Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Shaping the Future

"Teaching is the only major occupation of man for which we have not yet developed tools that make an average person capable of competence and performance. In teaching we rely on the "naturals," the ones who somehow know how to teach.”

-- Peter F. Drucker

I've had many teachers in my life, primary, middle and high school teachers, instructors, lecturers and college professors, but perhaps the two teachers who have had the greatest impact on my life never taught me in a classroom. They were my grandparents, Harlan and Ila Geyer.

Harlan was born on July 22, 1920 in Lime Creek Township, Washington, Iowa, and was raised just north of Wellman. He was the oldest of twelve children born to Francis Grant and Grace (McGimpsey) Geyer. In 1920, his father was a tenant farmer, working rented land to support his quickly growing family. Life was stressful; they had problems making ends meet for a family that grew with the birth of a child every two years. As Harlan would later put it, "We didn't have much."

But Harlan was a good student and in 1936, he decided to enter the Normal Training Program at Wellman High School. The Normal Training Program was passed into law by the Iowa State Legislature in 1911 and existed as part of the Wellman, Iowa education system between 1927 and 1945. The law included the following section:

"In order to develop an interest in rural life, at least one semester in Agriculture, Domestic Science and Manual Training is given a special place in the course. Two semesters in Pedagogy and one semester in Methods, together with emphasis on Observation and Practice Teaching is the specific professional feature of the Normal Training High School Course."

Deliberately or not, Harlan was following in the footsteps of his uncle Harold Geyer, a Class of 1927 graduate, who was one of Wellman's first Normal Training graduates.

Harlan Geyer, Sr. in 1938 (22 July 1920 - 24 March 2006)

It was strenuous, demanding work, with students sometimes coming to school before classes to study and staying late, often until suppertime, to complete the extra assignments the program required. The curriculum included specialized courses in Education Psychology, School Management, and Methods. Methods, a practical course designed to teach effective lesson development and instill good teaching principles, was especially detested, as can be seen in this parody, written and performed during a Normal Training Club meeting by Wellman Class of 1930 Normal Training graduates J. Paul Yoder and Walter Marner, with assistance from Stanley Eash and Clifford Monroe:

(Tune - "I've Been Working on the Railroad")

Verse 1:
Oh, I was born in Wellman town,
A-workin' on my Methods.
All day long I write the outline down
A-workin' on my Methods.

I've been workin' on my Methods
All the live long day.
I've been workin' on my Methods
To pass the time away.
Don't you hear the school bell ringin'?
Hurry to Room Five!
Get your books and start to workin'
We sure have to strive.

Verse 2:
I hope to teach a country school
If I survive my Methods.
But I will never be so cruel
As to make them work on Methods

Verse 3:
And when I die and go away
Still workin' on my Methods,
I wonder will St. Peter say,
"Do you have your Methods?"

Harlan's Normal Training Certificate

In May 1938, Harlan graduated Wellman High School and along with his diploma, received a Normal Training Certificate. He got a position teaching in a one-room schoolhouse Lookout No. 6, in English River, Washington, Iowa, where he taught for a year. He kept in touch with two of his students, exchanging Christmas cards every year. Here, Harlan describes a visit he made back to Iowa with his second wife, Mary:

We looked up where my old school was. Ila’s old school was more modern and it became a home for somebody because it had running water and electricity, but mine was just way out in the middle of nowhere, so it no longer existed. Well, we went back and seen these kids, the only two of my students that I ever really got contact with were my eighth grader and my kindergartner. The eighth grader, his mother was a widow when he was going to school and when I got in contact with him, the kindergartner, him and his wife were rentin’ my eighth grader’s farm. The eighth grader had built another house on his farm, so actually my kindergartner and my eighth grader still are back in where the school was at, on my eighth grader’s farm. And I hear from them regularly every year and we went to visit them, Mary and I did. So, it’s out in the middle between West Chester, Kalona and Wellman.

Page 1 of Harlan's Teachers Annual Report for Lookout No. 6, English River Township, Washington County, Iowa, May 1939

Between September 5, 1938 and May 5, 1939, Harlan taught eleven students, five boys and six girls. As seen on page 1 of his Teachers Annual Report, he earned $50 a month, putting the approximate average cost of tuition per student per month at $5, a fact that was recorded on the report. The girls' attendance was 97% for the year, while the boys' was 89%. Illa Belle Kauffman, age seven, was able to attend less than 24 weeks of school because of heart trouble, poor health and distance to the school.

