GIANTS OF SAN JUAN by Buckley Jensen
“I have been a school supervisor, a principal, and a superintendent for 25 or more years and I say without hesitation that, never in all those years have I seen or become acquainted with, a more excellent and successful teacher than is Mrs. LaVerda B. Jensen”. Zenos L. Black, Superintendent, San Juan School District
During her childhood years, LaVerda’s favorite game was “school”.
She would arrange the family dining room with her mother’s sewing machine as the teacher’s desk, and the dining table as the student’s desk. She would recruit “students” from the neighborhood, and then teach them as long as they would linger.
She knew she wanted to be a teacher early in life. Problem was, she was the seventh child of her father’s 15 children. Only one of her siblings had ever gone to college and there was simply no money in the family budget for the luxury of a college education.
LaVerda’s mother died in childbirth when LaVerda was in the seventh grade. It was a crushing blow to a little girl who was just entering the years when she needed her mother most.
She never got over the loss of her mother. But the sorrow and loneliness only steeled her resolve to attain her life’s dream: To become a real teacher in a real classroom with real students.
She worked hard in her home taking care of many smaller children, cooking meals and helping keep their small home tidy.
Every spare minute as a teenager she was working at Paul’s Café as a waitresss, the Post Office, where her father was postmaster, or wherever she could find work. She saved her money. She was determined to go to college and she knew she was going to have to go it alone financially.
LaVerda was the student-body president of Monticello High School and graduated in the largest class ever to that time in l938, with 16 graduates.
Having never been far from Monticello in her life, she was worried about going to college. Her two best friends, Mernice Bailey and Pearl Frost, had committed to go to Utah State Agricultural College with her.
Mernice got married her junior year and at the yearbook signing party her senior year, Pearl wrote to LaVerda that she was going to marry John Lewis instead of going to college. LaVerda cried herself to sleep for a week and said having to face the unknown without her dear friends was one of the great disappointments of her life.
“My family had seven children go through Monticello schools while Mrs. Jensen was there. She was the only teacher for whom I made a special effort to see that my children were put into her class. This was because of her sweetness with children, the fine example of her personal life, and of course her unexcelled teaching ability.” F. Bennion Redd, San Juan County Attorney & Federal Judge.
In September of l939, she took her only dress, one pair of shoes in an old suitcase and hitchhiked to Logan. On the way she stopped in Salt Lake to visit her sister Nina.
Nina wept when she saw what her little sister didn’t have. She took LaVerda shopping at a department store for the first time in her life and bought her a dress, a pair of shoes, a sweater, and a warm coat.
LaVerda was lucky enough to land a job cleaning and cooking for the Needham family (jewelers) in Logan. For that she earned her board and room. She returned to Monticello each summer and worked in the Post Office and Paul’s Cafe to earn tuition for the next school year.
In l940, she graduated from the Utah State Agricultural Collage (USAC) with a three year normal degree, which was the requirement to teach school in those days.
Her father, A. B. Barton of Monticello, sent her $25 for a graduation present. With that money she went to the dentist for the first time in her life, paid for her cap and gown for graduation, bought a life-time subscription to Utah State Magazine and had enough left to buy material to make a new dress.
LaVerda was hired by Superintendent H. Lloyd Hansen to teach school in Blanding. She had 27 of what she always called the cutest students in the world that year. She loved them and she loved teaching. All the work had been worth it. And imagine…her contract for the l940-41 school year was the unbelievable sum of $900, $75 a month
“I remember how fun it was to be able to go to your room before and after school every day. You always had a little treat for me. I was so proud that all the kids at Monticello Elementary School loved you and respected you so much. I was so proud that you were my grandma. Whenever you were the hall monitor during lunch, I would forego running in the halls and sliding on the slick floors on my knees. It was a huge sacrifice on my part, but I would rather die than embarrass you.” Jody Jensen Church (granddaughter).
Ned Jensen, her high school sweetheart, would pick her up in his dad’s car in Blanding on Friday night, take her home for the weekend and then drive her back to Blanding on Monday morning.
When the United States entered World War II, all the Monticello boys signed up. LaVerda and Ned got married shortly before he was inducted into the Army at Fort Douglas in September, 1942.
