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Artist, teacher, volunteer, inveterate learner dies at 101

by Annette Beard | September 27, 2022 at 9:40 a.m.
100-year-old hands of Wanda Roe, artist, teacher, learner

Learn one new thing each year!

That's the secret to a fulfilling, long life said Wanda Roe as she approached her 100th birthday nearly two years ago.

Roe, born Wanda Finley, recalled being given that advice during World War II when she was a young wife and mother with her husband overseas during the war.

"When I was very young and tied down with the kids, I belonged to a club, and one of the women I admire greatly told me that she had made herself learn one new thing each year. I thought, I could do that.

"So, for many years, I made sure I learned one new thing a year -- might be a skill, might be knowledge. We had a good library in that little town and I would walk to it and check out a book and study some subject."

The desire to learn and the determination to persevere in that discipline served her well as Wanda graduated from college by 19 and was teaching school soon after most young people graduate from high school. Over the ensuing decades, she continued to learn, earning her master's degree and earning her teaching certificate in six subjects. Until the restrictions imposed because of covid-19, she was still teaching art from her studio.

A drive-by birthday party was held Nov. 7, 2020, to celebrate her 100th birthday. She was inundated with cards and well-wishes from the many who dropped by.

Mrs. Roe died this past week and left a legacy in Pea Ridge that will be long remembered. See page 3A for her obituary and read the rest of her story online.

The beginning

The first-born child of William Malvin Finley and Luna Cockrum Finley, Wanda was born in Grey's Hospital, Batesville, Ark., about 60 miles from the family's home in Norfork. The young couple had gone to Batesville for the birth of their first child and stayed several days in a hotel awaiting her birth. Then, returned to Norfork where Mr. Finley ran The Lyric Theatre.

Wanda said she grew up playing with the neighborhood children, most of whom were boys, climbing trees and enjoying the hills around Norfork.

She loved art and drama, was a good student and wanted to work in the fashion industry.

Growing up in Norfork, one of the oldest settlements in Arkansas, Wanda said her childhood was "serene, innocent and happy." The population of Norfork in 1920 was 224.

She helped her father in the theater and remembers being an extra, along with many other Norfork residents, in a movie, "Souls Aflame," filmed in Norfork in 1927, using many residents as extras and as minor characters in the Civil War drama.

She loved drama and majored in art and drama at college. She never expected to be a teacher and didn't believe she could be successful as an artist coming from a small town.

"There was no opportunity (to become an artist) and I didn't even get to teach art until my last few years. So, I did other things -- I became a teacher."

"My ambition was to work in fashion industry -- either drawing the clothes, or making them if someone else did the pattern. I could do either one and would have loved to," she said.

"When I went to college, majored in art and drama -- the two things I loved and was good at. I packed my days with all the classes it could get and worked weekends on sets and costumes," she said, recalling making sets out of paper mache. "I was fascinated with the lights, that was unknown to me about what light would do to anything. It would turn a costume into another color."

As for the direction of her direction of her life, "I think it's been more accidental than directed," she said, "because things I planned didn't happen, but wonderful things did happen."

Marriage and career

Wanda said her father helped her find a job after college graduation as a teacher in Viola.

One of the first questions she was asked, she said, was "Are you planning on getting married?" and she said she vehemently declared "No." The superintendent said the district lost many young female teachers when they got married.

She was to board (live with) a family in town one of whose daughters was a teacher at the school.

Millie, the teacher, took Wanda to see the school and she clearly remembers walking in a room seeing a "guy with black curly hair wearing white coveralls" sitting on the floor hammering on a bookcase. "He stood up, all 6 feet 4 inches, the handsomest man I ever saw."

That man was Roy Roe, the principal and coach at the school. They began dating in September and married on Christmas day.

"I married the handsome coach who was the love and light of my life," Wanda wrote.

Over almost a century, Wanda has seen opportunities change dramatically for women.

"When my mother was a girl, the careers open to her were secretary, nurse and maybe a teacher. Some schools wouldn't hire women who were married and if they had a baby, they made them stay out for a year,"

Technology and the viewpoint of what a woman can do have changed, she said.

World War II

The bombing of Pearl Harbor "interrupted the lives of Americans every where," Wanda recalled. The young couple had a daughter and she was pregnant with a second child, a son who would be born while his father served in the Navy overseas.

Wanda lived next door to her family and Roy's family lived about 30 miles away so they were her support system during the war.

"Roy Sr. was in first shelling of Japan," she said.

"I remember ever second of it," she said of the war. "I remember when Roosevelt (President F.D. Roosevelt) was killed. That was a moment of terror for me because a man from Kansas City was going to take his place and I knew about the mob."

"I thought this man (Harry Truman) would ruin America and he was one of our better presidents," she said.

After the war, Roy was hired as the superintendent of schools in Hardy, Ark., and Wanda was a stay at home mother until both children were in school. She said she taught private piano lessons during that time.

