By Ann Wharton, Staff Writer
"What greater or better gift can we offer the republic than to teach and instruct our youth?" - Cicero
After 27 years in public education and 22 years as principal of Jefferson Elementary School in Winona Lake, Don M. Cox has amply endowed this community with the great gift described by Cicero centuries ago.
He will be honored for his contribution to the educational progress of this community during the Jefferson Parent/Teacher Organization meeting in the school Tuesday at 7 p.m,. as part of the annual Open House.
For him, his years in education were the fulfillment of a childhood dream. "I always wanted to be a teacher," he said. "My mother, who died when I was five years old was a teacher, and I wanted to be one too."
All his years have been devoted to the elementary level. "I never wanted to teach anything else."
His teaching career began in 1949 in the three room/three teacher Franklin School. But it didn't begin until after he was married to his wife, Elnora, and was the father of two children.
He had come out of five years in the service and was working," Mrs. Cox related. "But he wasn't happy with his circumstances." "One day I asked her if she'd mind if I went to school," he recalls.
Full Speed Ahead
"I didn't," she continued, "and he attended Manchester College and finished the training in two-and-one half years."
Taking up the story, he said, "I started teaching in the fall of 1949 before I had done my student teaching, and I had to complete that after I had already taught one year."
Not satisfied with the bachelor degree, Cox set himself to the task of higher education attending two graduate schools simultaneously and taking three courses: two at Fort Wayne and one at Ball State.
Ultimately he earned two master's degrees one from Ball State and one from Indiana University in elementary education and elementary administration.
It didn't come easy, but he is a man who once he sets himself to a task pursues it with full vigor. He not only expected a great deal from himself, he also expected quality performance from his teachers. "He always required a lot of us," one teacher related, "but he didn't breathe down your neck. It was as though he accepted the fact that you had been hired to teach and were capable of handling your responsibility."
The point is further illustrated by the confidence he placed in his faculty during his absences. "When he was gone for a conference or was ill, he expected everything to go smoothly because he had confidence in us."
One reason he could be so confident was that he knew everything that was going on in his office, according to Pardee Gunter, who served for several years as assistant principal to Cox. "He was extremely dedicated to his work."
Continuing, he related, "He was so very organized and efficient. Other principals would call him about various procedures and problems. He helped immensely in preparing me for this year" (Gunter is now principal at Atwood School).
"He involved me in everything in the office, forms and discipline, so that I would see all sides of the work. Even now I ask myself, "What would Mr. Cox do?"
By The Book
"He went by the book. For example, forms that were supposed to be filled out, were filled out. There just wasn't any question about it. After the last negotiations, the administration required that we use slips to indicate when we arrived late or left early with the reason why stated.
"Some of the teachers grumbled after a while and began asking teachers in other schools about them. "What forms?" they answered. They hadn't ever filled them out. But that's the way he was. If something was required he followed through with it whether it was convenient or not."
Further illustrating his efficiency, another teacher who has worked with and for him for 22 years remarked about the fact that at the opening of school, supplies and books were always on hand. If things were missing, he soon saw to it that they were obtained. "I always appreciated that," she said.
Another teacher remarked, "He didn't often compliment you, but when he did, you knew it meant a lot."
Demanding But Flexible
Another agreed that he was demanding, but she added, "He didn't always demand that you agree with him or he with you. He respected our ideas."
"That's right," the first replied, "If an idea had any merit, even though he wasn't all for it, he'd let us try it."
But he didn't issue either/or ultimatums. One teacher put it this way, "He'd say to you, 'I suggest,' or 'Let me give you a suggestion.' I always followed his suggestions."
However he was regarded by his teachers as flexible. For example, "He understood if you departed from the prescribed textbook for a current event session when something important happened," one explained.
"Or if there was a community resource person that could be used in the classroom, he encouraged us to take advantage of them when we could."
"He also appreciated the creativity of the children and encouraged us to encourage them to be creative. He always enjoyed the cards they made for him for his birthday or when he was ill."
