SHENANDOAH, Iowa – In her 35 years on the faculty at Shenandoah High School, Anne B. Gee taught at least two generations of students the job-guaranteeing skills of typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and general business. When a third generation came along late in her career, she introduced them to computers, too.
To do all that, she had to be more than a great teacher. She had to be a life-long learner herself, and as one, she was a dandy.
She grew up “prim & proper,” one daughter says, in a genteel Virginia family with colonial roots. She later learned farming from her husband Merris Gee. She learned business and education by being involved in both fields. She traveled to all 50 states and more than a dozen other nations. She loved music and live theater. She was a devoted Methodist, but she also enjoyed her casino visits.
Anne and Merris Gee in a 1963 snapshot. (Photos courtesy of the family)
“I remember one time going up to Bluffs Run Casino in Council Bluffs with Anne,” said her longtime friend Jane Foster, of Shenandoah. “She drove right up to the valet parking station, and when we got out of the car, the attendant said, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Gee!’ I looked at her and said, ‘Well! They know you, don’t they?’ ”
Anne Gee always wanted to help others find the same love of life she had, and she knew how you do that – through education.
HELPING ENSURE OPPORTUNITIES. That’s why, after her death last summer at the age of 95, her daughters Carol Gee Zarbock and Jill Gee Polk, both now of Redmond, Washington, decided to donate $20,000 from their mother’s estate to the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation – to help ensure outstanding education in the Shenandoah Community Schools for students of the future.
“Mom loved Shenandoah, and she loved her 35-year teaching career here,” said Jill, when she announced the gift at a Nov. 15 reception in Shenandoah saluting American Education Week. You can read more about that event and the donation by clicking here.
Anne had stipulated in her will that she wanted to donate to Shenandoah High School in a trust – probably to fund college scholarships. “At the funeral home, I saw a brochure about the new education foundation, and I saw that Duane Rexroth, who taught with Mom, is on the board,” Jill said. “Duane was at the visitation that night, so I talked to him a little about what the foundation is doing,” which is raising money for an endowment to help underwrite educational enhancements in the schools. “After a couple additional meetings, we decided the foundation was the way for us to go.”
Rexroth says the foundation’s goals are a good match for the high standards he saw Anne use in her classroom.
“She was a true professional,” he said. “She headed a department in an academic area in which not everyone was going on to college. Many of the girls back then were going directly into the workforce out of high school, and Mrs. Gee helped them develop quality skills in shorthand, bookkeeping and typing. Of course, not all of them who enrolled in her classes chose to excel at the level Mrs. Gee expected, and in those cases, she addressed the issues in quite stern methods. She was not always popular, but she never faltered from her standards.”
OH SHE COULD BE TOUGH. That is not news to either of her daughters, both of whom had their mother as a teacher in several classes.
“Mom was always a woman with her eye on her professional life most of all, and she was pretty good at it,” said Carol Zarbock, who graduated in 1973. She was never far from her mother’s view. “In high school, I always seemed to be assigned a locker right outside her typing room door. How could I have been so unlucky? Ha!”
Jill Polk, a ’74 graduate, said “as a teacher, Mom always wanted to make sure she showed no favoritism to my sister or me. She made us work twice as hard as everybody else. I remember for my second semester of typing, I was assigned to a different typing teacher, Paul Hanson. He gave me a semester grade of 100 percent, and when he did, Mom went right in and chewed him out. She told him, ‘Look, no one is perfect!’ ”
Anne Gee, at Christmas 2016, with granddaughter Astara Zarbock (left) and daughter Jill Gee Polk.
Jill said that “for most of Mom’s teaching career, the students who were in her classes really wanted to be there, because so many of them were going to use what she taught them to go get jobs as soon as they were out of school. They were serious about it. Some of the students who came later – like when she introduced the computer classes – weren’t quite as focused. She was still just all-business, and so she had a few incidents.
“In one of them in the late 1980s, one boy actually ‘Super-Glued’ her to her chair,” Jill continued. “He had spread Super Glue all over her chair, she didn’t see it, and sat right down in it. She got mad as all get-out! She marched him down to the office, and the school gave him a 3-day suspension. But before he could go back to her class, he had to buy her a new chair and a new set of clothes.”
Whoever that bold delinquent was, he certainly had more daring than most of us who were students of Anne Gee. I was one myself.
SHE HELPED GET ME STARTED. In the spring of 1961, when I was finishing eighth grade, R.K. Tindall, the revered managing editor of the old Evening Sentinel, called my mother Anna Offenburger and asked, “Anna, don’t you have another son about ready to go to work for us?”
Two of my older brothers, Tom and Dan, had written sports for the Sentinel – but when they were in their junior and senior years of high school. My mother turned away from the phone, looked and me, got back on it and said, “But Mr. Tindall, Chuck is only 13 years old and he doesn’t even know how to type!” Tindall’s instructions, I learned later: “Well, put him in the school’s summer typing course, and we’ll pay for it. Meanwhile, push him in the front door down here and we’ll do the rest.”
A couple weeks later, I was the youngest student enrolled in Mrs. Gee’s summer typing course, astonished that she was going to make us learn to type on machines that had the letters blotted-out on the keyboards.
But she taught us well.
Eight years and several hundred newspaper stories later, when my typing speed and accuracy were tested in the U.S. Army “Clerk Typist” training I was receiving at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., I set a new record for that military post. Now, 56 years and thousands of stories later, I’m still amazingly fast on a keyboard. I owe a lot of that to an early start with Anne Gee.
