When an 18–year-old Frances Bartlett accepted her first job as the English and music teacher in little Kelley, Iowa, she also became the homeroom teacher for the 3rd and 4th graders attending the school. She had been informed that all the children were wonderful, but there was one little boy named Hershel who could be a wee bit of a handful. If she was not careful this little imp could disrupt the entire class and be a noisy problem for her.
Walking into her classroom for the first time, Fran looked at the young faces and asked, “I’m looking for a young man that is smart and can carry some books for me because I got a lot of heavy music books, and I don’t think I can carry them.”
Up went the hands, but Fran knew which one was Hershel. So, she called on him. “Hershel, would you mind being my assistant while I am here?” The youngster readily agreed. With his newfound responsibility, little Hershel became an angel. She could not ask for a better and more enthusiastic pupil and assistant. What could have been a chore became a positive experience for the young teacher.
We live in a world where fluff is celebrated. Our television screens are filled with reality shows featuring narcissistic individuals who have never had an original thought in their heads. They are proclaimed “stars,” not because of any talent they might possess, but due to their self-centeredness and shallowness. Which young woman who the bachelor just met is he going to ask to marry him? What housewife is going to get into a drunken throw down with another middle-aged woman whose face does not move anymore due to roughly a dozen too many facelifts and Botox injections?
Corporations are paying pampered young girls, who have never done a thing in their lives millions, to wear a certain item of clothing or use their product on their various social media platforms. In the aftermath of the college entrance cheating scandal, one child of privilege was devastated that her “brand” might have become damaged. If your “brand” is too dumb to get into USC, it is not a “brand” you should be proud of.
It is why mothers and fathers should hold up individuals like Frances Bartlett Kinne to their daughters (and sons) as examples to aspire to. If one is driving by Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa or driving around central Iowa, a person might notice her name on various buildings. She has given out numerous scholarships and helped more people than could be mentioned here.
Her resume at 101-years-of-age is that of a trailblazer. A small town Iowa girl, she got her Ph.D. from the University of Frankfurt, West Germany at a time when most young women were discouraged from dreams of higher education. She went onto become an instructor at Jacksonville University in Florida, where she won Professor of the Year twice before rising up the ranks to be named president of that institution. She became the first woman in the history of the United States to ever be named to such a post at a private university and just the second overall when all institutions of higher learning are included. Within a year-and-a-half of assuming this position, she managed to eliminate all of the university’s debts and began a building program that transformed it by the time she retired in 1989. During her tenure advice columnist Ann Landers declared Jacksonville one of the top four colleges in the nation.
Her groundbreaking accomplishments, whether they be in regard to social organizations or being named to important boards or panels, is impressive. Yet, when such facts are doled out, what truly makes a person special is overlooked or lost. We all know people who have done some pretty impressive or celebrated things that you would not want your children to be like or hold up as the type of person he or she should aspire to become.
What makes Fran special is at an age when most people are still struggling to tie his or her shoes correctly, she had figured out one of the secrets of life. For a woman who possesses all sorts of big five and ten-dollar words and a piece of paper to prove it, her favorite word is just three letters, W-O-W, wow. Yes, the word is wow. She figured out the “wow” of life and tried to see it in the world and people around her.
Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” If everyone you meet and interact with is a miracle, even a little boy who is a terror in the classroom, it changes how you view and treat them. A troublemaker named Hershel has the potential inside of him to be one of the most valuable parts of the class. It all depends on how you view things and changes how you treat those around you. You cannot just walk by someone and fail to acknowledge their existence. Religious folk or clergy would call this seeing the image of God in yourself and others.
Fran took this notion that worked so well when it came to a disruptive child into a world beyond central Iowa. Whether it was a celebrity, a cleaning person, or someone in the town she grew up in, she made it her mission to make sure she saw the wow in them and figure out how to help get it out of them. It is truly amazing what can happen when you see the miracle staring back at you.
The poet Langston Hughes was a waiter. President Barack Obama, at one point in his life, scooped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. The future Pope Francis was a bouncer in a bar. Rod Stewart dug graves. Sean Connery polished caskets and shoveled coal. Sylvester Stallone cleaned lion cages for $1.12 an hour. Writer Ken Kesey was a janitor at a mental hospital and Stephen King plied the same trade in a high school. To Kill A Mockingbird’s Harper Lee was a reservations clerk for Eastern Airlines. Jack Kerouac washed dishes and pumped gas. All had the potential for greatness inside of them, as do we all in some way.
I always wonder how many people mistreated them. How many people would have changed their behavior around them if they knew what they would eventually become? How many people missed the “wow” standing right in front of them?
Find the “wow” around you.
Trevor Soderstrum was born and raised in Story City. He’s been writing columns for about a decade and attended the summer session of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.