Willing to Try Ideas
Continuing in another vein, they recalled, "Sometimes you'd go to him with what seemed to be an impossible idea, and before you knew it, it was a reality."
The use of the old kitchen off the social studies room is an illustration. After use of it was discontinued, the social studies teacher asked if she might use it. He had no objection, and it gave her a third more room with which to work. But a better idea, she thought, would be to have a door between her room and the former kitchen so she wouldn't have to go out in the hall to enter the room. She talked to Mr. Cox about it, and the next fall the door was there.
Another greatly appreciated quality of the 22-year veteran principal was what was described by all the teachers as his "listening ear."
"He was interested in you personally," they said. "He supported you in school problems, but he would always listen if you had other problems," they agreed.
Each teacher had a different example to prove the point.
"one time," a teacher remembers, "I was shaving a problem with my car and he offered to look at it. He got right down and checked under the car -- and he found the problem. We really appreciated things like that."
"One thing that he did that he shouldn't have because of his health was to clean our cars off and shovel the walks when there was a storm during the day."
We told him that he shouldn't do that, but it didn't make any difference. When we came out at night, our car windows would be swept off and there was a path for us to get to the cars.
Dedicated to his job, he would also sometimes return to school following an illness before his doctor thought it was advisable.
"He helped in so many ways. If there was a little problem or emergency in the classroom, he'd take care of it himself so that it would be done right away."
Other Helpful Qualities
Besides administrative help and advice for personal problems, Cox aided in the classroom. "His favorite teaching chore was to help with a math or spelling lesson," his teachers recall.
"If I'd have trouble explaining a math concept, I'd ask him if he'd come and work with the students." two of the teacher said. "He was always glad to do it and the students always enjoyed it when he came into the classroom."
He would come to the classroom on other occasions too. Fireman of the year for Winona Lake in 1965 and secretary/treasurer of the group for 17 years, he worked as a volunteer fireman in Winona Lake for 20 years.
It always pleased him to have an opportunity to wear his uniform for the children and explain to them about the fire department.
He mingled with the children at recess too. Often he would take a turn at playground duty or relieve one of the teachers. "There was always a group of children around him when he was out there," one teacher stated.
He also involved the students in the PTO meetings. "One year the students weren't involved and the attendance really dropped. We had good programs but the teachers didn't turn out." Two teachers discussing this recalled different times when the Coxes were involved in PTO dinners. "Mr. and Mrs. Cox used to prepare the ham, rolls and coffee for the potluck dinners we had for PTO."
"Before that we used to have fish fries. They were really popular and Mr. Cox always was in the middle of it. One year he volunteered all the teachers for breading the fish.
Another treat for students was his presentation of Indian lore. Interested in it for the last ten years or so, he would bring various Indian relics to school and share them with the classes.
All agreed that Mr. Cox didn't put himself on a pedestal, but they stressed that he required a certain dignity and decorum. He never allowed the children to be familiar with him.
Held in Respect
The same respect for the man is evidenced in conversations with the teachers. One remarked, "I don't ever remember hearing a teacher call him by his first name. It was always Mr. Cox. He never said 'Don't call me by my first name.' You just didn't do it."
"One big job was to know every child's name." This job is one that he accomplished as he made a habit of addressing each student by name.
Another benefit of his knowledge of the students was that he also knew the families. This helped teachers when they had a question about or a difficulty with a student. Mr. Cox could always fill them in on details that helped them understand the situation and deal with it better.
A celebrated event at Jefferson School was the birthday paddlings. Somehow the birthday child was never too reluctant to be hauled down to the principal's office by several of his or her friends for the great event. One teacher observed that the principal liked the children to be in his office for other than punishment.
'Not Many Trouble Makers'
But not many of the students were "trouble makers" in the man's opinion. "It was a very small minority," he said. "Out of 360 - 375 children there might be a half a dozen you could name who were trouble makers. There are an awful lot of good solid kids today."
How about education today? One of the greatest disadvantages in the educator's mind is the high mobility of families, particularly in the Jefferson School area. "Twenty-five per cent of the students enrolled in school in June wouldn't be there in September, and that doesn't include the sixth grade. "This has hurt the children's chances to progress. It is detrimental to them and to the teachers as they try to cope with the fluctuation."
