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November 07, 2019

Recreating History With Joanie Thornburg Part IV

November 8, 2018

     Ronnie’s opportunity to become a teacher was granted to him, but it didn’t come about in the way he would have imagined. Unfortunately, the catalyst behind the change was caused by Thor Packing Co. going out of business. When the business closed, it sold its packing shed to Martin & Company (today the home of Keithly Williams Seeds).


     For a while, Ronnie worked at Martin & Co., but found himself in a quandary when the company made the decision that he needed to travel. He went home and discussed it with Joanie, and it was she who reminded him of his dream to be a teacher.


     They temporarily moved to San Diego so Ronnie could complete the 17 units he needed for his credentials. He completed his requirements in the summer of 1965, and once back in the Imperial Valley, Ronnie started teaching at Finley Middle School. Eventually he would accept a position at the High School, teaching shop and driver’s education. But upon returning, it came time to start building their own roots. In 1965 they bought a three-bedroom, two-bath house on Orange Avenue, and as Joanie says, Ronnie went into his “frustrated architect” mode.


     He began a long-term project, converting the carport and redesigning and rebuilding certain areas of the house. Much of the work he did himself, along with Joanie, she having absolutely no expertise on construction, they learned as they went along. She remembers he once asked her for Stryco wire. She had absolutely no idea what he was asking for.


     In the family room, he designed two large, beautiful bay windows with shelving in front of each. Joanie has found that this is where her succulents thrive the most facing the north light.


     It can’t be emphasized enough the zest for life these two shared, and which Joanie still has. This was especially made evident in their teaching. There are many examples of how they went above and beyond what was expected of them. Joanie, for instance, while teaching girl’s physical education and math, at the same time ran the student council, and started a drill team.


     One story in particular still lights up Joanie’s eyes as she talks about it.


     She integrated into the curriculum, a fifth-grade project entitled Colonial Days. It required an extraordinary amount of work. The project eventually grew to the point where students from other schools in the area came to see it.


     She first started by introducing her students to the era by reading My Brother Sam is Dead in class. Written in 1974 by brothers James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, the book garnered many awards.


     Joanie wrote a historical play, and with the help of Ronnie and other fifth-grade teachers designed, built and painted the sets. Wood militia guns needed to be created (Ronnie), and the boys needed to learn drills and to march (P.E.). Vests were sewn (Joanie) for the boys, and the girls were dressed in colonial garb. Both boys and girls learned a colonial dance. Leather-works were also created.


     The fifth-grade cadre all pitched in. Teacher David Martinez’s room was converted into the apothecary shop, complete with leeches (gummy bears or

licorice in water-filled glass jars.) Marci Monje had the bakery shop where she served cider and pieces of bread. Teacher Cristina Garcia and Ronnie worked to design cut-outs, the kind with holes where children can stick their heads in, as well as building stockades.


     Games of hoops and nine-pins were organized. In short, the project was all encompassing, beautifully choreographed, and was blessed with the enthusiastic participation of both teachers and students.


     It comes as no surprise, then, that both Ronnie and Joanie were inducted into the Holtville High School Green and Gold Hall of Fame in 2011. This is an award given for excelling in areas of athletics, academics and community service. Then, in 2012, they were once again co-recipients of The Citizen of the Year Award.


     Both were well-deserved tributes for their extraordinary efforts. Thinking of Ronnie and Joanie, brings to mind the quote by William Arthur Ward: “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”


     Whenever possible, they would travel. Not only did they volunteer to take school kids on field trips, as when they took some boys to a wrestling match in Montana, but come summer, they concentrated on their own family travels. These travels were meant to be fun, but also educational.


     Loading up their van (they named the first van the White Whale, the second was the Blue Honker), they covered the whole United States, with the exception of Hawaii, in less than a decade. Most of this travel was done off major freeways.


     Sometimes other members were included, but the usual five were: Ronnie, Joanie, Jo Ellen, Gary Lee, and Debbie Thornburg. To memorialize these travels, Joanie started putting together a quilt that took her five years to complete. Each square, embroidered by hand, is distinct to the region they visited. It now lovingly hangs in her family room.


     After 35 years of teaching, Ronnie retired. Joanie retired after 41. In recent years, Ronnie’s health started to decline. Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017 was a very sad day. Ronnie passed away. He was surrounded by his loving family. It stands to note that even when he was ill, he still lovingly encouraged Joanie to continue with her activities. He, above all people, knew she couldn’t stand to be still.


Marcia R. Jennings is a member of the Holtville Woman’s Club.

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