Jessie Munford and the Burns Procession

I have previously written about venerable teacher, Jessie Munford, who taught at WSHS for over forty-years, from 1928-1968. While researching the article about teacher John Finley a few weeks ago, I discovered aspects I had not known about this remarkable woman. Her dedication to teaching impacted the community and generations of Willow Springs students.  
 
As a testament to her mark on WSHS, the 1948 Willamizzou was dedicated to her and husband Ted on their twentieth anniversary of teaching. And twenty years later, the 1968 Willamizzou was dedicated to her on her retirement, with this tribute: “Students of Willow High thank Mrs. Jessie Munford for giving them a future blessed with the appreciation of good literature and the ability to speak and write correctly. . .. Unquenchably exuberant, dedicated to teaching, Mrs. Munford has won a lasting place in the lives of her students.”
 
Mrs. Munford arrived at WSHS in 1927, with her newly-acquired Bachelor of Science in Education from Central Missouri State College, along with her husband Ted. During her career she taught history, English, debate, speech, publications, and even physical education, including coaching the girls’ basketball team. But most of my generation remember her as their English teacher.
 
With a forty-year teaching career in the same small community, Mrs. Munford taught generations of the same family—parents and then their children. Examples of familiar parents I knew include Herb James (’39), Lowell McMurtrey (’41), Jay Waggoner (’42), Lyle James (’42), Rex Pace (’42), Wayne Stephenson (’43), J.E. Hill (’44), Claude Gauldin (’44), Lewis Thomas (’45), Bob Hinds (’45), Marguerite Gauldin Wehmer (’48) and Joe Corn, to mention a few. 
 
Moreover, she taught iterations of children from the same family. The best example that comes to mind is the children of Dorothy and banker Joyce Burns: Mary (WSHS, 1958), Patrick (WSHS, 1961), Brenda (WSHS, 1963), Sarah (WSHS, 1968), and Ginger (WSHS, 1970). Curious about their memories and impressions, I reached out to the Burns kids.
 
I called Brenda Burns Holloway, who had Mrs. Munford for English class for four years. Brenda said, “She was my favorite teacher,” and then added she could be a firm task mistress, but she got the best out of everybody.” She credited Mrs. Munford with preparing students for college and said, “Without her, we wouldn’t have known anything about research papers.” Interestingly, Brenda still recalled the topic of her fourth-year term paper: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, as triggering the start of World War I.
 
One of the topics that came up in my conversation with Brenda was some folks thought Jessie and Ted were an odd couple; she being more polished and sartorial—Mrs. Munford was always impeccably dressed, with clothes from stores in Springfield. 
 
Ironically, Partrick Burns observed, “It’s funny both she and Mrs. Hoover wore those lace-up, six-eyelet shoes that looked like orthopedic old schoolmarm shoes.” However, it tickled him when he would go to her house: “She would have on these fuzzy rabbit slippers. It just shows how complex a person she was, and her husband Ted was just the opposite as far as regal poise. “
 
Sarah Burns referred to the comfortable shoes as “lace-up leather lumps” and that her sister Mary told her Mrs. Munford would rock up on her toes and raise her eyebrows in unison.
 
The discussion of the Munfords’ relationship prompted a memory of mine. Working on the Willamizzou staff, which Mrs. Munford headed, I found her to be collegial and relaxed. She shared that early in their marriage she came home one day, and Ted had been sitting by the heating stove eating apples—several apples. When he finished with an apple, he threw the cores under the stove. She was furious at the time, but ended the story by saying, “But he has made a pretty good husband.” And then she laughed. 
 
Patrick Burns agreed. “Mrs. Munford had a terrific sense of humor, and could be hilarious, dropping her poise and posture along the way.” Pat and I speculated she had originally been attracted to Ted, the popular athlete, and, no doubt, thought she could polish his rough edges. On balance, I would say she succeeded.
 
A collateral benefit of writing this column is connecting with people I only know by reputation. Mary Burns Orr is such a person. School yearbooks reflect her numerous accomplishments, such as election to the student council and being crowned the 1957 football homecoming queen. [As a sidenote, her classmate Wendell Bailey was the emcee of the Fall Festival that year, and he often credits Mrs. Munford with providing him with skills for public speaking.] 
 
A top student in speech and English, Mary gave high marks to her former teacher when we chatted. “She was my favorite teacher,” and added, “she did not have discipline problems in her classes. She commanded respect by her appearance. She was always well put together.” I can concur. Mrs. Munford did not suffer insubordination lightly and could put a smart aleck in place by raising an eyebrow. 
Mary recalled Mrs. Munford’s personal life reflected civic responsibility. She and her husband donated food and clothing to those in need, with little fanfare. She often used the French phrase noblesse oblige, which refers to the obligation of those in a better position than others to act charitably and responsibly.
 
Her appearance and posture are common threads in the memories of her former students. Sara Burns Pruisner says, “I admired her posture; she always stood ramrod straight and walked very ladylike. I always thought it was amazing that she could stand so straight at her age, which is actually about my age, now, I imagine. She dressed impeccably. Very tasteful in her choice of clothing, and in the manner that she presented herself.” 
 
Beyond her appearance, Sarah says, “Mrs. Munford took an interest in any student who displayed interest in learning English. She held the highest standards for those she felt could write good essays for college. She knew the ability to write well was paramount in college. I remember her saying, ‘The command of the King’s English reflects intelligence. If you cannot express yourself well in your own language, then others see you as uneducated.’” 
 
Ginger Burns Mesk, who had Mrs. Munford for freshman and sophomore English, and says, “I remember thinking how erect her posture was, and how ladylike she always was. I never recall her losing her temper or raising her voice, but no one wanted to cross her. She was highly respected.” I asked her if Mrs. Munford made a comparison with her older brother or sisters, and she said, “I never felt compared with my siblings.”
 
In an exchange of emails with Patrick, his appreciation for “an icon of Willow Springs High School” has not waned with time. He says, “Jessie Munford was respected, somewhat feared, and loved by many of us, myself included.”
 
He added, “She held everyone to a high standard to achieve. I was fortunate enough to have her in English classes, but also as our debate coach and as an advisor. She seemed tireless, and always held a position of authority and authenticity in everything she did. She was also a good friend and helped me a great deal as a student and as a person.” 
 
Patrick concluded with a refrain I have heard from several former students, including teachers and college professors: “Simply put, of all the teachers I had in the Willow Springs system, and educators, professors, and instructors at the several universities, I was can attest Jessie Munford was by far the best. And I’m including undergraduate and graduate university training in this country and other countries.”
 
The experience the Burns kids had with Mrs. Munford, over a span of fifteen school years, demonstrates a special teacher’s dedication and consistency born of discipline, good will, and an acute sense of propriety. 
 
My thanks to Mary, Patrick, Brenda, Sarah, and Ginger for sharing their experiences.
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