Another disadvantage to educational process today is, in his opinion, one parent homes. "The single parent works all day and is tired at the end of the day. The parent just doesn't have much time for the children.
Students Tune Out
A third deterrent he sees is the ability of the students to tune out the teachers. "So often at home the children shut everything out with television, stereo or radio that they have transferred the tune out to school,'" Mrs. Cox explained.
Television needs a complete overhaul in the estimation of Cox. "There's too much violence. All you have to do is to look out on the playground to see the influence it has," referring to playground encounters.
"We need to get back to the three R's," he asserted. Even in the curriculum, he contends, there are too many diversions which de-emphasize the basic skills. Having too many outside activities to distract them make the children tired, too. According to Cox, parents need to help their children choose activities so they don't reach the saturation point.
Advantages to today's educational process include the greater individual attention that is available to children. This goes hand-in-hand with the smaller classes that teachers have now. Another big plus is the tutorial program that is available to first graders to help with reading. It provides individual attention to the students 15 minutes a day five days a week. "This is a program that should be expanded into other subjects and other grades."
He's had 27 years to make his observations, and now begins the time for other activities. Retirement provides an opportunity for him to recuperate from recent surgery and to do the things he's been wanting to do and has never had the time.
The list of his interests indicates his positive attitude toward life and retirement and certainly insures him of the fact that there is little chance that time will hang heavy on his hands.
Time is, in fact, a very significant factor in the Cox household. The striking of the hour illustrates this as the hour is chimed over and over from his collection of striking clocks. "We can't stand to have them all running at once," he smiled. "It's hard to keep them all exact and they just keep striking."
The collection, which now numbers more than 20 clocks of various types, began when Cox decided that he wanted to retrieve the grandfather clock which belonged to his grandfather, Isaac Solomon (Sol) Minear, of Claypool, with whom Cox lived following the death of his mother.
Hobbies and Collections
Tracing the clock to the man who had purchased it, Cox discovered that it had been sold to an antique dealer. Once he found it, he purchased it and started his collection. He and his wife enjoy attending auctions where they have purchased a number of clocks. Some are school clocks, and one, which was found in a hayloft, he refurbished
The Coxes enjoy going to sales. Sometimes they split up in order to cover more ground. "Of course we buy more things that way," she admitted. She enjoys collecting plates and cups and saucers. Their home reflects their interests. The clocks and Mrs. Cox's collection of cups, saucers and plates are on display. Plants are arranged throughout the house and pictures relating to various events in their lives decorate the walls.
A habit carried over from his childhood is his avid interest in books. "I'm going to read all the books I've been wanting to read," he said.
"I always have a book in my hand. I can't watch television with(out) a book to read when the commercials are on." He has books on his hobby of Indian lore that he has been waiting to get started. "One of the gifts we knew he'd always enjoy," Gunter said, "was a book on Indian lore."
And retirement gives more time to indulge in his hobby. "I hope to get to Angel Mounds in Southern Indiana within the next four weeks," he said. Beyond that he'd like to go on a dig for a week in Illinois where they excavate Indian mounds. He also enjoys poetry, particularly that of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, and books on Indian history.
But his interests don't stop there. In his basement, where he has plans for a family room, he also has a woodworking shop and a lathe he has never had the opportunity to use. "There's plenty to keep me busy there," he contends, "with four households to look after." The households include that of his daughter, Mrs. Kenneth (Patricia) Jernigan, of Fourt Wayne, his son, Michael Cox, of Warsaw and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Gale Robbins.
Interested in CTA
And he likes fishing. A few weeks ago he caught 21 fish, and looks forward to many more opportunities to enjoy the sport. In addition, he plans to become a member of the Retired Teachers Association and become involved in the Concerned Taxpayers Association. "I think they are involved in important things."
His approach to retirement is typical of his approach to his education and career --full speed ahead.
Warsaw Times Union SPOTLIGHT Oct. 16-22 (year unknown)