Fri, 06/05/2020 - 1:09pm admin
Chances are, if you went to Willow Springs High School from 1927 to 1967, you had Mrs. Jessie Munford as an English teacher. Even if you came afterwards, most likely you have heard stories about her.
I have previously described her as Jennifer Jones in the vintage movie Good Morning, Miss Dove, a teacher with an implied highhandedness that could put a smart aleck in his place by raising an eyebrow. Always impeccably dressed from stores in Springfield, her hair was never out of place.
I recently queried classmate Glenda Turner about her recollection of our teacher, and her description was nearly identical to mine. “Ah, Mrs. Munford . . . beautiful blue eyes peering over glasses that brought you in line without a single word. She was always impeccably dressed and coiffed.”
Mrs. Munford arrived at WSHS, with her newly-acquired Bachelor of Science in Education from Central Missouri State College in 1927, along with her husband Ted. Over her long career she taught history, English, debate, speech, publications, and even physical education. But most of my generation remember her as the English teacher.
Recent phone calls from two longtime Willow Springs residents actually prompted this article. Marguerite Wehmer called me to talk about the article I had written about the Baptist Church Camp—she had gone there, too—in the 1940s. But as our conversation turned to all-things Willow Springs, I was surprised to learn she had also been a student of Mrs. Munford. A week later, Louise Gaulden called me and I learned that she, too, had Mrs. Munford as a teacher. I had gone to school with both ladies’ children, and it got me to thinking.
I recall as clearly as if it were today, the first time I actually saw Mrs. Munford. Standing, with her ever-perfect posture on the WSHS auditorium stage, she was directing the Willamizzou photographer at the end of the 1959 Fall Fiesta ceremony. Phyliss Lovan and I were the 7th grade king and queen candidates.
Mrs. Munford arranged the student kings and queens just so for the perfect photo, and then in an imperial, theatrical voice, said “Smile, darn ya, smile.” Incidentally, this phrase was the title of a 1931 movie cartoon, but for some reason, it annoyed my pre-teen self. Perhaps, it had to do with the lateness of the hour, or that my class had lost to Janice Corn and Randy James (both, WSHS ’67).
The next morning when her name came up at the breakfast table, I spoke of her in unflattering terms, and my stepfather admonished me not to sound like him. Little did I know, Mrs. Munford would be my English teacher for the next five years, and that I would come to admire and appreciate her like few other teachers.
She wasn’t touchy-feely or one to gush over your accomplishments. Helen Tandy, a former student, who returned to WSHS in 1961 to teach as a colleague of Mrs. Munford, says, “There weren’t any funny things that happened in her classes. She was all business. I will just say, I was scared of her. However, I learned more from her than any teacher I ever had, even in college. I was so prepared for college and I owe it to her.”
Personally, I can’t say I was ever afraid of her, even in the 8th grade when my class had all high school teachers, but she demanded a standard of excellence. If she saw a culprit chewing gum, her response never varied— “park your gum.” Even so, she would seamlessly ask an easy question of a shy student to allow him or her the opportunity to participate and give a correct answer.
At times I am surprised I did well in her classes. Elliot’s Silas Marner made me catatonic. Bryant’s poem Thanatopsis was beyond my ability to appreciate. The most significant thing I recall from Shakespeare’s McBeth was classmates Annette Tetrick and Donna Spence reading the witches’ parts out loud in class with impressive, shrill cackles. But I did OK in writing, because I applied her often-repeated mantra: there is no such thing as good writing—just good rewriting.
Nothing in my memory tops the assignment she gave us our freshman year. We were to write business letters seeking employment. As you might imagine, most were simple and unexciting. For example, Eddie Mack Hill wrote to his aunt for a summer lawn-mowing job. John McGlynn’s letter, however, was a different matter. John, generally an “A” student, got a big fat “F” for a grammatically-perfect, error-free letter. Mrs. Munford took exception to his choice of employment.
John directed his letter to Hugh Heffner, the publisher of Playboy magazine, for the position of head photographer. In the letter, he advised Mr. Heffner that his lack of experience in photography would not be a problem because of his “enthusiasm.” In addition to the big “F” marked in red, she wrote, “I don’t appreciate corn.” As an afternote, John went on to obtain a business degree from the University of Arkansas and went into the grocery business.
Mrs. Munford didn’t suffer insubordination lightly. Mrs. Wehmer told me that once when she was a student, on the day of a test, Mrs. Munford told students to clear everything off their desks. In response, her classmate Ed Elmore dropped a stack of books on the floor making a loud boom. Mrs. Munford marched straight to his desk and slapped him across the face. Whether that incident led Ed to becoming a member of the Missouri Highway Patrol is not clear, but I gather on that day, it set him on the straight and narrow.
Although systematic and methodical in class, her personal life reflected a caring, considerate side. Noblesse oblige, a favorite precept of hers, refers to the obligation of anyone who is in a better position than others to act respectably and charitably. Over the years, she and her husband donated food and clothing to those in need, with little fanfare. Not surprisingly, the Willow Chamber of Commerce honored her with the Citizen of the Year award in 1960.
Working on the Willamizzou staff, which Mrs. Munford headed, I found her to be collegial and relaxed, and would even laugh at a clever joke. Glenda Turner, yearbook editor our senior year, said, “I would occasionally see her outside her ‘professional’ stance. On those occasions, she was a bit playful and nurturing. Looking back, I think she was one of the few older (at the time) women I truly admired. She was quite a beautiful human being.” Another female classmate told me it was because of Mrs. Munford’s encouragement that she finished college.
Mrs. Munford passed away in 1992. By the time I was born, she had been a teacher for twenty years. I can only imagine what it must have been like for her teaching the sons and daughters of her former students; seeing students march off to three major wars; or watching them become parents, teachers, schoolboard members, mayors, statewide office holders, judges, lawyers, doctors, a U.S. Congressman, or writers. But that is her legacy, and for some of us, she is part of ours.