Ned was assigned to the Army Signal Core and was on a train in New Jersey when the news came that his first son had arrived in October of l943. Ned was shipped to England on a troop ship three days after Buckley’s birth and spent the next two years in the European Theatre. He went ashore at Normandy two days after D-Day and spent the rest of the war in France and Germany.
“How are you? I hope you are swell. How is the baby? It is Sara’s and my birthday today. We did a history play yesterday. My row was the Assyrians. We got to beat up on the Babylonians. It was fun. Well, bye.” Rigby Wright - (4th grade. October 21, 1943)
Vella Washburn, the teacher, sent letters from all her students to LaVerda in the Moab Hospital. She said the kids begged to send their favorite teacher letters when they heard she had a new baby. LaVerda cherished those precious letters for the rest of her life.
After the war, the Utah State Board of Education required that all teachers in the state have a bachelor’s degree. LaVerda went back to school at Brigham Young University in l946-47 and earned her B.S. degree in Elementary Education.
Mrs. Jensen took a year off from teaching to have each of her three children: Buckley, Stephen and Nedra. Her children never felt like they had a working mother because she was always home when they were.
Her children grew up hearing her tell anyone who would listen that she had the greatest job in the world and how grateful she was that she had a job that allowed her to be home when her children were home.
In 1951-52, the district was having financial problems. Superintendent Zenos Black approached LaVerda, who was teaching second grade and told her the district could not afford another second grade teacher in Monticello.
Without complaint LaVerda agreed to teach all 55 students in the second grade that year. In her photo albums she had a picture of each student in that enormous class. Eleven still live in San Juan County today. (See pictures below) Her salary was $2,950.
Later in the late l960’s, LaVerda went back to BYU for several summers and earned endorsements in five different areas: 1. Special Education Resource Specialist 2. Severely Handicapped Certification 3. Learning Disabilities certification. 4. Elementary Education and 5. Early Childhood Development.
She had more hours than needed for a Master’s Degree, but opted to become certified in several areas that would make her a more effective teacher rather than get a master’s degree which would have meant additional compensation.
In l977, LaVerda was presented with the San Juan School District Teacher of the Year Award. The publicity brought scores of cards, letters and tributes from former students and colleagues around the nation. It was a humbling experience for LaVerda. Never one to seek the lime-light, she was overwhelmed with the outpouring of love and appreciation.
She went on to teach for 37 years in the San Juan District. She retired in l984. Despite asthma and other health problems, she had perfect attendance for 31 of the 37 years she taught. She went 17 years in a row in one stretch without missing a single day. She said it was harder to write lesson plans than it was to go to school sick.
Many times she went to school when she could hardly breathe and would go home and collapse in bed only to repeat the process the next day for as long as it took. She broke her leg one year and spent five months teaching in a wheelchair. She missed two days that year.
“With the great grist of men who present themselves as qualified to teach our children, what a joy it is to find in them occasionally, a LaVerda, who indeed is a teacher in every sense of the word and who makes a lasting and wholesome impression on the lives of all the students who come to her school” Carl R.Lyman
Her love for teaching, her emphasis on a good education and her example has had a powerful affect on her family.
Her three children and 16 grandchildren all have college degrees. Nine of those have gone on to earn Master’s degrees or Phd’s. Two of her three children and many of her grandchildren have followed her stellar example and have chosen to be teachers or school administrators.
Many times over the years, there has come a knock at her door and there would be a student she had not seen (sometimes) for decades. She always considered her students as part of her extended family.
To have them come back for a visit or write or call meant the world to her. The love and respect that came back to her was a far richer reward than any amount of monetary remuneration.
LaVerda passed away suddenly in August of 2006. She is buried in the Monticello Cemetery. She was as sharp and quick mentally at 87 as she had ever been.
It was not until she was gone and members of her family were flooded with hundreds of cards, calls and letters from all over the country that the extent of the love and respect she had earned in life was realized.
The ripples of her influence will be felt for generations to come. Who can even guess the residuals of her efforts in the Eternities?
“In a hundred years, it isn’t going to matter how big my house was, or the kind of car I drove, or the size of my bank account. But, if I made a difference in the lives of my students and children, perhaps I left the world a better place.”