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Web Extra: One-room schoolhouse a vivid memory for 100-year-old alumna

“I had to work my way through,” Lucille (Speers) Shurr ’30 said when asked about how she afforded her college education in the 1920s.

As a small-town girl from Odell, Lucille came from a family of six. Her father passed away when she was only 4 years old, leaving herself, her older sister Grace, her four brothers, and her mother in the midst of the Great Depression.

Lucille’s mother and older sister had both tested to become teachers once graduating high school.

“At that time right out of high school you could take a teacher’s exam and get a certificate right away,” she said. Both passed the test, and were able to earn a small salary teaching. When Lucille was old enough, she followed in their footsteps.

“When Illinois had the flu epidemic I was a junior in high school,” Lucille said. “Many teachers were ill, so the superintendent asked for volunteers to help teach some of the classes. I picked first and second grade, and I liked it.

“Mom insisted that if the kids wanted to go to college they were going to go to college. No matter what—lack of money, or being female—we were going to go if we wanted to,” Lucille said.

Lucille and Grace struck up a plan in order to get the two-year teacher’s certification degree from a university. Since Grace was older and had already passed the initial teacher’s exam, she would work first and save up money to send Lucille to school. Once Lucille had received her certificate after two years, then she would work and send Grace back to school to receive her degree.

Upon graduating high school, Lucille immediately enrolled at Illinois State Normal University. Since Odell was away from Normal, Lucille moved into a boarding house with a Mrs. Adams, who lived two blocks from campus on North Main Street. She forged lasting relationships while living there.

“It was a big two-story house,” Lucille recalled. “Mrs. Adams had five bedrooms, one downstairs and four upstairs. Each room had two tenants. One of the students living there was getting her master’s degree, and she sort of kept all of us headed in the right direction.”

Keeping up her end of the agreement with Grace, immediately after graduating from Illinois State Lucille began teaching in Cropsey, which is a small Amish town south of Fairbury. There she taught 25 children dispersed throughout eight different grade levels in a one-room schoolhouse. Being the only teacher in the school, generally Lucille’s duties included much more than making eight different lesson plans.

“I had to be the nurse, the teacher, the cook, the coach, the janitor, and the disciplinarian,” Lucille said.  “They were so well-behaved though, I didn’t have any discipline problems.”

After teaching there for a year, Lucille moved back to her hometown of Odell and began teaching at the same school she attended during her youth. “I taught all eight grades there too,” she said.

The schoolhouse was only a mile from her family’s home, so she was able to move back in with her mother and brothers in order to save money, and pay for Grace’s degree. In order to get to the school, she walked or rode a horse.

After teaching in Odell for four years, Lucille decided to move to Pontiac and work with the Pontiac Central Grade School. There were no teaching jobs available in the district at the time, so she worked as a secretary and substituted for four years before a teaching position finally opened up. Lucille became the third grade teacher in 1935.

“One grade is certainly easier to teach than the whole eight grades,” Lucille said. “Of course then they didn’t limit how many students you could have, so sometimes I would have 30 students in one grade.”

After finishing her education, and while starting her career in Pontiac, a young man by the name of Charles walked into Lucille’s life. Well actually, she walked into a grocery store.

“Oh the grocery store story,” said Don Shurr, one of Lucille’s sons, and twin to Dave. He admitted he had heard the story several times, but still enjoyed it.

Charles Shurr worked at the local grocery store in Pontiac as a young man when he began noticing a young woman who had recently moved to town. Every time that young woman— Lucille Speers—came into the grocery store, Charles made sure he was at the front of the store just in case she needed help carrying her groceries.

“The rest is history,” Don said.

On Dec. 24, 1941, Lucille and Charles were married immediately before Charles left to serve overseas in WWII. On Sept. 30, 1946, the twins were born.

Both Shurr sons were athletes growing up. Don played football, and Dave took to the baseball field. Once graduating high school, neither boy had any question about what to do next.

“Both of my parents knew that for our generation college was going to open doors,” Dave said. “They didn’t know which door it was going to open, but they knew it would open more doors.”

Don attended the University of Iowa, while Dave followed in his mother’s footsteps and enrolled at Illinois State as a freshman in 1964.

During Dave’s time at the University he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration education in 1968, and a master’s degree  in 1970. He also found his wife, Barbara (Karstedt) Shurr. Barbara graduated in 1969, becoming the first woman to complete a degree from the Illinois State Economics Department.

In 1970 Lucille retired from Pontiac Central Grade School after 35 years of service at age 60. In 1996 she moved to Iowa City, Iowa, to be closer to her son, Don. She now resides in Oaknoll Retirement Residence, where she celebrated her 100th birthday on September 18 of 2010.

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