Long before learning standards and assessments, Dorothy Jacobs mastered an art that educators constantly strive merely to grasp: individualized education.
At least one of her second-graders, the late Julie (Van Drew) Dalton, told her so during the ‘50s, while working on a creative writing assignment.
“She wrote, ‘Ms. Jacobs loves all of us,’” Jacobs said. “That’s what my intentions were starting out. I wanted to help each child. I tried to give each of them what they needed.”
Jacobs, who will turn 100 on Dec. 2, taught more than 40 years, from her cozy beginnings in single-room country schools in the mid-’30s through 29 years at Lincoln School in Sterling. She retired after the 1977-78 school year, but when Christ Lutheran School opened in 1983, Jacobs taught and tutored there more than 20 years, into her 90s.
One of four sisters, she grew up on the family farm about 10 miles north of Sterling. From the time she pulled up a chair at Talbott School as a student, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“I wanted to be a teacher since, I guess since I started school,” Jacobs said. “I always thought I could solve teachers’ problems, and that I knew what I would do if I were the teacher, and how I would take care of the situation.”
After attending Northern Illinois University a couple of years, she started teaching at Swan Lake School south of Rock Falls at age 19, where she’d ply her craft for 7 years, even seeing one student all the way through: the late Frances Plautz.
“I learned it’s easier to get teaching experience while teaching than while in school,” she said.
Nonetheless, she’d finish up her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education at NIU.
She was forced to teach closer to home, at Stone School on Freeport Road, because the draft board wouldn’t let her buy the new tires for her car she needed to keep driving 17 miles to Swan Lake School. Not with World War II going on.
“I was homesick for my school south of Rock Falls,” she admitted, so she moved to nearby East Science Ridge School, which bore a resemblance to Swan Lake.
After her fourth year there, and after a bout with measles and scarlet fever, she spent a year in Florida before accepting an offer to teach a combination of first- and second-graders at Lincoln.
She also worked with the Red Cross Bloodmobile, put in time as a Pink Lady, and ran deliveries for F.I.S.H. Food Pantry.
She also delivered sermon tapes for her church, Messiah Lutheran, where she went on to teach Sunday school and vacation bible school for 50 years – and where the community found out quickly about her deft hand in the kitchen. Her pies became legendary.
“I said they could fire me anytime they wanted to, or anyone could take over,” she joked.
Marcia Fields, 70, had Jacobs as a second-grade teacher and always considered her family.
“My mother always said only Dorothy could marry my dad when she passed away, and raise her daughters,” she said. “She’s outlived them both. She never raised her voice and had the kindest way about her. She’s just really special.”
The feeling is mutual.
“The way her eyes light up when she talks about them, you know each and every one of those students was special to her,” said her niece, Jan Bush.
Jacobs said that she feels for teachers and the challenges they face, and that it was easier to right the ship during her career.
“You know there were negatives, too, but even the negatives, she turned into positives,” niece Karen Nehring said.
“That’s the kind of teacher I would’ve wanted,” Bush added.
Thanks to little Julie, Jacobs knew she was the kind of teacher she wanted to be.
“She knew what I was trying to accomplish, and that was my goal all the time as a teacher: to give each child what they needed,” she said. “I guess that’s my life.”