Debbie Blaha’s life was an endless quest to make things better, according to her friends and family.
“She was the epitome of a life-long learner,” said Tina Basler, former teacher and now principal at Plattin Primary in the Jefferson R-7 School District, where Mrs. Blaha taught for 33 years. “She never stopped looking for new strategies to teach, new ways to reach kids and transfer her passion for reading to them.”
Mrs. Blaha died Nov. 2 after a year-long battle with cancer.
She grew up in Herculaneum and played softball and volleyball at Herculaneum High School. She bowled on a high school team at Quonset Lanes in Crystal City, where she met employee Larry Blaha, her husband of 50 years.
The two dated through Larry’s service in the Navy and were married just after her graduation in 1972.
“We lived in a trailer in Pevely, then moved it onto property we bought in R-7,” Larry said. “We built a house there and she worked for several years in St. Louis as a secretary. “
Their son, Scott, came along in 1976 and was still young when she decided to change professions.
“She came home one day and said, ‘There’s something better for me out there. I want to teach.’” Larry said. “We had a house and a kid and a car payment, but what the heck.”
She earned an associate degree at Jefferson College while being active in many campus activities, including a stint as state president of the Phi Theta Kappa honor fraternity. She earned a bachelor’s degree at Southeast Missouri State University, commuting daily to Cape Girardeau and listening to recorded lectures on the drive.
Mrs. Blaha was hired in 1988 to fill in for an R-7 teacher on maternity leave. She taught sixth grade for a year, then switched to first grade.
Mrs. Blaha believed firmly in making reading fun for her students. She started an annual sleepover excursion to the nearby Festus/Crystal City Conservation Club, where kids slept in tents and read to one another around a campfire.
She wrote a grant for a program that put together book bags for students to check out of the library, each containing a book plus all the materials and supplies to make crafts and projects associated with the book’s topic.
“She started so many programs and projects,” Larry said. “She wanted to show kids you don’t have to just sit in a chair and read; you can be comfortable anywhere with a book.”
The Blahas were skillful swing dancers, and were a familiar jitterbugging sight at school functions.
“When Scott went to Herky (high school), we got involved with Homecoming, doing decorations and lights and stuff,” Larry said. “She was so creative. It kind of mushroomed, and we ended up doing homecomings and proms at Herky and at R-7 for about 15 years.
“Working with kids and families was our hobby. We loved it.”
Mrs. Blaha exercised her creativity in many crafts, especially scrapbooking.
“She hand-crafted Christmas cards and greeting cards for probably close to 30 years,” Larry said. “And every one had to have something that moved – it popped up, slid out, unfolded into something.”
Of course, that kind of perfection takes time.
“She drove me nuts because she’d start something at 10 p.m. and finish at three o’clock in the morning,” Larry said. “She said her creative flow was better when she was under the gun.”
In addition to teaching, Mrs. Blaha coached junior high sports.
“She never played basketball, but ended up coaching when (administrators) said there would be no team otherwise,” Larry said. “She took the track team from about a dozen kids to more than 60, and she wouldn’t cut a one.”
The Blahas were named grand marshals for the first-ever homecoming parade at Jefferson High in 2009.
About 15 years ago, Mrs. Blaha got her master’s degree and switched from teaching first grade to working as a certified Title 1 reading specialist. “She worked with six kids at a time for 30 minutes, all day, every day,” Larry said.
What didn’t change was her relentless search for better ways to teach.
“She would research, read, go to conferences, take classes, anything to find some new way to get across to a child,” Larry said. “She would keep at it until she could see in their eyes that they got it.”
It wasn’t just first-graders who benefited from Mrs. Blaha’s mentoring hand.
“She was such a wonderful sounding board,” Basler said. “She would just listen to whatever you needed to say, then ask questions that would allow you to get to your own answers.”
Kindergarten teacher Stacy Glass counted Mrs. Blaha as a mentor and a friend.
“She took time to listen, not just to the little kids but to our high school students who came in.
“She taught me ways to peel back the layers on a child to get to what they are all about.”
Mrs. Blaha retired in June 2021. She had accumulated hundreds of books, and spent time sorting them by reading level and gifting them to students.
“Her back was bothering her a lot that summer, and we thought it was from moving those books around,” Larry said.
In September, an MRI showed a tumor on her spine, and a CT scan found it had already metastasized to her bones. She underwent radiation and chemical infusion treatments to slow its progress.
“She didn’t expect to be cured,” Larry said. “She just wanted to have more time.”
Mrs. Blaha was hospitalized in mid-October, then came home on hospice.
“Several of her teacher friends stayed with her almost around the clock,” Larry said. “We have a great-granddaughter in the Philippines that she’d never met, and Debbie got to read one last book to her over Face Time. That was really special.”
Mrs. Blaha was honored at a ceremony during Pink Week at R-7.
“She didn’t want that when they came to her at first,” Larry said. “She thought there might be others who deserved it more than she. Then they came up with the idea of a scholarship, and that she could accept. She was excited to think she would still be helping kids, even though she’s not here any more.”
Jefferson R-7 superintendent Clint Johnston characterized her as a “consummate professional.”
“She knew nothing but serving others,” he said. “She was a remarkable person and I don’t think she really understood the impact she had on thousands of lives.”