According to her friends and family, Debbie Blaha’s life has been an endless quest for improvement.
“She was the epitome of a lifelong learner,” said Tina Basler, former teacher and now principal of Plattin Primary in the Jefferson R-7 school district, where Mrs. Blaha taught for 33 years. “She never stopped looking for new strategies to teach, new ways to reach children and transmit her passion for reading to them.”
Ms Blaha died on November 2 after a year-long battle with cancer.
She grew up in Herculaneum and played softball and volleyball at Herculaneum High School. She played on a high school team at Quonset Lanes in Crystal City, where she met clerk Larry Blaha, her husband of 50 years.
The two dated during Larry’s service in the Navy and married shortly after graduation in 1972.
“We lived in a trailer in Pevely and then moved it to property we bought in R-7,” Larry said. “We built a house there and she worked as a secretary in St. Louis for several years. “
Her son Scott joined in 1976 and was young when she decided to change careers.
“She came home one day and said, ‘There’s something better out there for me. I want to teach.’” Larry said. “We had a house and a kid and a car payment, but who cares.”
She earned an associate degree from Jefferson College while being active in many campus activities, including a stint as state president of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Fraternity. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Southeast Missouri State University and commutes daily to Cape Girardeau, listening to recorded lectures along the way.
Ms Blaha was hired in 1988 to fill in for an R-7 teacher on maternity leave. She taught sixth grade for a year and then switched to first grade.
Ms. Blaha firmly believed that reading should be fun for her students. She started an annual overnight trip to the nearby Festus/Crystal City Conservation Club, where children slept in tents and read to each other around the campfire.
She wrote a grant for a program that put together book bags for students to borrow from the library, each containing a book and all the materials and supplies for crafts and projects related to the book.
“She started so many programs and projects,” Larry said. “She wanted to show kids that you don’t just have to sit in a chair and read; With a book you can feel good anywhere.”
Skilled swing dancers, the Blahas were a familiar, edgy sight at school events.
“When Scott went to Herky[high school]we did homecoming, we did decorations and lights and stuff,” Larry said. “She was so creative. It just mushroomed, and we ended up doing homecomings and proms at Herky and R-7 for about 15 years.
“Working with children and families was our hobby. We loved it.”
Ms. Blaha exercised her creativity in many crafts, most notably scrapbooking.
“She’s probably been making Christmas and greeting cards for almost 30 years,” Larry said. “And everyone had to have something that moved — it popped up, slipped out, unfolded into something.”
Of course, this kind of perfection takes time.
“She was driving me insane because she started something at 10 p.m. and finished it at 3 a.m.,” Larry said. “She said her creative flow is better when she’s under the gun.”
In addition to teaching, Ms. Blaha coached junior high sports.
“She never played basketball but became a coach when (the admins) said there wouldn’t be a team otherwise,” Larry said. “She took the track team from about a dozen kids to over 60, and she wouldn’t cut a single one.”
The Blahas were named grand marshals for the first-ever homecoming parade at Jefferson High in 2009.
About 15 years ago, Ms. Blaha earned her master’s degree and transitioned from being a first grade teacher to working as a certified Title 1 literacy specialist. “She worked with six kids at a time for 30 minutes every day,” Larry said.
What didn’t change was her tireless search for better teaching methods.
“She did research, read, went to conferences, took classes, all to find a new way to reach a child,” Larry said. “She would keep going until she could see in their eyes that they got it.”
Not only first graders benefited from Ms. Blaha as a mentor.
“She was such a wonderful sounding board,” said Basler. “She just listened to everything you had to say and then asked questions that allowed you to come up with your own answers.”
Kindergarten teacher Stacy Glass counted Ms. Blaha as her mentor and friend.
“She took the time to listen, not just to the little kids, but to our high school students who were coming in.
“She taught me how to peel off a child’s layers to get to what it’s about.”
Ms. Blaha retired in June 2021. She had accumulated hundreds of books and spent time sorting them by reading level and giving them away to students.
“She had a really bad back this summer, and we thought it was because she was moving the books around,” Larry said.
In September, an MRI showed a tumor on her spine, and a CT scan showed it had already metastasized to her bones. She underwent radiation and chemical infusion treatments to slow progress.
“She didn’t expect to be healed,” Larry said. “She just wanted more time.”
Ms. Blaha was hospitalized in mid-October and then came home to the hospice.
“Some of her teacher friends stayed with her almost 24/7,” Larry said. “We have a great-granddaughter in the Philippines who she never met, and Debbie got to FaceTime her one last book. That was really special.”
Mrs. Blaha was honored at a ceremony during Pink Week at the R-7.
“She didn’t want that at first when they came to her,” Larry said. “She thought there might be others who deserved it more than her. Then they came up with the idea of a scholarship, and she could accept it. She was excited to think she would still be helping children even though she’s no longer here.”
Jefferson R-7 superintendent Clint Johnston described them as a “consummate professional.”
“All she knew was to serve others,” he said. “She was a remarkable person and I don’t think she really understood the impact she had on thousands of lives.”