Young Anne Benner had a good, early start herself growing up outside Warrenton, Va., about 40 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.
She was raised in a privileged family – with a heritage that included U.S. President James Madison -- and with servants in the home taking care of most of the real work. There was good and bad to that, says daughter Jill. “Mom was encouraged in her studies and in her interests, like basketball, but she never learned a thing about some things, like cooking!” Jill said. “That was done for them back then.”
A WARTIME ROMANCE. Anne graduated from the local public high school in 1939 at the age of 16, but took an extra year of classes because her parents didn’t think she was old enough to start college. Then she went on to Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., and graduated in 1944 with a degree in education. In that wartime, she went to work for the U.S. Government’s Office of Price Administration and at an Army Recruiting Office there in her hometown. She also volunteered at the local USO Club, where soldiers would hang out in their off-duty time.
At that club, she met Merris Gee, an enlistee from Farragut, Ia., who had been assigned to an Army cryptography and intelligence station operating near Warrenton. “My dad was stationed there specifically because he already knew how to type,” Jill said. “I guess you could say it was typing that brought my folks together!”
They dated, fell in love and planned to marry in September, 1947. Before Anne’s parents would give consent, however, they told her she had to make a trip to Farragut to check out her would-be in-laws, the Gees.
That was a time when the Gees were thick as rabbits out there west of Shenandoah and north of Farragut. And it’s always been a challenge for the rest of us to figure out who belonged to whom in that extended family.
“I think one of the things that confused folks was that there were five Gee brothers, all of whom farmed to a greater or lesser degree,” Carol Zarbock said recently. “So many of them! Walter was my grandfather. But in my dad’s generation, there was Merris and Merrill, which confused folks, and then in my generation, there was Jill and Gil. That seemed to confuse people as well. I remember growing up, sometimes there would be 80 or more people at the Gee picnics at McComb Park.”
In the summer of ’47, Walter, Winnie and Merris passed the scrutiny they got from Anne Benner, and the fall wedding went ahead.
A HAPPY, BUSY TIME IN THEIR LIVES. Walter and Winnie bought another farm near the Farragut Corner, and Merris went to work on it. Anne started teaching in Farragut, spent three years there, accepted a teaching job in Sidney for two years, gave birth to her two daughters, earned a master’s degree at what’s now the University of Nebraska-Omaha and in 1956 began her long career at Shenandoah High. By the time the girls started elementary school, the family had moved to Shenandoah, with Merris commuting out to the farm.
Those years of the 1960s and ’70s were happy and busy.
Both girls were dedicated piano students. And, "with no brothers, I became like an extra hand on the farm for Dad,” Jill said. “I can still remember the harvests when Dad would be in the combine, I’d be driving the tractor pulling the wagon, and the hired man would be at the bins to unload.” Both Gee girls were active in the high school newspaper, with both serving as editor-in-chief of the Round-Up during their senior years.
Carol gave a fun insight to their lives in those years.
“Jill was always out on the farm with dad, but I was kept mostly indoors because I had terrible allergies,” Carol recalled in an email. “I spent a lot of time with Grandma Gee (Winnie) and also Phyllis Johnson Lewis. They were like second moms to me. Good thing, too, because mom was never taught to cook or clean or do household things because they had help to do that on the farm in Virginia. Grandma Gee and Phyllis taught us everything we know about taking care of ourselves at home. Dad couldn’t eat most anything Mom tried to cook, so we always ate out a lot. When Jill and I were driving on our own, he kept an open account at the old Nishna Café, which had various names over time, and all we had to do was just sign the bill. Ha!”
HIGH ACHIEVERS. Carol earned her college undergraduate degree from Morningside College in Sioux City in music performance. Three master’s degrees later, she works for Microsoft as a information technology security analyst and compliance consultant.
Jill graduated in business from Lakeland College in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. She earned a master’s in insurance management and has had a 35-year career with five different insurance companies in Lincoln, Neb.; then Madison, Wis., and finally Des Moines.
Both Carol and Jill are divorced and both have adult children.
Anne Gee, earlier this year, 2017. She died at 95 years old on July 25.
Merris Gee died too young, at 61, of lung cancer in 1983.
Anne Gee retired from teaching in 1991, then was immediately elected to a term on the Shenandoah school board. She continued to live in retirement in Shenandoah until 2010, when she moved to Des Moines, across the street from Jill. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about that same time, and began having additional health problems. In 2014, Anne and Jill both moved to Redmond to live with Carol and her daughter Astara Zarbock.
Jill says she hopes the family’s gift to the education foundation “will inspire other people, other donors,” to make contributions and help build the endowment that will allow for educational excellence in Shenandoah for decades to come.
We asked Carol what she imagines her mother would say if she were somehow to speak to the students of the Shenandoah schools now – or in the future.
“Mother was probably most passionate about people getting an education,” Carol answered. “This was instilled in her from her formative years, and she got her master’s degree when I was young. So I think she would tell people to study hard and go to college, because that’s what she always told us. Jill has her master’s and I have three master’s degrees, so I guess we were paying attention!”
Then do well in life – and pay it forward.
The author of this story, Chuck Offenburger, serves on the board of directors of the Shenandoah Iowa Education Foundation. You can reach him by email at chuck@Offenburger.com.