Centenarian gives Rock Bridge second-graders real-life history lesson

Thursday, October 27, 2011 | 5:59 p.m. CDT; updated 8:46 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 27, 2011
Martha Fennewald, 101, spoke with second-grade students at Rock Bridge Elementary School on Thursday morning. This week, Fennewald received an honorary teaching degree from the University of Central Missouri. Fennewald began working as a teacher in 1927 in Westphalia and taught off and on for 60 years.

COLUMBIA — Rock Bridge Elementary School second-graders got a real-life history lesson Thursday.

The topic: early-20th century schools. The teacher: Martha Fennewald, who started teaching in 1927. Clearly, she had experience on the subject.

Fennewald, 101 years old, received an honorary diploma from the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg on Sunday, where she once studied. Two of her great-grandchildren, Hunter Quinn, 7, and Parker Quinn, 6, are students at Rock Bridge Elementary. Her granddaughter, Kate Quinn, invited Fennewald to come to her children's classroom to answer questions.

The students' history curriculum taught how life has changed throughout time, Rachel Howard, second-grade teacher, said. Having Fennewald come in meant having a first-person account of some of the things they've learned.

The lesson was a Q-and-A session, where Howard and fellow teacher Melinda Manson asked questions their students had compiled before Fennewald came to the school. Topics included what the classroom was like and what students would bring for lunch.

"Did playgrounds have slides and monkey bars?"

Fennewald said they didn't, but some playgrounds had swings. She and the students would play baseball out on the field during recess.

"What subjects did you teach at school?"

All of them, she said, including history, civics, science, math, art and spelling.

"You name it, I taught it," she said.

Fennewald started teaching at 17, Kate Quinn said. After high school, she took a test to get a teaching certificate so she could teach during the winter while taking classes at the University of Central Missouri during the summer.

Eventually, Fennewald quit school and became a full-time teacher to support her family during the Great Depression. She earned $75 a month, a fairly decent salary back then.

Her first job was at Castle Rock and Folk School, six miles from Westphalia. When she married, she quit teaching to start a family of her own.

Fennewald went back to work in Jefferson City at a Catholic school when she was in her 50s, finally transferring to a Catholic school in Westphalia until she retired at 65. She was the first layperson to be hired there, Quinn said.

After that, she substitute taught until she was 77 and volunteered at a nursing home until she was 99.

Fennewald lives in Westphalia and remains active. She continues to attend scripture study Wednesday mornings and quilts every Tuesday and Wednesday. She said her secret to staying healthy is to "keep working."

"I stayed busy because at home I always had either a quilt in a frame, or I had needlework or something," she said. "But I made bread, made pies, cooked all the meals, scrubbed, washed and put clothes on the line. And I had a family."

Quinn decided it would be a good idea to have Fennewald talk to the classes, partly because she had just received her diploma, but also because of the kids' history unit.

Howard said having Fennewald speak to her class was a real treat because it helped put things into perspective for the kids, who have a limited frame of how far history goes back.

"Talking about the past to 8-year-olds means 1985," Howard said. "So trying to get them into the past that really is the past, it's nice to be able to hear from somebody who's lived in that time."

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