Miss Roma Shively: A Short Woman in a Tall World

Photo provided by Knox College Library

Photo provided by Knox College Library

“This is the Alumni Office, Knox College.”

After some preliminaries, I asked, “What is the process for nominating someone for an alumni achievement award?”

The process was simple: fill out an application, submit a letter of support, and encourage others to do the same. “Whom do you want to nominate?” the director asked.

“Miss Roma Shively, my eighth grade English teacher.”

On the other end of the line, the director cleared his throat, “Mr. Taylor, do you realize what kinds of people receive Knox College Achievement Awards – people who have done something special? Mr. Taylor, without knowing more about Miss Shively, I don’t want to discourage you, but…”

No point in arguing her case. I just asked him to send the appropriate materials, thanked him, and hung up.

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Perhaps as early as third or fourth grade, I had heard about Miss Shively, or seen her standing at the top of the stairs at the school, peering down the stairway as the third graders marched in single file to recess. It was the late 40s. We were like little soldiers. She was like an owl, looking down from a tree, eyes blinking, and movements slow and deliberate. Her arms crossed. Everywhere we turned – in the hall, in the gymnasium, on the playground — we saw those eyes, magnified by thick lenses. Laughing and playing at recess, far from the classroom where silence was expected, students were known to have melted into silence if they saw Ms. Shively looking at them in just the right way. They would ask themselves: “What did I do wrong?” She commanded both fear and respect, not by yelling or threatening, but by looking at the students, using her silence to silence the rowdy and boisterous.

Those looks, that demeanor, created an image for Roma Shively, probably scaring some young people who did not know her, but developing a sense of respect in others. Over the years, with class after class of students, she became a kind of icon, someone people looked up to; she was not just a teacher in the Elmwood Grade School. She was THE teacher. It is difficult to figure out why Miss Shively projected that image, whether it was natural or intentionally created. Maybe it was because it reflected her personality – quiet and unassuming, bookish and religious. On the other hand, she may have done so to maintain discipline in her classroom, often filled with big farm boys in bibbed overalls who were more interested in working with hogs and cattle than memorizing spelling words or diagramming sentences. In the 1940s, children were living in an adult world; today, adults are living in a children’s world. The former was quiet and disciplined; the latter is noisy and undisciplined. She had to look tough, even if she wasn’t, and that was not easy because she was less than five feet tall. Virtually everybody was taller than she was.

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Born on June 12, 1903, in Elmwood, Illinois, twenty miles east of Galesburg, Roma Shively was the daughter of Frank Shively, a carpenter, and her mother, Edna Lawrence, a housewife and a great reader. Roma had two brothers and two sisters. She attended first through seventh grades in Elmwood while her father built some of the finest homes in the community, including most of the bungalows and a classic two-story brick Georgian on North Magnolia, now owned by Fred and Pam Paige. When Roma was in grade school, her father decided that he would fulfill a dream and become a farmer, although he had never had any experience. So he gathered up his family, Roma’s pony and horse, and headed by train to western New York where he purchased a dairy farm, sight unseen.

“We had never milked a cow,” she said softly, looking directly at her interviewer. “I suppose Dad had. We had 30 to do, so I learned, my Mother learned and my little brother learned to milk cows. My older sister had to do the feeding because we were on a good sized dairy farm and she had to bring the hay down.” Smiling, the seventy-three-year-old continued, “My little brother Eddie was only three. He would sit on the milk stool and pull the cow’s tail. The tails would keep the flies off, and he would keep the tails from swatting us, because, believe me, they hurt.”

It was not all work. Roma loved the outdoors where she rode her horse and pony in the summer and played in the snow in the winter. “One thing I always loved to do was coast. We would have deep snow and then it would melt a little but then we would get a nice thick covering of ice, and we would just scoot down the hill.” Roma’s eyes gleamed as she recalled events occurring sixty years before, but there was sadness, too. They worked very hard, but Frank Shively brought his family back to Elmwood. They had failed. He went back to building homes, and Roma finished high school, passing an examination allowing her to teach in a one-room school south of Elmwood the next fall.

Roma’s first job was at Morse School where she was the only teacher for 25 pupils, 18 boys and 7 girls. One year she had 6 pupils in first grade, 2 in eighth, and the other seventeen were spread out in six different grades. School lasted just eight months, beginning in September, after harvest, and ending in April, before planting. The pupils were needed in the fields. For her work, Roma was paid $75 a month or a total of $600 for the year. She was busy juggling a curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic for all grades and agriculture for just the upper grades. When asked if dealing with so many students in so many grades was difficult, she seemed to brush is off, more interested in talking about recess. “We’d play ball. We had two good ball teams. They let me play third base on one team. We had good times. I guess I taught them something because I had to learn a lot.”

