Success is Being Radical
St. Joseph, Missouri is known as being the starting point of the Pony Express, the death place of Jesse James and the town where Walter Cronkite was born.
As the jumping off point to the Wild Wild West, this old frontier town is famous for its association with the most wanted and most trusted men in America. But if you’ve ever met Nancy Roucher, you wouldn’t be surprised if St. Joseph doesn’t have yet another distinction. It’s the hometown of one who could be the most tenacious woman to ever hail from these parts.
“We were a closely-knit community. Cronkite’s father was my dad’s dentist, his brother was our high school’s football coach, and his niece was my best friend,” she said. “ I had a big extended family clustered within a few blocks of our neighborhood. It was a very special childhood.”
While Nancy’s mother was born in the U.S., her dad immigrated from Moldova, Ukraine and lived to see a Russian czar, the Russian Revolution and the breakup of the Soviet Union. She recounted her family ancestry with zeal as she described how her family met difficulties head on with strength.
As for Nancy, from the beginning, she loved to write. Active socially, she was editor of her high school and college yearbooks and was not afraid to sprinkle in a little controversy every now and then, especially while at the highly-regarded journalism school at the University of Missouri.
After “a typical college romance of the 50s,” Nancy and Jerry married… but not until breaking up and pausing for her to graduate.
“I was the first in my family to graduate from college and I felt a sense of responsibility to complete my studies before wedding, “ she said.
The couple’s first move was to Decatur, Illinois, the soybean capital of the world. It was Jerry’s family’s home and he took his place working in the family business. The wholesale wine and liquor distributorship provided the young couple with an opportunity to see the world as Jerry became an expert on wine and parlayed his talents into a successful enterprise.
“Meanwhile, I did a little baking on the side but, very importantly, I did my thing while he did his thing.” Nancy said.
Her “thing” in those days was newspaper work. That changed, however, after the couple had two girls 14 ½ months apart.
It was then that Nancy became known as one of the “radical moms” who started a co-op nursery school based upon the British primary system. Hugely popular, it had a shelf life. When it closed, the women took their ideas to the public school system for a while but eventually started their own school.
“Running this four-room country school house was a seminal experience, “ Nancy said. “Highly innovative, the school which only recently closed, was a precursor to what is now the charter school movement. “
And it must have been quite “out of the box,” because, before long, it was written up in Life Magazine.
During this period, Nancy was on the local arts council and observed how children responded to the arts. “I saw the power of arts education, she said.
Although the school eventually closed “because we had to make too many compromises,” Nancy ideas were, once again, welcomed back into the public education system at the Centennial Lab School. Meanwhile, Nancy took a course from Harry Boudy, prominent philosopher of education, at the University of Illinois. This inspired her to earn a master’s degree in aesthetics education.
That was a game changer.
Now on the state’s fine arts committee, Nancy wrote and received funding for her first teacher education grant. Things spiraled after that with grants from the Federal government and the Getty Center for Education in the Arts.
Success was obvious.
By now, however, Jerry was ready to retire, move to Siesta Key in Sarasota, Florida and start a second career. Before long, he headed up the Sarasota Jazz Club and organized the Sarasota Jazz Festival.
“I thought my professional life was over, “ Nancy said.
Fortunately, however, Getty expanded its funding to different states, including Florida. Once again, Nancy was instrumental in netting arts education funding, this time for Florida State University.
Back in Sarasota, she became an early organizer of the county’s arts council where she quickly became recognized as a powerful advocate and fundraiser. During its infancy and when the organization experienced growing pains, Nancy segued from volunteer director to executive director on two occasions.
Today, at 77, widowed and with 5 grandchildren, she maintains a high level of involvement as chair of the county-wide arts education task force which she has led for 25 years. During her tenure, arts education has continued to be an integral part of the K-12 curriculum while funding for it has, in fact, disappeared in many other parts of the country.
So successful was – and is – she that today the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, as it is now known, recognizes an outstanding arts educator with an award in her name
“I’m not retired and I don’t ever plan to retire,” she said. “It’s my passion, “she said. “We all have to have a passion.”
Not surprising. Not at all surprising for someone as tenacious as Nancy Roucher.
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