Family life

Once they children were in school, Wanda returned to teaching and continued to increase her education as she became certified in many subjects, every time Roy needed a teacher. "Consequently, I am certified in six teaching fields. I told him I would divorce him if he ever sent me back to learn math or agriculture," she laughed. She earned a master's degree in guidance and counseling and is certified in music and social studies. She taught for 37 years in high school and 1o years in college.

The children grew up, went to college, had successful careers. Their son, Roy Lin, whose master's degree was in entomology, served in the Army in Vietnam. Their daughter, Ramona, was a legislative attorney. Both have preceded their mother in death.

In a six-page autobiography, Mrs. Roe wrote: "Family life was full of wonderful events and joys and our share of bad times. Roy's positive attitude always got us through the sad times. he was the wind beneath my wings."

The Roes had two children -- Ramona Geraldine Roe and Roy Arlington Roe II. They have one granddaughter, Crystal Lynn Roe Craig, who lives in Florida, and one great-grandson, Connor Logan Craig, 17.

Pea Ridge

In 1972, the Roes moved to Pea Ridge where he served as superintendent and she taught. After they retired, she began teaching art at the community college and he began restoring antique cars and served on the Quorum Court.

They traveled extensively.

In January 1992, Roy announced his intention to run for state representative. In February he was diagnosed with cancer. Four months later, he died.

Devastated, Roe said she didn't know how she would survive, but that her husband's belief in her, constantly saying "Honey, you can do it," strengthened her to continue. She filled her days with family, friends, travel, teaching and producing art.

Teaching

"Teaching allowed me to assist students and i am proud of their careers and achievements -- they are doctors, attorneys, judges, mayors, congressmen, authors, actors, musicians and CEOs as well as good mechanics, builders and farmers."

"Sometimes it takes 40 years for you to know you did a good job," she said, almost tearfully as she referenced a card she had recently received from a former student. "I started teaching at 19, I didn't know much."

"I went to a little town reunion and four of my first students were there. One was nurse, homemaker, principal and teacher. They couldn't believe I was only 19. I asked them 'What do you remember about that year?'

"They said: 'It was a good year -- in other words I didn't do something horrible."

"As a letter from one of my students says, we planned our wedding in your family living class and now it's 47 years later," she said.

Volunteer work

Roe was appointed to serve on the state Board of Gifted and Talented Education by Gov. Bill Clinton. She served two terms. She was appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe to the Arkansas Humanities Council and served two terms.

She served as state president of the American Association of University Women and for Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional society of women teachers.

She served as a volunteer at the White House in 1994.

Art

Over the years, Roe's work has been featured in a number of art shows including "Ribbons of the Mind" at Walton Arts Center in 1996.

She has experimented in many mediums including copper tooling, acrylics, oils, pastels, watercolors, cartoons, design. She has attended and taught in many art classes and workshops. She is a member of numerous art societies and clubs. She has won numerous art awards and has served as a juror for many art shows. One year she was chosen art educator of the year and received a $1,500 travel study grant for art.

Poetry

Along the way, as Roe wrote down her thoughts, she recognized they were poetry so she compiled the writings into several small volumes -- "Liquid Gold," "Last Dance," "Encore" and "Shattered Silver." The contents of those booklets were combined by a friend into "Shattered Silver" a bound book of poetry dedicated to "the memory of my husband, Roy, who was the 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and Linda Hicks and Dodie Evans, who helped me find my voice again."

Roe wrote: "Loss, whether personal or universal is like the edge of a broken glass."

Roe's art is interwoven throughout her life and every aspect of her life.

"With every club I belonged to, I usually did the cover" of programs and bulletins. She drew for her children, she drew for herself, she drew "not in a professional way and usually not for money at all."

Words of wisdom

"Be careful about judging and replying or making any statement until you hear the entire story," she said, emotionally, recalling a time when she and Roy had been married less than a year and he was hours late returning home. "I began to worry what had happened and began to worry his old girlfriend was there. When he walked in, he stopped and wrote in his diary, then walked in and knelt by the bed and told me one of the boys had a wreck, and one was dead.

"I could have ruined my marriage by making an accusation!"

"So wait. Don't say anything. Listen."

Travel

In addition to volunteering in the White House, the other most exciting memory was her two-week stay in Bali when she was 90.

She studied art while there. "I came back for my 90th birthday."

She has been to all 50 states and 40 foreign countries.

Conclusion

"There's no such thing as failure. Only varying degrees of success."

"Keep contact with young people...

"If you listen to them, you learn something you didn't know. They have good ideas, they may not know how to implement them, and they may not work. They may think of something better than you."

"Well, I think of myself as a perfectly ordinary person, but when I get letters like I got Saturday, in which a former student wrote me and said, 'You gave me confidence I never dreamed I would have. I became a teacher and I just hope I've given my students a little bit of what you gave us.'

"I'm proud of those as things I've created myself, but when I read the letters, maybe it was that I made them conscious of the good things about them.

"I've helped people to see their best assets."

To celebrate her 100th birthday, Roe made a list of 100 people who had influenced her.

photo Wanda Roe, 99, of Pea Ridge
photo Wanda Roe
photo Wanda Roe
photo Wanda Roe, 99, of Pea Ridge

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