“Do unto others what you would have them do unto you”—that’s the motto Kathryn Timmes has sworn by for 83 years. Her rise from teacher to counselor to administrator in Peoria Public School District 150 was no easy climb, but with a self-proclaimed “loud mouth” and a gratitude for life that’s extended well beyond any obstacle thrown her way, she’s spent over half a century imparting wisdom to Peoria’s youth.
In 1955—shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision—Timmes moved to Peoria to work at the Carver Center. Despite significant hurdles, her career eventually spanned the heart of this community, from teaching at Douglas Elementary, Spalding Institute and Academy of Our Lady to counseling at Manual and Woodruff high schools and directing student assistance programs for District 150.
Timmes has served as president of the YWCA board and Urban League Guild; board member of the Heart of Illinois United Way, Children’s Hospital of Illinois and the Peoria County Sheriff’s Merit Commission; and volunteer for Peoria Cursillo. She has received numerous awards for her efforts, including the Outstanding Achievement Award from the Women’s Fund of the Community Foundation of Central Illinois, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award from the W.D. Boyce Council, and awards from the Central Illinois Agency on Aging and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Peoria for her commitment to community service.
Tell us about your upbringing. What was your childhood like?
I was born and raised in Ashland, Kentucky. My grandparents came from Virginia and worked in Bellefonte Country Club; my mother and father helped them out. My grandfather was head of the people who waited [on club members] and made the reservations, my grandmother prepared the food, and my mother… just did whatever my grandmother said to do!
So I was raised for the first six years playing with all the white children in the area. People would bring their children to the club, and it was my job to keep them “settled.” So, for my first six years, other than going to church, I had no input in knowing that there was a difference. The escapades that we got into were never, “Oh, Kathryn’s black and I’m white,” because there was no one black living in that area.
When I was ready to go to first grade, my parents were told that I could not go to the elementary school at Bellefonte because that was the way it was. I was transported into downtown Ashland every day to the school that was all-black. I just accepted where I was sent and didn’t know of differences. I didn’t lose the friendships I had at the club, and I gained friendships at the black school. I went there from first to eighth grade—a glorious time. Mother would take me into town whenever there was something going on… We had a great basketball team, I was one of the cheerleaders, and I just thought that life was good.
What was your transition to high school like?
When I got ready to go to high school, my mother said, “I think it’s time for you to go away to a school that will help you learn what you’re doing and learn it significantly enough that you can find out how life is.” So, I went to a Presbyterian boarding school in Rogersville, Tennessee that was black, of course, and there, I became acquainted with the fact—because I didn’t know [before]—that there’s a difference in this world… in that area. But I just accepted people for what they were and where I was. Teachers would say to me, “Kathryn, you really have a good grip on what you need to do to get ahead,” but nobody told me about differences… I did a great job as far as academics were concerned and really enjoyed life because I thought that was what life was all about. I came home over the summer and worked at the club and stayed with most of the white children in the area… and everyone knew me. Life was absolutely grandiose, and I just enjoyed childhood.
At what point did you begin to internalize segregation and question it?
Well, from that point on, I think it was dawning on me: there’s something going on here—I can’t put my finger on it. Like there are two worlds, but if you just don’t give into them, and if you be yourself, you’ll be okay. But in high school, the people there let it be known: there are some things in this world you will not be able to challenge.
I always had a big mouth. I always told people what I was thinking, [but] I didn’t try to change people. My way was to do your very best, enjoy what you’re doing and be kind. And if you’re kind, people will be kind to you… I had good friends, and I don’t think we ever talked in racial overtones. If we did, it was a conversation like, “I wonder why we can’t go to the store?”
What was it like attending Bennett College and living in Greensboro, North Carolina?
At Bennett, there were 500 women from all over the United States. We were allowed to go to the movies… when the proctor said we could go. You see, I was still sheltered to a point. We sat in the balcony, and we’d throw popcorn on the white kids down on the first level. I just thought that was funny. I didn’t know that was something I shouldn’t do.
We couldn’t go to the store in Greensboro but one afternoon a week… We went and we tried on clothes, and no one was there except for the saleslady. You just thought the world was like that and you just accepted it, because you still had that fundamental thing within you that said, “You know what? It’s good to be alive.” I didn’t have any real worries outside of grammar school, high school and college. I’m sure I was told I was black, but I didn’t understand it. I mean, I knew that—yeah, I am black! But you accept it and go ahead. At Bennett, we had excellent teachers who had knowledge to help children who were black… and they just said, “This is a world where you have to make it on your own, and you can’t ever forget who you are.”