Page 2 of Harlan's Teachers Annual Report for Lookout No. 6, English River Township, Washington County, Iowa, May 1939

The school was not in very good condition. As Harlan stated before, they had no electricity or running water. On page 2 of the report, he rates the condition of the girls' outhouse and the fuel house as poor and states that the most urgent needs of the school are better out-buildings, a new blackboard and a more sanitary drinking fountain.

Harlan gave instruction in American citizenship, physiology and hygiene with special reference to stimulants and narcotics, elements of vocal music, fifty minutes of physical education a week, the Constitution of the U.S. and of Iowa, and the history of Iowa. Volunteers managed to raise $7.41 for the school at the Christmas Program, with the money left in the charge of the School Treasurer. The report asks if the American flag was displayed regularly, it was until "lately", when the rope broke.

Page 3 of Harlan's Teachers Annual Report for Lookout No. 6, English River Township, Washington County, Iowa, May 1939

Page 3 of the report gives the students' names and marks. Enrolled in his class were: Glada L. Hollcraft, Harold Horak, Merle Venzke, Robert Scott, Darlene Venzke, Rosetta Vodicka, Harald Mass, Viola Kauffman, Edna Hoover, Leota Hoover, and Allan Stransky. All advanced to the next grade level.

Soon after he started teaching, he became friends with his future wife, Ila Bear. Harlan describes their first encounter:

Probably the first time I met her was at the teacher’s meeting. She was teaching in Washington County. There was Orville Hradek and Arvid Wagamon and I, and we were sitting behind these girls and we just wanted to tease them and I guess I stuck a pin in Ila, I don’t remember that much about it. It’s just one of the things to do when you’re a kid. I was only 18.

Ila Bear (11 June 1913 - 13 March 1992)

Ila Iola Bear was born on June 11, 1913 in Johns, Appanoose, Iowa, the daughter of Samuel Lewis and Bessie Belle (Ginkens) Bear. Her father, Samuel, was a farmer and an outstanding carpenter, who died in 1939 after his horses bolted, causing him to fall from the hay wagon, which resulted in two crushed neck vertebrae. Her mother Bessie was a school teacher before marriage.

As long as her younger brother John could remember, Ila wanted to be a school teacher as well. She graduated from Seymour High School in Wayne County, Iowa on May 12, 1932. Perhaps she wasn't the most studious girl there, in her junior year high school yearbook, her initials I.I.B. are jokingly said to stand for "Interested In Boys."

On September 9, 1935, Ila entered the Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls, Iowa, now the University of Northern Iowa. A brief history from their website:

The College of Education is the oldest department on campus; in fact, UNI began as a teacher preparation school in 1876. The university was renamed the Iowa State Teachers College in 1909, and the State College of Iowa in 1961. Not until that year did the college allow its students to graduate without completing the teacher preparation sequence.

Ila's Admission to Iowa State Teachers College,
November 22, 1935

Her brother, John Bear, remembers when he and their brother Claude Bear dropped Ila off for school:

Ila went to Cedar Falls Teacher, in order to be a teacher, you know. I remember Claude and I took her up there to get enrolled and she told us to drive by the women’s dorm and honk our horn and all the women come out and looked out the windows. Another thing I’ll tell you, from southern Iowa up to Cedar Falls have a different accent and they made fun of her cause she had kind of a southern accent. And she got even with them. You heard of hedge balls?

They call them Osage-oranges. They grow pretty big and they’re green and they’re rough outside and then what they have inside is kind of like a milky stuff that’s sticky. But you get them and put them in your basement and you won’t have any spiders. Spiders don’t like 'em. But that’s how she got even with some of them girls up there for teasin' her cause she had that accent. They thought you could eat 'em and everything. They’d kill you if you ate 'em. They’re poison. She took some of 'em up there to them. Some of 'em thought that they could bite 'em. She had to stop them.

Peace must have been declared at this point, as Ila's signature book from her time at ISTC is full of poems and sentiments of friendship from her fellow students. Incidentally, Osage-oranges, also known as hedge-apples, are apparently not strongly poisonous, causing only mild vomiting when eaten (link), and have not been clinically proven to deter pests (link).

