|Honored by:||Denise S. Maxwell|
|Brick location:||B:15 map|
In the late 1930s when high school senior Evangeline Gustafson thought about her future the primary career choices for women were nurses training or teaching. Influenced by her high school home economics teacher she opted for teaching. Miss Gustafson graduated from Iowa State College in 1939 earning a B.S. degree in Home Economics Education. Following graduation her first position was at Woodbine High School in Woodbine, Iowa where she taught vocational home economics for two years.
After two years in Woodbine she moved to Malvern, Iowa and continued her teaching career there. In April 1942, she married Daniel H. Maxwell and kept her marriage a secret through the end of the school year—since the school systems had a general policy that female teachers could not be married. In the summer when she informed the school board of her marriage she also asked to be released from her contract. Instead of accepting her resignation the school board asked her to stay on—offering her a higher salary and one weekend off each month (to include Friday or Monday) to visit her husband while he was in basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri.
She taught at Malvern one more year and then moved to Rolla Missouri to be closer to her husband. In Rolla Mrs. Maxwell taught junior high art for two years. In January 1945, Mr. Maxwell was sent overseas. Later that year Mrs. Maxwell moved to Spencer, Iowa where her parents lived. She began what spanned over 20 years of teaching in the Spencer Community School System in the fall of 1945. She worked part time and as a substitute teacher during most of the 1950s when the Maxwell’s two children were born. In 1958 she resumed full-time teaching and retired in 1980. In an era when many women stayed home to raise a family Mrs. Maxwell made teaching her life’s work.
Her focus was on textiles and clothing and cooking with occasional classes in interior decorating and child care. During a teaching career that covered 40 years she touched the lives of more than 5000 teen-age girls. For those who already knew the basics of sewing she helped them excel in garment design and tailoring. For those who barely knew how to boil water she taught them the basics to survive in the kitchen and manage a household. Her classes gave students problem solving techniques that could apply to home economics or many other areas of their lives.
In all of her teachings Mrs. Maxwell demonstrated sensitivity to individual students’ needs and provided her undivided attention when a student needed advice or someone to talk to. Recalling one particular instance when a girl had problems Mrs. Maxwell advised the girl to talk to her mother. The girl replied "I can’t talk to my mother--she’s so old." The "old mother" had been one of Mrs. Maxwell’s students several years earlier. Mrs. Maxwell continually updated her skills in home economics so she could share additional information with her students or peers. She took several graduate classes in textiles and experimental sewing. One of her colleagues at Spencer Junior High commented "She was an excellent role model to students and teachers.
She was a leader for the staff and challenged others to continue their advanced education. She encouraged everyone to always give their best efforts." An associate in the home economics program at Spencer said "Van will always be remembered by colleagues for her dedication to improving education for all students. Her opinions were highly respected by all of us who worked with her. Former students recall her gentle but persistent push for each of them to excel. She truly was a role model for those privileged to have her as a teacher or be associated with her as a colleague." Along her journey as a teacher Mrs.
Maxwell learned to balance work with raising a family. The two Maxwell children followed in her footsteps to Ames and graduated from Iowa State University.