Reclaiming a Childhood Friendship

PT0716.McKnight,Rose Marie (2)
Photo courtesy of the
California Historical Society.

I met Rose Marie VeZain McKnight in fourth grade at Chollas Elementary School in San Diego, California. Rose was a very happy girl with a ready smile. She had naturally curly hair and was what you might call chubby back then. Some of the kids used to tease her about her weight. Most of the time Rose just laughed it off, but sometimes it brought her to tears. She was one of the most good-natured people I have ever known, and remained very kind despite the teasing. Rose and I were friends, not the kind that visited one another’s homes but school friends.

I lost track of Rose after elementary school. Last year, I began thinking of her and wondered what became of her. When I attended my high school class reunion, I inquired about her. Although we did not attend the same high school, many of our elementary school classmates had and they remembered Rose. Someone said they heard Rose died in Jonestown. I could not believe – I did not want to believe – that such a beautiful person’s life could have ended so tragically. Even after I did a Google search on Jonestown and found this site, even after I saw Rose’s name listed on the “Jonestown Memorial List” page, I still did not want to believe it. But when I saw a picture of Rose, it was undeniably the same face, the same naturally curly hair, I remembered from elementary school.

Although I hadn’t seen Rose since elementary school, I was devastated. You see, Rose was one of those people that you never forget. I began to wonder what led her to join Peoples Temple and go to Jonestown. I know people change over time, but I didn’t see Rose as the type who would join such an organization. My first thoughts were that maybe the teasing about her weight carried over into her adult life, making her insecure. Maybe she felt acceptance from the members of Peoples Temple and joined.

The biographical box I found for Rose also had a remembrance from one of Rose’s high school friends. I was overwhelmingly happy to find that Rose was happy and well-liked in high school. I emailed the classmate who’d written the remembrance, hoping she would write back. When she did, I learned that Rose’s weight was never a problem for her in high school. Rose loved to make people laugh and they loved her so much that they didn’t care about her weight.

So what caused Rose to join Peoples Temple? I may never know. And I guess that’s not important. What matters most is that Rose was still the happy kind-hearted person that I knew in elementary school. And that’s how I will remember her.

(If you have any additional remembrances of Rose VeZain McKnight, we invite you to share them with Carolyn Brooks-Provost and Philene Gordon.)