Jenkins school teacher celebrates 90th birthday

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Maxine Wilson, a long-time Barry County resident and retired school teacher, spent Saturday surrounded by friends and family members. A special celebration was held at Blessing Heights Church in Cassville in honor of Maxine's 90th birthday.

"I'm thankful I'm alive and had a 90th birthday," said Maxine. "I never realized I would reach 90, but now that I have, I think I'll try for 100."

Although she has spent the majority of her life in Barry County, Maxine and her twin sister, Berniece, were born in Stone County. Berniece passed away six months after the twins were born.

Maxine's mother, Grace Alice Barton Steele, also passed away when Maxine was a very small child. This left Maxine in the care of her father, Alfred Steele, and older brother, Finis Steele. She also had a younger brother, Robert Steele.

In 1937, Maxine graduated from Crane High School, and thanks to her father began a career in education that would span over three decades.

"Those were real hard times," said Maxine. "Back then, if you thought you were smart enough and you could find a school that wasn't keeping their teacher you could teach school.

"I don't know if I thought I was smart, but my dad took me around Stone County and then we came to Barry County looking for a school that needed a teacher," said Maxine.

One of the schools that Maxine's father took her was Ozark School District 29, which was located off of Highway 39 north of Leann in Barry County. In 1937, Ozark had already hired a teacher, but the following year Maxine was invited to begin teaching at the one-room, first-through-eighth-grade school.

"I started staying with a couple," said Maxine. "The place where I stayed wasn't quite a mile from the school house.

"On the last Friday of each month I would walk one mile down the road and then another mile through the field to where the school board clerk lived," said Maxine. "Back then they didn't call it a check. They called it a warrant. I would walk to his house, and he would write out my warrant."

In the late 1930s, many area country schools hosted events known as singing schools in the evening or on the weekend. It was at one of these events that Maxine met the love of her life, Onis Wilson.

"Onis was a good bass singer," said Maxine. "He and three other boys would come up from Shell Knob."

Later, Onis and the other young men began attending pie supper events that were held to raise money for the Ozark School's operating costs.

"Those boys would do everything they could to aggravate us," Maxine said with a smile. "Onis would always buy my pie at the supper. Then he would either take me home or walk home with me."

In 1941, Maxine succumbed to Onis' charm and the two were married. Maxine resigned her position at the Ozark School and moved to Shell Knob with Onis.

Around five years later, the Wilsons completed construction on the home that Maxine would occupy for 62 years. Around the same time, Onis was drafted into the military and sent to Germany.

After Onis returned from Germany, like many Barry Countians, it became harder for the Wilsons to earn money to live on. In 1954, the family travelled west to find work.

"In the 1950s things got really bad," said Maxine. "Onis went out and cut trees and pulled them out in the pasture for the cows to eat. That was the only thing they had to eat.

"People began selling their cattle to go to work in California," said Maxine. "They went to work in the fruit in July, worked until the nuts came on in September and worked through the nuts for their money."

When the Wilsons got to California and began working, Maxine became ill, which prevented her from helping with the fruit harvest. While Onis and their son, Carl Alvin, worked, Maxine used her time to can the fruit that was found on the ground that the factories would not accept.

Before the year was over, Maxine received a letter from Barry County that invited her to come back to Missouri to teach at Gaddis School, which was located northwest of Shell Knob.

Maxine taught at the Gaddis School for 10 years. When she first accepted the position, she used her truck to transport over a dozen students to school each day. She also was in charge of cleaning the school and building a fire in the fireplace each morning.

"Later, the school board hired Larry Stockton and Harold Henson to do the janitor work, start the fire and sweep the floor," said Maxine. "I think they paid them around 50 cents a day."

While working at Gaddis School, Maxine learned that districts were starting to require a degree and teaching certificate, which she was determined to receive.

"I took night classes," said Maxine. "I also enrolled in correspondence courses. I did everything I could, because I wanted to get my degree."

Maxine recalled her first day in a college English class. The teacher asked the class if any of the students knew the verses to "Barbara Allen."

"Charles Vaughn and I were sitting on the back row, and I raised my hand," said Maxine. "The teacher said to stand up and recite the poem, and I recited all 13 verses. After that I wondered what she would have done if I would have sung the song."

In 1964, due to a lack of funding, the Gaddis School was closed and Maxine secured a position teaching third and fourth grades at Jenkins School. The following year, she received a bachelor of science degree in elementary education.

"I graduated from SMS in Springfield," said Maxine. "Back then they called it State Teacher's College. After I graduated, I found out that was the last year that they issued a lifetime teaching certificate."

Maxine taught third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades at Jenkins Elementary School for 20 years. She also served as instructor for the district's Head Start program during two summers.

Maxine's 34-year teaching career touched many Barry County residents. She helped educate individuals who went on to become school administrators, business owners, managers, certified public accountants and software analysts. One of her students even went on to work for NASA.

"I learned a lot as a teacher," said Maxine. "My first year I learned more than the children did I think. I learned to hold up for myself, and I learned to ask for help if I needed it."

In 1984, Maxine retired from her teaching career. After retiring, she spent her time gardening and travelling.

Although Onis passed away in 1986, Maxine continued to live on their farm near Shell Knob until last year when she moved to Cassville to be closer to her daughters, Dee Walker and Linda Phillips.

In addition to her three children, Maxine has six grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and three great-great-grandchildren.

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