My first indication that it wasn’t a workable situation was when the NAACP came to campus when we were all set to graduate. They said, “The world out there is very cruel to you.” I thought, “You’re not talking to me!” They were getting ready to have [sit-ins]—and we all signed up. But when they brought the bus to us, David Dallas Jones [president of Bennett College from 1926-1955] said, “You can’t do it. I’ve wired your mothers and fathers.” He said, “We will allow you to know there is a difference, but we also know that you are very bright, and I want to prepare you to understand that because you are minority, there will be things and places that you cannot go to. And you must accept that and do something noticeable out there to help people understand that you are not of the same caliber.” He made us think that we were the cream of the crop, and we accepted that.
Prior to moving to Peoria, you were director of the Migrant Children’s Care Centers in New York. How did this experience help prepare you for teaching and counseling?
I graduated from Bennett with high standards and went back to Kentucky. My mother said, “The world is changing, and you have been cloistered all your life. You have to go to New York and live with my sister. She has a job for you.” Well, you did what your mother told you to do! (laughs)
My aunt in New York had gotten me a job teaching third and fourth grade at a private black school where [author and activist] James Weldon Johnson’s daughter was the principal. So, I worked there two years, and had a wonderful experience with the children… I kept thinking that whatever you do, you must do the very best you can, and consequentially, people will accept you no matter who you are. That’s what I told the children there. We took them to the movies, we took them to the Apollo, we saw Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway… I had a wonderful two years there. Then a company came… and needed help with the migrant children from Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina whose parents had come to work the farmland in upstate New York. So during the summer, we worked with those children.
So, how does a girl living and working in New York wind up in Peoria, Illinois?
While I was there, I [also] worked part-time at Macy’s. A man came in one day and said, “What is your name? Do you have a degree? … I think you’re ready to go and meet the world.” He called my mother and said, “I’m from Peoria, Illinois, and I run a daycare center”—the Carver Center. He told me, “I like the way you carry yourself—how you wait on people whether they’re white or black. And I think you need to become a part of a wider world.” And Henry Harper persuaded my parents for me to come to Peoria. That’s how it happened.
I came to Peoria—a silly little girl who thought the world was her oyster—and I went to work for a year at Carver Community Center on what was then 4th Street… I worked for him for a year. At Carver, I was helping young ladies learn how to be ladies—I taught them cooking and sewing, and I taught them not to let boys talk you up—that if you see something in a young man, it’s good, but if you don’t see anything, leave him alone, because he’s up to no good. And they believed me! I tell you, I just had so much fun.
Tell us about your many roles within District 150. How did you work your way up in the system?
After a year at Carver, Henry Harper said, “I want something from you—go put your application in at Peoria Public Schools [PPS].” I said, “Are you firing me?” And he said, “No, you can come back and work whenever you want to, but you must put your application into PPS.” I did it. I had all my credentials sent from Bennett. I had my B.A. in education, economics, black history and history of the U.S., and I had very good references in all four areas. I got the change of transcripts and was ready to go. Boy, this brings back some really stinging times…
I was called in, and they said, “You’ve done an excellent job, but we have no blacks in high school. [We have black] children, but no people on that professional level.” I thought there was something wrong with my diploma. I went and had Bennett duplicate and send back all my [transcripts]. But they said, “If you want to work for District 150, you have to get certified to teach in the elementary schools. You can’t work in the high schools, because they have no blacks.”
So, what did you do?
When my transcript was evaluated by the state, they had given me certification to teach high school, but it was not accepted in District 150, so I had to go to ISU for the whole summer session—and pay for it myself—to get a duplicate certification to teach in the grade schools. I was hurt. I felt like, well, this is one area where I’m not accepted. What’s going on here? But I knew what was going on.
I got the certification, and I taught elementary education at Douglas School on the south side. At that time, it was kindergarten through eighth grade, and I had third grade. I had a wonderful time working with the children, and I was very difficult with them. I see them on the street sometimes now… and they say, “That was the worst year of my life! But I learned something.” … I could put my third graders anywhere in this town and they could beat [the other students].
How did you come to be a high school counselor?