While teaching in a one-room school might turn some teachers from education, in Miss Shively’s case the experience drove her to education. With the encouragement of her pastor, Roma enrolled at Knox College in 1925. During her four years there, she had jobs both on and off campus, including being paid $25 a semester for singing in the choir. Roma’s graduation picture in the 1929 Knox yearbook shows an attractive young woman with dainty facial features: dark, thick eyebrows, a gentle nose, and soft lips. She is wearing a simple dress with the collar lying flat on her shoulders, but her most prominent features were her glasses and hair. Her lenses were round, not oval, held in place by dark frames, and her hair style resembled that made famous by Dorothy Hamill: dark bangs, carefully trimmed, hanging close to her eye brows.

Roma looked, not like a Flapper in the 1920s but like a graduate student, serious and intent. She had taken the extraordinary step, for those days, of earning not only her bachelor’s degree at Knox, but also a master’s degree in history, an experience she enjoyed and prepared her for a life of teaching and research. She spoke with quiet enthusiasm: “We knew our professors so well. We had some outstanding ones then…I went to the University of Minnesota as a teaching fellow and the History Department of 18 [professors]. We just had a glorious time.” She paused, glancing out the window, obviously thinking of the past. “Every afternoon we would have tea. We would put so much money in the kitty, and it was usually somebody’s job, usually the secretary, to see that the water was heated. Different history professors used to come in and visit with us. It was a glorious two years.” Learning and sharing with other academics had great appeal to her.

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In the fall of 1951, when I entered Roma Shively’s eighth grade class, I was thirteen years old. She was forty-eight. With thirty years of experience behind her, she knew most of the tricks of her trade, including placing her desk at the back of the room, where she could observe the members of my class with their backs to her. Looking back over fifty years, I have trouble remembering many things, but I can’t forget how she looked. She always wore a “dressy dress,” not expensive but in good taste, conservative, in plain, dark colors. No pants. No skirts and blouses that I remember. Just dresses. Sometimes, she’d wear a flowered pattern, somewhat lighter in color, carefully chosen so it never was showy, conspicuous. Whether plain or patterned, light or dark, she wore fairly dark nylon hose and Red Cross shoes with medium, square heels. If the truth were known, I would say Miss Shively had a fetish for jewelry, nothing flashy, always attractive and in good taste. If I recall correctly, she always wore earrings, pearls and occasionally a pin. Her hair was always braided, tied back into buns on both sides of her head, and she wore fairly thick wire rimmed glasses. She was a classy lady, looking more like a college professor than an eighth grade English teacher.

Why was Roma Shively so important to me? To tell the truth, it’s hard to remember after all these years, but several things stand out. Although she did not have a warm fuzzy personality, we all knew, beneath the thick veneer, that every pupil in her class was significant. She loved every one of us. Since she never married, never had children of her own, we were her children. Teaching was not her job. It was her mission, her calling. She felt it was her responsibility to teach us everything we needed to know to have happy lives and successful careers. As a result, hundreds of children moved through her classes to become successful entrepreneurs and corporation executives, doctors and lawyers, and several PhDs. She was proud of all of them, but her love was hidden inside.

Although I did not know it at the time, Miss Shively was a researcher and writer, which was reflected in what and how she taught. For her, history was more than memorizing facts that someone else had dug up and compiled into a textbook. She did some digging of her own, and she shared that knowledge with us as well as the joy of doing basic historical research. Miss Shively loved Elmwood, the town where she was born, where she spent most of her life, and it and the surrounding area were the subjects of her research. Her master’s thesis was called Jubilee – a Pioneer College, the story of an early experiment in higher education on the prairie, supported by the Episcopalian Church. Later, she published a second short book called The Congregational Church of Elmwood, Illinois, 1854-1954. This was the history of her church, which was important in the settlement of the community and the place where Lorado Taft’s father taught in the Academy at the end of the 19th century. When she was doing the research, she was sharing her discoveries as well as the joy of historical study with us. Knowing about our roots, she believed, was just as important as knowing the states of the union or the chief crops of Mongolia. As a result, when I walk down main street today, I can remember her telling us that the first house on the block was owned by William Philips, the founder of the city, or that empty lot is the site of the first coal mine in the township, or the first paper mill in the county. Yet, I can’t remember the principal crop of Mongolia, but who cares.

