The Belle of Yell County

Story by Jeannie Stone

Bessie Jo Meers had intelligent eyes, a quick smile and a soft manner. She shared a room in Russellville Nursing and Rehab with sister Ruth Waldrop but still evoked the charms of a grand hostess, teacher and community leader; all roles she played with relish in the shaping of Dardanelle.

Bessie Jo wed Paul, Sr. after they became acquainted through work. Bessie Jo, widowed with two children took a job as secretary to Meers, a real estate and timber man who was also widowed with a child. The two married in 1949 and moved to Dardanelle in 1951. They purchased the former Veasey Farm, built in 1858, a 200 acre spread once used to grow grapes for wine production. The home had been vacant and was in danger of total collapse when Meers undertook its renovations.

Soon afterward, Paul, Sr. meticulously dismember and rebuilt a log cabin he purchased in Harkey’s Valley with plans to use it as his office, but Bessie Jo had other ideas. A latent desire to teach resurfaced in her heart, and soon she was formulating her own plan to start a kindergarten.

That kindergarten, known as the Little Log Cabin Kindergarten, opened in 1968 after Bessie Jo completed her early childhood education degree at the age of 58. It was the first kindergarten in Dardanelle.

Enrollment doubled the second year, forcing the expansion of the one room schoolhouse. Convinced the children were better prepared to succeed in elementary school and life, Bessie Jo began a passionate personal campaign to add mandatory kindergarten to the public school system.

Kindergarten was finally integrated into the state mandated school program in 1973. Meers continued teaching at Dardanelle Elementary School where she taught until retirement in 1987.

Paul Meers, Jr. remembered his mother’s kindergarten classes, but not as a participant.

“She started when I was in second grade, so I watched it from the perspective of a high-and-mighty second grader,” he said.

She had a picture of him standing outside looking through the classroom window,” Bessie Jo had said.

“I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said. “I was the occasional gofer and helper.”

Social Manners were a big part of the kindergarten curriculum, as were music and art appreciation. Bessie Jo even organized performances for the children to showcase their newly acquired skills. She used her front porch as a stage during nice weather, and she remembered when the children would dress up in old fashioned costumes and square dance for their parents.

Bessie Jo believed in field trips, even if they never left the building.
She recalled one of her teaching strategies was lining the students in rows and acting like their stewardess and pilot.

“We pretended that we were taking an airplane ride to different countries before we’d study about their customs, and even learned a few vocabulary words and how to count in native tongues. Then we’d board the plane to leave the country when we finished,” Bessie Jo said.

One day she boarded the plane, introducing herself as Captain Meers, and proceeded to welcome the children on the flight to France when a crying outburst interrupted their adventure. It was a little boy who managed to mumble through his tears that he was afraid because he’d never flown on an airplane before.

“To the children, those trips really were real,” she said.

An old-fashioned bathtub served as a fun reading nook in Meers’ kindergarten class.

“I felt that kindergarten was so important for those children,” she said. “I taught them reading, writing and arithmetic,” she said. “When they finished their lessons they got to go to the bathtub.”

“And she loved them,” her daughter Linda Wilson said.

“What was there not to love? Each of them was precious to me,” Bessie Jo had added.

Meers was involved in her community on several different levels. She was a member of First Baptist Church in Dardanelle, an active member of the Yell County Retired Teachers Association, Delta Kappa Gamma and served on the Human Services Commission of the River Valley. She was also a founding member of the Arkansas Gold Star Wives, a support group for widows of servicemen, and of the Dardanelle Garden Club, often hosting events including tours of her home to benefit the club.

In addition to her employment as a teacher, Meers hosted a radio talk show on KCAB radio station and reported for the Courier-Democrat newspaper.

“People keep contacting me now that everyone uses the Internet so much,” Wilson said, “and telling me how much they learned in kindergarten from my mother. She was very influential,” said her daughter recently.

Meers wass quick to share her secrets for being a good teacher.

“You have to let each child know you love them no matter what,” she said, “and communicate with the parents.”

It’s not surprising that Paul, Jr. made a career in music what with the influence of his mother. Nor is it surprising he mastered other tongues, becoming fluent in French with a little Arabic on the side while he studied in Paris under a Fulbright Fellowship. What a testament to his mother’s independence that Paul, Jr. chose to live on the other side of the world where he is the choral director of the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.

Even though he was too young to participate in his mother’s kindergarten class, it’s a sure bet he climbed into that claw bathtub once or twice and flew off to other lands.

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