Gladys Pope reflects on education, arts and more
URBANA — Gladys Pope can barely go anywhere in Champaign-Urbana without running into a former student from Leal Elementary School.
"They'll say, Remember me? I sang in this play, or I danced in that one," said the retired teacher, who was known for putting on elaborate productions for the school and community, including her take on "Stone Soup," which raised close to $10,000 for the Times Center of Champaign.
Tonight, Pope will be one of five women honored at the Girl Scouts of Central Illinois' 23rd annual Women of Distinction award celebration. On the eve of the banquet, the 73-year-old Urbana woman talked about facing discrimination, being a foster parent, her obsession with Thin Mints and much more.
Q: Tell us about your childhood.
A: I was born and raised in Danville. I was a tomboy. You could have called me Tom Sawyer because I always rolled my jeans up to my knees. I loved to go fishing with my father and hiking at Kickapoo State Park, which was near my grandmother's home on Batestown Road.
My mother had my sister and me in lots of activities — arts and crafts at the Laura Lee Fellowship House, cooking classes on Saturdays. We went to St. Paul Baptist Church, a one-room church on Washington Street. At that time, your church was your community. We were there almost every evening for Bible study, youth meetings, choir practice, pot lucks.
My sister and I also walked several miles to take piano lessons from Miss Uta Lee. My sister could play by ear. I got more joy climbing Miss Lee's crabapple tree and listening to my sister play my favorite song, "Beautiful Dreamer."
My father, Benjamin Edward Rhodes, was a career Navy man, who later worked at General Motors. He was also a self-taught musician. We had three pianos and about every other instrument. Our house was the fine arts center, and my father made it very convenient for everyone to play.
Q: Did you face discrimination and racism?
A: Yes. When I was 8 or 9, my uncle took my sister and me to Kentucky. We went to a record store. We found some records and got in line to buy them, but they wouldn't wait on us. We'd gotten in the line for whites by accident. My uncle had to explain that we were from the North where they didn't have segregated lines.
In Danville, we lived in a neighborhood where the children went to the predominantly black Jackson School. My mother wanted her daughters to go to Washington School, so we could be exposed to white children — even though it meant we had to walk quite a distance get there.
One teacher had an auto harp, and I loved auto harp. We all lined up to take a turn to play it. When I got to the front, the teacher closed the box and said, "You will not put your black hands on my auto harp."
I ran out of the school and all the way home. My grandmother was outside at her wringer-washing machine, and I told her what happened. She said, "It's not about you; it's her. You get on your knees and pray for her. Then you take yourself right back to that school and get your education."
During Black History Month, I'd tell my students, "This is not meant to hurt you. But I want to tell you about some of these things, so you know what it was like back then, and what we had to endure."
Q: Did you always want to teach?
A: No. When I was 10 or 11, I wanted to be a social worker. At that time, my father was in the Navy, and we lived at Beeler Terrace (public housing complex). I was forever running in and out of everyone's house helping them.
After I graduated from high school, my father wanted me to go into the Navy. I passed the exam and went away to take the physical. Then my husband, who I was dating at the time, moved back to Champaign from New York, where he'd been working, so I decided to stay home. If I hadn't married him, I'd have had a career in the Navy.
My husband (the late Lt. Paul Pope) was a Champaign County sheriff's deputy and spent most of his career working at the county jail. We were foster parents to over 22 children. Most of the children arrived at my home due to the fact that their parents were incarcerated. Some would only stay for 24 or 48 hours. But we got one little boy when he was 11, and he stayed until he was 21. He's 54 now and lives in Bloomington, and he still calls me weekly.
Q: What made you go back to school to become a teacher?
A: I had different jobs — washing the brushes in the hair salon at Kaufmann's Department Store, a nurse's aide at the old Mercy Hospital, gift wrapping at Sears. I also trained to become a teacher's aide when they started the Head Start program. But I told my husband that I wanted to be a professional person, and he encouraged me to go back to school.
I wanted to become a teacher because I thought they needed more black teachers in the Urbana School District. My sister, Carolyn Martinez Miller, taught fifth and sixth grade at Leal. She was the only black teacher at that time. When I joined the staff, I was the second one.
Q: Tell us about your passion for the creative arts.
A: It began when I saw some of my students struggle with retaining what they read in class. I created my own curriculum — which went along with the school's curriculum — incorporating reading, writing poems and short stories, drama, dance, all of the fine arts, even math and social studies. This really engaged students in their studies and brought out their creativity. They developed characters in their own stories. That often promoted classroom discussions about human nature and why people do the things they do.
Every year, we put on a big production. We did every Disney story and original works.
I put on an original work called "The Light from God's Hands" for the University of Illinois YMCA, the Urbana school district, a church and for a fund-raiser for Laura Lee in Danville. It was about Harriet Tubman, who is my passion. I flew to Auburn, N.Y., got in a cab and went to Fort Hill Cemetery and laid my hands on her grave. She was just an inspiration to me, and I needed to be close to her. I went to her home and museum. From that, I created this play.
Q: Favorite Girl Scout cookie?
A: I'm a Thin Mints person. I used to eat a whole roll with a quart of milk in one sitting. I'd tape up the box or put it under a pillow to keep from eating the other roll. I'd even go in and brush my teeth. But then I'd come back and eat the other half.
My husband's favorite cookie was Thin Mints, too. We always bought two boxes for him and two for me. Eight or nine years after he died in 1996, I did some remodeling and put in new kitchen cabinets. My godson was taking out a cabinet, and a box of Thin Mints fell out. We fell on the floor laughing. We knew that's where he hid his cookies.
The Gladys Pope File
Then: Taught first and second grade at Leal School in Urbana for 28 years before retiring in 2002. "I spent several years traveling to a lot of places I had read about" — the Eiffel Tower, Ground Zero, even Senegal, where she played chaperone to local college students for 32 days.
Now: Came out of retirement four years later to substitute teach in Urbana. "I'm going to stop when I turn 75, though. I want to spend more time writing short stories."