Another pet project of Miss Shively was the Safety Patrol, a crossing guard program staffed by seventh and eighth graders inside and outside the school after the instructional day was over. Each year she would select a group of five or six boys to act as crossing guards at several busy intersections between the school and the surrounding neighborhoods. They watched the traffic carefully, using their out-stretched arms to block younger children from crossing in front of cars or trucks. In addition Roma selected five or six girls who served a similar function inside the three-story school building, standing near the stairs where they watched for children taking the stairs too quickly or running down the hallways. One former student, now middle-aged, says, “To this day I don’t run down stairs. Maybe it is the fear of being ‘reported’ and going to court on Friday.” The Safety Patrol was headed by a Captain, an eighth grader, generally a boy if I remember correctly, whose primary responsibility was checking all patrol posts each day, making sure all the guards were doing their jobs correctly, answering questions and making sure there was no “funny business.”

The guards and their captain were easy to identify: the boys wore white belts, in heavy canvas, with a white loop running from front to back, and the girls held metal badges in their right hands. The captain stood out because he wore a shiny silver badge on his white belt, and one of his jobs was inspecting the guards’ belts and the badges for whiteness. One former guard remembers cleaning his belt with a toothbrush and soap, much like an Army private spit-shining his black boots or polishing his metal insignia with Brasso. The guards looked as if they had some kind of authority, and in fact they did have the power “to arrest” a student who didn’t obey a crossing guard or who walked too fast down the steps or hall. All the guilty children (and there were a few) were brought to trial on Friday afternoons, and a court of peers decided on their guilt or innocence, handing out detention for those found guilty. Miss Shively was the judge. To this day, one middle-aged woman still remembers, quite vividly, being found guilty, improperly she believes. That happened more than 50 years ago!

The safety patrol served two functions. First, the parents knew that someone was watching their children very carefully when they left school. According to a member of the Elmwood Board of Education, no child was ever harmed by a vehicle when the safety patrol was in operation. Second, for a participant, the program brought out the best in them. As one former patrol boy said, to be selected, “You had to be on your best behavior, be a leader and role model, someone she could trust.’’ In turn, the position of patrol leader “gave these individuals a first taste of responsibility.” Just think of all the things that children learned from this experience: responsibility, knowledge of the jury system, ethics, pride, citizenship, and on and on.

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I can’t remember what I wrote in the letter to the nominating committee at Knox College, and I never knew who else took the time to support my nomination. I do know, however, the three recipients of the 1971 Knox College Alumni Achievement Awards: a Chicago attorney; the Chief Counsel for Gulf Oil; and an eighth grade English teacher. I can only hope that day was the high point of a special teacher’s life, a short woman in a tall world.

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Note: For background material on Miss Shively’s time in New York, I am indebted to an unsigned transcript of an oral history program of the Peoria County Bicentennial Commission. It is dated May 3, 1976 and found in the Peoria Public Library. I am also indebted to the Knox College Alumni Association and the Library for material on Miss Shively for the 1971 Alumni Achievement Awards. Several friends in Elmwood were helpful with details that I had forgotten, especially Richard Coon for his memories of the safety patrol.

Karl Taylor

September 2009

5 thoughts on “Miss Roma Shively: A Short Woman in a Tall World

  1. Every word written here about Miss Shively is so true. I remember being afraid I would not get to be in her room in eighth grade. I made it and learned so much. One project stands out in mt mind, We were each to bring our hobby to school for display. And my hobby was collecting the real names of movie stars. I told my mother I was sure Miss Shively would tell me to choose something more appropriate. I took my book of names in early and got quite a surprise from Miss Shively. She told me to stay after school with paper and pen in hand and she would add to my work. I felt at least six feet tall. An aside to this story was that I learned that her sister Ruth was my great aunt. Thank you Miss Shively.

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  2. Karl, again you have “painted” a masterpiece with your very accurate description of Miss Shively. I unfortunately don’t remember much of my time in Miss Shively’s classroom in seventh and eighth grades. I do recall however, her class was not one to be clowning around or acting up in. She ran a tight ship and had the respect of her students and the entire faculty at Elmwood Grade School. I had rheumatic fever in the Spring of my eighth grade year and was home for two to three weeks, missing the “Springfield” trip. She made sure that was the only thing I missed as I was well supplied with homework so I wasn’t falling behind. Elmwood was very fortunate to have educators the caliber of Roma Shively and Helen Hart Metz.

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  3. Thank you again for describing another teacher who made a difference in my life. Many students were afraid of Miss Shively, but I just considered her a great teacher who “kept a tight ship,” which I enjoyed. I had forgotten about the crossing guards! Many years later I learned through genealogy research that I am very distantly related to Miss Shively.

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    • Far from a scholar i did not appreciate miss shively at the time. However over the years i now realize
      what a remarkable and unique person she was. My gr gr gr grandfather was one of the first settlers of
      Elmwood.one day she took me aside and said”jim you come from a good family i am very disappointed
      in you.” At the time i could have cared less,but now i think she actually liked me and was trying to shape
      me up.

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