Ila's Iowa State Teachers College Transcript

At ISTC, Ila took classes in composition & rhetoric, English literature, American literature, grammar, medieval and modern history, US history, civics, economics, algebra, plane geometry, agriculture, general science, physics, physiology, physiography, arithmetic, home economics, pedagogy, and psychology.

After two semesters of instruction, Ila was ready for a teaching position, completing her ISTC coursework during summer sessions. During the 1936-1937 school year, she was the teacher at Brushy No. 3 in Walnut Township, Wayne, Iowa. She spent two years, from Sept 1938 to May 1940, at Union Rural School in Lime Creek Township, Washington, Iowa, which, in 1940, was considered one of the best, most well-equipped rural schools in Washington County.

From September 1940 to May 1941, she was an elementary grades teacher at Huron School, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa. She taught elementary school at Fort Byron, Illinois from 1941 to 1942, and from September 1942 until June 1946, she taught elementary grades in East Moline, Illinois. On October 20, 1943, she graduated from ISTC with a Bachelor of Arts in Elementary Education.

She corresponded regularly with her old friend Harlan and after he returned from service in the Pacific, he proposed. They married on June 11, 1945 in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. Afterwards, she returned to East Moline, where she lived with her brother John, while the US Marine Corp sent Harlan to school in Missouri. According to both John and Harlan, she was the first school teacher in East Moline that was allowed to continue teaching after marriage. Up till that time, women were expected to retire to their homes to raise their families upon marriage.

Harlan and Ila Geyer

In 1947, they moved to California, where Harlan was stationed at Camp Pendleton. That year, Ila gave birth to my father, Harlan Geyer, Jr., known by family and friends as Jr., and she changed careers to become a stay-at-home mom. My aunt Cherie remembers:

Jr. had trouble learning when he was young. I can remember sitting on the little brown wooden chair while she tutored Jr. and Joey Tudor in reading (with the Dick and Jane books). Maybe he was 7 or 8, and I was 3 or 4. She's why I excelled in school. She's also the reason I developed my love for reading. They both loved to teach and all the time I was in school I was going to grow up and be a teacher like my parents. My mom taught me that a girl always had to have an education and a profession that she could fall back on if something ever happened to her husband. Teaching offered that.

I remember being taught to read by my grandmother even before going off to school. I'd sit on her lap, reading out of ancient, dog-eared Dick and Jane readers, I expect that they're the same ones she taught my father out of. She and my grandfather volunteered at my elementary school, Floris Elementary, throughout my years there, touching the lives of children of still another generation.

My grandmother died on March 13, 1992, after several long years of fighting cancer. She provided me with one last lesson; she was the first difficult loss of my life. Although it was a hard lesson that I didn't want to learn at the time, my grandfather taught me about acceptance and moving on, remarrying a wonderful, very loving and kind woman, Mary. After the passing of both Mary and his son, Harlan Jr., in 2001, my grandfather stepped up to fill the role of father for my siblings and I, even making the long 12 hour flight from Washington DC to Berlin, Germany in 2003, at the ripe old age of 83, to escort me down the aisle at my wedding. He passed away last year, on March 24, 2006.

Selected sources:

[1] "Normal Training Program" in Wellman, Iowa Centennial 1879-1979, Wellman Centennial Committee (Wellman, Iowa, 1979), 178-181.

[2] Interview with Harlan Geyer, Sr. (Reston, VA), by author, 26 November 2005. Mr. Geyer is now deceased.

[3] Washington County Rural Schools, IaGenWeb, Washington County, online <http://www.rootsweb.com/~iawashin/schools.htm>. Previously published in hard copy: "Rural Schools of Washington County - 1983, Lime Creek Township," Washington County Genealogical Society Newsletter 19 (June 2002): 9-10, 6; originally published 1940-1941.

[4] Interview with John Bear (Aurora, MO), by author, 5 January 2006, in Reston, VA.

[5] E-mail messages from Cherie Geyer to author, 1-2 May 2007.

[6] "Papers of Harlan and Ila (Bear) Geyer," (1932-2006); owned by their daughter, Cherie Geyer; electronic copy in possession of author.


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