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Barbara Ward’s legacy evokes memories for Sanibel School staff

By Staff | Oct 7, 2015

Laurie Sanders and Julie Wappes point out their picture, which was taken during the 1995-1996 school year, at Sanibel Elementary School with Principal Barbara Ward, who is standing in the middle of the front row. MEGHAN McCOY

Legacy is a word that often times comes to mind when sharing memories of Barbara Ward, a past principal at Sanibel Elementary School.

“Barbara was the epitome of grace and elegance and southern charm and love and integrity,” Julie Wappes, The Sanibel School 4th grade teacher, said. “You couldn’t ask for a better role model. She was great. She was first and foremost a teacher and she loved. Leadership is easy when you follow love and we all did it with a smile. No one left here for 15 years.”

Wappes and Laurie Sanders, second grade teacher, were both hired by Ward in 1982 as teachers for what was then the Sanibel Elementary School.

“I knew Barbara as a child. I grew up with her boys,” Sanders said. “She hired me right out of college. She was wonderful to work for.”

Ward passed away Saturday, Sept. 19, at the age of 80. A Celebration of Life was held the following Friday, Sept. 25, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers.

“She will be greatly missed,” Sanders said. “Her service was beautiful.”

Ward’s career began as a teacher before becoming the assistant principal at Tice Elementary School for a year. From there she spent 18 years as the principal at Sanibel Elementary before retiring in 1997. During her time as the principal, Ward was voted as Sanibel’s Woman of the Year.

“When I got the job here at Sanibel, I thought ‘oh my gosh what big shoes to follow in’ because she had led Sanibel Elementary to be a National Blue Ribbon School,” Principal Barbara Von Harten said. “I remember coming out here and meeting with her. She shared with me the different programs and I thought ‘what a legacy to follow.'”

As Von Harten took over the position and moved the school forward, a middle school was added, all while keeping numerous programs Ward began in place. She said it was important for her to honor the programs that were in place.

“The greatest legacy she’s left is this school,” Von Harten said. “She was such an integral part for so many years. She really built a solid foundation that we could build upon when adding on the middle school. It was important to her for the kids to be involved in the community, so adding on the middle school we require our middle school students to do community service. That is something she started. They were very involved in the community.”

One of well-known programs started by Ward is the Junior Duck Stamp program, which continues today through J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Ward also had her students man booths at the Sanibel Shell Fair, which Von Harten said they have continued.

A program that Sanders recalls from her early years of teaching is Ward’s junior naturalist program.

“Both of my daughters went through school here and they really knew environment,” she said. “They knew the trees and they knew birds because they taught it. When you master something, you can teach it. The fifth grade (students) did teach the younger students about nature.”

Wappes said they budded up with schools from Lee County, which was cutting edge for its time.

Another program that stood out, was the “drown proofing” program.

“She made sure every child in the school could swim,” Sanders said about the partnership with the Sanibel Recreation Center. “Every new student had to prove they could swim the length of the pool, or they were put into classes. Every child was going to learn to swim. That was huge back then. That was important.”

Von Harten said they have continued the program for kindergarten students.

Ward was also innovative, creating the first television news studio for the students and supplying the classrooms with computers.

“She said play with it. If you break it it’s okay, it was donated. You need to know how to use it,” Sanders said of the computer. “She was ahead of her time. She was always about lifelong learners.”

A fond memory for both Wappes, Sanders and many past students was her colorful jacket covered with a map of the world. Sanders said Ward would have a question of the day that the kids would have to answer.

“The old songs. We would just sing,” Wappes recalled. “We would sing the old traditional American songs.”

Ward, expressed to be a patriotic woman, also held a weekly gathering in the courtyard for all of the students and staff.

“We would put the school to sleep every Friday,” Wappes said, while the taps were played.

Ward also cared about her staff, often times making them feel like family.

Wappes said during her first year of teaching at Sanibel Elementary School her father died.

“We were just lost and she said ‘you are coming to my house for Christmas. I don’t want you to be alone,'” she said of Ward’s invitation for her and her mother. “She was always there at the right moment to say the right thing. That is how you knew she was genuine.”

That kind of legacy stays with someone over the years.

“What a legacy to leave when everyone remembers goodness about you. What more can you ask for in life,” Wappes asked. “She knew everyone and she knew every child by name. I live in this community and everyone still talks about her. It’s unbelievable that someone can make such an impact.”

Follow Meghan @IslanderMeghan on Twitter.