chronicle to run its first list of victims. Bebelaar counted the names of 19 Opportunity students on it. Among the survivors were Stephan, Tim and Jim Jones Jr. They were spared because they played on the Jonestown basketball team and had been away in Georgetown, Guyana, for a tournament the day of the massacre.

By the following spring, Cabral had moved to Wilson High School, where he coached the varsity baseball team. One day at practice in early 1979, two of his old players came out to say hello — brothers Tim and Stephan Jones. Tim asked if he could throw batting practice and Stephan went up in the stands to watch, over the shoulder of coach Cabral.

That was the last they saw of Tim Jones, but Stephan, who now lives in Marin County, was willing to help his former teachers and turned out to be a crucial source in the writing of “And Then They Were Gone.”

The inspiration for the book came after Bebelaar and Cabral watched Leigh Fondakowski’s play “The People’s Temple” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2005.  It took 12 years to write.

“The book started out to honor the students and have people know who they were,” Bebelaar says, “but as it progressed it became a way of healing for me.”

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