“It’s like, who does that?” says Cindy Henshaw of Independence regarding one unexpected phone call she received from her son’s former kindergarten teacher, Joan Bland. “I cannot believe she remembered.”
Henshaw recalls one specific winter more than 20 years ago when her husband, a construction worker, volunteered his time to make a pretend window for his son’s kindergarten class bathroom.
“The students were requesting a window to be placed inside the class bathroom since they didn’t have one, and David, my husband, offered to help construct a make-believe one out of cardboard,” she said.
David passed away a year and a half ago. But, surprisingly, her son Jeremy received a phone call from his old teacher after all those years offering her sympathy and support through his difficult time.
“It gave him more comfort than you can possibly imagine,” Cindy said. “It was so special that she sent some prayers and poems as well.”
In fact, Mrs. Bland even called the Henshaw residence on the anniversary of their father’s passing to show that they were still in her thoughts.
“She went on to say how she enjoyed his (David’s) positive personality and that he was always a special volunteer,” said Cindy.
This is just one of several stories former students and co-workers tell about Joan Bland, a longtime kindergarten teacher at Mill Creek Elementary in Independence. They say she is not just a teacher, but is considered an extended family member to many in the community.
“I think she likes to keep up on students of hers,” said Kristy Main of Independence. “She checks the newspaper or social media and likes to congratulate former students on an accomplishment or offer her sympathy if she spots a familiar last name in the obituaries.”
Recently Bland was honored at a Nowlin Middle School choir concert in front of hundreds by a former student and Kristy’s son, Ryan Main, who is the school’s music teacher and choir director.
“No other teacher has kept up the same,” Ryan said of his kindergarten teacher. “She doesn’t miss a thing. It’s really incredible.” He explained that Bland's concern and care for her students was always an example he wanted to follow as an educator. After she attended Ryan’s wedding and sent condolences when his grandfather passed away, he wanted to honor his kindergarten teacher before he missed the opportunity.
“Before we close the concert, there is someone in the audience that I want to honor,” Ryan said to the audience at the December concert. “This person has kept up with so many people in the same way and has touched so many lives in such a meaningful way. I wanted to take a moment to recognize and thank, from the bottom of my heart, my kindergarten teacher.” A round of applause and whistles ensued when Bland walked to the stage and received a bouquet of “beautiful dark and light pink roses.”
Joan Bland’s teaching story began in 1958 when she first taught at Southwest School (now Procter Elementary) in Independence.
“I always had a real love for children,” Bland said, “particularly those that might need a little more attention. I felt like this was my calling.”
She recalls her first teaching experience was vacation Bible school held at her church when she was in high school. What particularly compelled her to pursue a career in education was when she saw a student’s eyes light up whenever they learned a new concept. That time teaching Bible school eventually blossomed into a 34-year career teaching in the Independence School District.
“It became a lifelong intention and dream. I appreciated and loved every minute of it,” she said.
Bland also reminisced about her first year teaching at Southwest. She still keeps in touch with one of her first students who went on to receive her doctorate.
Bland endured personal tragedy when her first husband of seven years, Army Maj. Samuel K. Toomey III, was reported missing in action in the Vietnam War in November 1968. She took a year off from teaching to wait for his return with family.
“I continued to wait for six years,” she recalled. “I learned that his helicopter crashed in a classified area in the country of Laos. They (the Army) could not go back into the territory.”
In January 1974, she was informed by the U.S. Army that her husband was killed in action as a result of the crash.
In spite of the pain, however, Bland looked toward the future and continued teaching kindergarten at Mill Creek Elementary until retiring in 1995.
“I truly loved them as one of my own,” Bland said of her former students. “Parents are their first teacher, and what every teacher should know is that they entrusted you with their children. You have to build off of what parents previously placed on their child.”
Although she never had any children of her own, she said that it may perhaps be the reason why she kept in contact with former students over the years.
“I see their name in the paper,” she said, “either as a mention or recognition or honor they achieved, and like to keep in touch.”
Her second husband, David Bland, said there are at least dozens of students with whom Bland still keeps in contact.
“She understands what a person goes through when they lose a loved one,” said Cindy. “It helps out a lot.”
Looking back, Bland said she hopes she made a positive impact on each of her students’ lives. She attends their weddings, award ceremonies, receptions and even family functions.
“Her continued contact has been amazing,” said Kristy. “It’s more over time that I've come to learn her diligence. My nephew will say to his mother, ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe Mrs. Bland knew about that!’”
Bland's advice to current and aspiring teachers is to have a genuine love for the children they are teaching. “Always have the patience for each and every child,” she recommends. “With that, it will set you apart to be outstanding rather than just mediocre.” She also said that she never got upset enough to yell at one of her students.
“It’s kind of miraculous with so many kids how she had them all disciplined,” said Kristy.
“She definitely went way beyond,” said Bland’s former student, Lindsay Paguet. “It takes a really special person to be a kindergarten teacher, especially with Mrs. Bland on how she forms bonds with former students and wants to see them succeed. Teachers obviously don’t get the respect or money when it feels like they are always giving.”
Bland also is a former YouthFriend volunteer and attended the wedding of the student she mentored. She is involved in the Professional Education Organization, which supports girls going to college, and Daughters of the American Revolution. How she was qualified to become a DAR member was an unlikely discovery made by delving into her genealogy.
“In 1990, we discovered that President Truman is my second cousin,” she said. “Sam (her first husband) was even Mrs. Truman’s Examiner carrier in the late 1940s. Incredibly, my present husband, David, was the Toomey family Examiner carrier as well. Small world, for certain!”
Joan is also part of the Mary Paxton Study Class, which still meets each Monday from October through March. A tree that was planted by them in 1973 to honor Independence’s prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action, including Sam, during the Vietnam War can be seen at McCoy Park.
“He would have been pleased and happy on what has occurred,” Bland said regarding her late husband.
“I think my greatest joy has been in hearing, reading about, or talking with former students who have been excited to discuss the contributions and accomplishments they’ve made, or are making, to society, in fulfilling their goals and dreams.”