While I was in school getting the certification for elementary… the head of high school certification [at ISU] said, “Two classes—that’s all you have to take… You can be certified as a counselor in high schools across the state.” He said, “You have to do this because your education and your background will help [the children] understand what they need to understand about living in this world.”
So I did that. And I had a baby. And John [my husband] was a policeman. My classes were in the afternoon after I got through teaching, and at night, I worked from home to make sure my child was fed properly. People who knew me were very kind to us. I had help from the community and from my church, and we got along fine.
What was it like living in Peoria at that time?
As I think about it now, my husband and I have always had people around who understood us, and knew that I was mouthy… I guess what I’m saying is that I have had a good life, and I’m very lucky that there are [good people] out there. [Like] when we applied for housing—we were living on Bourland, an excellent street, and we got along with all our [neighbors]. But there was a nagging in me and I said, “John, I have to get my children in an area where they’ll see white and black children, and they’ll be working together.” I went to David Connor, who was the president of Commerce Bank, and said, “The real estate agencies say there are no houses for black people except on the south side… I said, “I’m not living on the south side [because] you become encased in where you are and you’re never, ever to get out.” He found a house, told us what we had to do and we did it, and we’ve been living here for 44 years. We were the first blacks in the Dunlap area.
How did you affect change as a counselor?
Number one, my philosophy was you can’t teach children unless you know what you’re talking about… inside and outside [of the classroom]. You bring it all together. Of course, Manual was mostly black… And the parents would come to me and say, “Mrs. Timmes, you just told my child that when he graduates he’s supposed to put his application in all over the city.” And I said, “He is.” And they said, “Mrs. Timmes, don’t tell him that again—they’ll shoot him.” That was the attitude of my parents, but they knew that I really meant [well]. And whether it was right or wrong, I wanted the children… to know that you had to have good grades… and good references [to succeed].
How has District 150 changed from your early days as an elementary school teacher?
The change that I see now is that teachers and administration [lack] knowledge of what they can do because there are so many little things they’re told they can’t do. I was never told all that because I had a big mouth. Though if they do what I [did], they’d get fired! (laughs)
I was in the system 50 years and I loved it, but again, it goes back to me having a big mouth and having accepted everyone as a human being. If you weren’t able to understand that, then I tried to help you understand that that is what it’s all about. That doesn’t play very well now.
How did you get involved with the YWCA?
After I got that [second] degree, the YWCA was having some problems downtown, and they asked me to join the women’s group. This was my first encounter with prejudice in this community… Emily St. John, the director at the time, said, “I think you should run for president,” and I said, “I think you’re crazy.” But I ran, and I was the first female black president, and I loved it.
What did you do as president?
Because Emily was so “wide-scoped,” she would call on me to go to this meeting or that meeting. It was wonderful. But one day I got called in by the superintendent, and he said, “You talked last night to a group of women and made some disparaging remarks. You told these women that it was very difficult for black children to be successful and that they had to be very helpful in helping [children] to understand that there are two worlds out there, but that if they are successful, they can [do anything].” He said, “You cannot talk negatively about the organization you work for. Don’t do it again.” When the election came up the second year, they got someone else… I think it dawned on me that we live in two worlds, and you can be as best as you can in this world—the minority world—but you still are never forgiven.
Looking back, how does it feel to have touched the lives of so many children?
Fine. That was my job. I feel good when someone comes in and says, “I’m going to do such and such a thing,” or “I have done such and such a thing.” But I tell them, “You know you can go even further, so just keep plugging along.” I have no doubt that my [taught] children are intelligent, able to understand people, doing a good job, keeping their mouths closed when they should be, and opening them up when they feel they really have something to say, and [that they’re] not prejudiced—sometimes people don’t understand and you need to help them understand.
What about those people who “will never understand?”
You can’t help everyone. You leave those people alone and let them make their own mistakes.
What do you want to be remembered for? What is your legacy?
Just that I was a good teacher… and I have good friends. I guess I’m thankful for what I’ve been given, for what I’ve been able to do, and for how I am… It’s been a good life. Since I left the district, several times I’ve said, “I think I’ll go back to substitute,” but my husband says, “No, you can’t do that—this is a different world.” Well, it’s not different to me. You just do what you have to do and if it’s not acceptable, who cares? Then it’s just not acceptable. If you don’t understand, I just don’t worry about you. I’ll pray for you, but I don’t worry about you. iBi