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f/8 and Be There
Fred Lynch

'Miss Myrtle' was school marm, civic leader

Posted Monday, March 19, 2018, at 12:00 AM

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March 5, 1971 Southeast Missourian

A woman's world

By Sally Wright Brown, Missourian Staff Writer

She's "Mom Sheppard" to many young people, "Miss Myrtle" to many others, and to all, a friend.

Mrs. Myrtle Bronson Sheppard says "I'm a southeast Missouri gal" with the pride typical of one of the state's natives.

Born in New Madrid nearly 80 years ago, Mrs. Sheppard moved to St. Louis as a child, where she received her education, returning to Pemiscot County to take over as school marm at a small Bootheel school.

Education has changed drastically since she began teaching in 1915, Mrs. Sheppard recalls.

"We had no facilities like there are now," she noted. "We were used to improvising, and as Mother would say, 'making do.' Pupils in the higher grades sometimes had only three good books between them. I would write lessons on the blackboard to fill in for missing pages.

"School districts didn't have nearly as much money as they do now, partly because taxation wasn't as high. And of course integration wasn't heard of then."

Her first school was "a typical one-room schoolhouse," she fondly recalls, "with a big bell on a post in the front yard.

Although physical education classes were not a part of daily class schedules, Mrs. Sheppard said she and her pupils converged, en masse, to do calisthenics in the school yard.

"I probably would have reminded some people of an Army drill sergeant," she laughed, briskly demonstrating her precision jumping jacks. "We didn't worry that children were deprived of physical education. They got exercise by plowing fields or walking five miles a day."

One of Mrs. Sheppard's schools was a converted cotton shed. Parents, she said, volunteered to make the building usable so their children could attend school. Logs were hewed and planks placed on top of them for seats.

"We didn't need a parent-teacher association in those days," Mrs. Sheppard said. "Parents came to the school to see how they could help the teacher. A teacher was a very important person in the community back then.

"I never had a flag for a school until I bought one," she added. "When I taught the children the Pledge of Allegiance, they were the proudest things ever," she smiled.

During her first year in the cotton shed school, Mrs. Sheppard said snow sifted in through wall cracks. "We had an old King heater in the room, so we'd all gather around it. Our fronts were warm, but our backs were frozen.

"Sometimes I'd cook a big pot of soup at home, and the boys would come and carry it to school. Perhaps it was nothing more than backbone and biscuits, but the children were glad to have it. I'd heat the soup for those who had the longest distances to walk; it made me feel I'd helped steel them against the cold," she said.

"But I didn't feel we were poverty stricken or so poor we had to feel sorry for ourselves," she said emphatically. "We got a lot of fun out of schoolwork together, and the parents and teachers worked so well together that the teacher was almost a member of the family."

"You know, I think much of the lack of interest on a child's part today, in education or whatever, is because parents GIVE children too much. Many children don't know what NEED is. There must be a need before starting out to do things--a need for food produced great hunters in early America, for example," she said.

A winter as a teacher at the Industrial School for Girls at Tipton, Missouri "taught me many things," Mrs. Sheppard said.

"To look at those girls in assembly you'd think they were a group of lovely coeds. Some were beautiful girls. But the stories they'd tell about neglect by parents! Not criminally neglectful, you see, but indulgently neglectful.

"They needed guidance, but didn't get it. And kids today still need strong guidance," Mrs. Sheppard said. "And want it.

There isn't much love today," she continued. "I think young people have learned to associate love with sex. This is the most unfortunate thing that could happen to this generation. What about old people or families or friends who thrive on an affectionate, brotherly sort of love?" she asked.

Many people are literally dying of loneliness, she said, citing her work with people in the 58 to 65 age bracket as an example.

"People who are active and useful are not prepared when they are asked to retire. It's bad for anyone's morale to feel not wanted. And often, because of this feeling, it's difficult to motivate older people." Mrs. Sheppard was honored in 1969 by the Missouri Department of Community Affairs for her work on behalf of the aged.

Mrs. Sheppard, in the process of authoring a book entitled, "Recollections," about life in the Missouri Bootheel for half a century, has many recollections of her own.

She taught school for 18 years, and, in between times, was involved in nursing, politics and writing.

She enrolled in nurses training at City Hospital in St. Louis, and worked as an undergraduate nurse at People's Private Hospital there. She did not complete her training "because I wanted to go back to country school teaching."

Mrs. Sheppard was also the only Negro woman ever given a promotion by vote of the Missouri House of Representatives. She worked as a bill clerk for the Legislature, and was promoted, by vote of the House, to assistant chief bill clerk.

During World War II she became the only Negro woman in post schools at Hill Field, Ogden, Utah, to qualify as an inspector of small parts for airplanes.

And while in Utah, she wrote a column for the Inter-Mountain Voice, calling it "Meanderin' Myrtle."

She was also active in politics in the Bootheel, working to help elect President Herbert Hoover in Pemiscot County.

She has weathered the years with dignity and a "young" outlook on today's state of affairs. And while Mrs. Sheppard devoted many years to helping evolve constructive change, "Mostly I just want to help people."

Order this photoFeb. 21, 1972 Southeast Missourian

Mrs. Myrtle Sheppard, a retired Bootheel schoolteacher, signs one of her new books of poetry, "This 'n' That 'n' More," for Mrs. Bobbie Foster and Glenn Nenninger at an autograph party honoring her Saturday afternoon at the Carriage House craft shop. She authored another volume of poetry several years ago. (Steve Robertson photos)

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Editor's Note:

Myrtle Bronson Sheppard died Feb. 8, 1979 at age 87. According to her obituary in the Southeast Missourian, Sheppard's career in teaching also included John S. Cobb School in Cape Girardeau. It was while she was teaching in Cape Girardeau that she married William Sheppard. Her first husband, a medical doctor, died in 1922.

The family lived on a small farm in the Gravel Hill-Burfordville community. When Mr. Sheppard's health failed, the couple moved to San Francisco, the home of their son. Mr. Sheppard died in 1961, and Mrs. Sheppard returned to Cape Girardeau shortly after that. She moved to Sikeston in 1974.

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