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An Education Pioneer Remembered in Library Display

August 5, 2013 04:11 PM
Children at Mimi's Merry Mornings, circa 1967.

More than a few children who grew up in Park Ridge, as well as others from neighboring towns, have lasting memories of an unassuming woman named Miriam Stidham.


Actually, make that more than 4,500 children.


In her professional life, Miriam was known as Mrs. Mimi, the owner and director of a nursery school called Mimi’s Merry Mornings, which she ran out of her home at 200 N. Prospect Avenue in Park Ridge from 1948 until her retirement in 1991. During the month of August, the Library will host a special second floor display, coordinated by the Park Ridge Historical Society, which offers a retrospective of her remarkable career and educational legacy.


Mimi’s home – once one of the last existing structures in Park Ridge that was built using the distinctive red Brickton bricks – is now gone, but it played a key role in the creation of the school. When Mimi’s husband, Gurney, suffered a stroke in 1948, she suddenly found herself having to be the breadwinner for their family, which included two daughters under the age of five.


"I wanted to do something where I could be with my children," Mimi told an interviewer when she was 79 ( and still teaching). She also needed to take care of Gurney, who was left with speech and vision impairment.


The proposal urged on her by friends and family members was to start a nursery school. Mimi converted the basement of the two-story home into classrooms and opened with just five students. Yet as word of the school spread, the number of students quickly grew until classes spilled over into other parts of the house.


Mimi eventually had to limit herself to 25 children at any given time. She usually had a waiting list, and by the time she retired after 43 years, had achieved an almost legendary status in the area as a uniquely gifted teacher, the kind that parents and their children remember as being like a member of the family.


What made Mimi stand out from others who have attempted similar projects? In part it was her ability to relate to her small charges, many of whom had difficulty in other settings. Hyperactive children could become almost miraculously calm in her presence. Children with potentially crippling handicaps, including blindness or polio, found a patient mentor who believed in their potential.


"There was no place for them, and I felt they needed to be with normal children," Mimi told Pioneer Press writer Elizabeth Owens in 1991. "If you lump handicapped children together, they’re not going to be able to learn from each other very well."


In many respects, Mimi was echoing the growing popularity of educational movements such as that pioneered by Maria Montessori. Yet Mimi’s approach was less structured and based in lessons she’d learned from her grandmother.


"Discipline with a heart," as she described it.


Her basic tenets were respect, responsibility, and realism. She believed that treating children with respect was the best way to teach them respect. Giving them responsibility taught responsibility. And letting them experience life’s realities, even difficult moments like the death of a family member, helped them to grow into healthy adults – as long as the lessons were handled with tact and gentleness.


"Realism gives them something to look up to and fly to, if it’s handled in the proper way," she said.


Mimi remained adamant all her life that what she did was not daycare, but "pure nursery school," where children could play and start rudimentary explorations into learning – at their own pace. The days included music, dance, art, and lots of outdoor activity in the large garden maintained by her husband. In time, certified teachers were hired to assist with classes.


"Children are entitled to experience as much beauty as possible," Mimi once said. Her emphasis on the process and environment for learning, rather than on any desired end result, had a lasting effect on her students, many of whom remember their time at Mimi’s as among the happiest years of their childhood.


For Gary Pfister, who attended the school as a five year old, it isn’t specific memories but a series of powerful impressions that remain. When he began at Mimi’s school, he was considered an emotionally-needy child who had difficulty controlling his temper.


"My parents tell me I made a big turnaround with her," he says. "I still remember playing football in the garden, and Gurney sitting nearby, acting as our coach. My oldest friend went to school there with me, and we still get together."


Pfister also remembers the house well, and regrets the fact that it was torn down. "For years afterwards, I would go past Mimi’s house and there would always be a sense of fondness – a real joy. That house signified Park Ridge for me. It might as well have been City Hall."


Mimi retired at age 84, not long after her husband’s death. In her letter to families explaining her decision to retire, she wrote, "I have experienced great joy, great devotion, and great love since opening the doors of my historic home so that children might experience the joy of learning in a natural home setting. I have received far more knowledge and understanding than I have given – learning from each person, family, and child who has touched my life."


In the end what makes Mimi Stidham and her school important is how they remind us that some of the most valuable contributions are made by those who arrive at their vocations by accident, with little formal training. Park Ridge was lucky to get Mimi Stidham, and her legacy is well worth remembering.


For more information on the display, please call (847)720-3209 or write mdalton@prpl.org. For more information on materials housed at the Park Ridge Historical Society, please visit www.pennyville.org.



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