Janet Blanche Goodwin Wilber

Janet Blanche Goodwin Wilber

1902 – 1979

Janet Wilber (top) and Mable Wilber (bottom). Courtesy of Jean Wilber Turcotte.

Janet was born to Dr. James Goodwin and Blanche Janet McQuaid Goodwin. She grew up in Clinton, MA with her brothers, Joseph, Paul, and Edward. She married Bernard C. Wilber in New York City in 1923. Bernard was a mason, carpenter, and a 2nd generation LC Fire Chief. They had two children: Bernard, who worked in construction and real estate; and Paul, an educator, coach, Principal of Westport Middle School, and Assistant Director for Staff Training at the Job Corps.

Essay by Marjorie Wilber Lint

Essay by Walter and Norma Elwell

Janet Wilber. Courtesy of Marjorie Lint.

Essay by Marjorie Lint

My grandmother, Janet Goodwin Wilber, was a teacher in Little Compton for about 46 years.  When she was nineteen, she left her home in Clinton, MA, and left her parents Dr. James Goodwin and Blanche McQuaid Goodwin, and her younger brothers Joseph, Paul, and Edward and came to Little Compton to teach.

Janet taught in several of the one-room schoolhouses at the beginning of her career.  She wrote about her experiences in the one-room schoolhouses:

“Exactly what was the one room school?  It was many things. Some were very ‘uncharming’, such as outhouses, a water supply which was an open pail from which one drank with a common-use dipper.  There were wood stoves which supplied warmth. Far too much for those near the stove, and very little for those far away…..”

“Inside the school the seats were wide, (as were the desks), placed in double rows, close together, all the same size and fastened to the floor……”

“In my first such school there were fifty-six children in three grades (1-2-3).  Among them were twelve of varying ages, who could not speak English, as they had recently arrived from the Azores……”

“There were not fifty-six seats for my ‘crowd’, but up in the attic were some huge and ancient geography books.  One of these was put in the space between two seats, and another covered the space between two desks.  This provided a not very satisfactory seating and working space for the overflow……”

“Later I substituted for two months at another school which had eight grades in the one room, and many of the boys were larger than myself.  At the time, the Atlantic Fleet was having target practice, and war games, off-shore.  We watched sometimes, but they would have liked to do nothing else.  They weren’t bad kids, but definitely not interested in much.  Some were, of course, but those larger boys should never have been there, but in a trade school.  In that sort of thing they were interested, and all could do math well.  Eight grade one-room schools were not ideal, though with fewer children they might have been, but as usual, the place was too full …..”

I’ve given copies of Janet’s writings about the one-room schoolhouses and about teaching at the new central school, the Josephine F. Wilbur School, to the Little Compton Historical Society.  While at the Wilbur School, she wrote about the experience during  the 1938 hurricane:

“The night of the 1938 hurrricane the bus could not even get anywhere near the homes of many children, nor could the city teachers get home.  We were at school until about 7, listening to the ventilators being torn off the building, watching the large steeple on the Congregational Church crash thru the roof, and the steeple on the Methodist Church rise up and then settle back.  Huge trees crashed, and there were all sorts of unknown noises.

We knew there were deaths at Sakonnet Point, and did not know about the parents of the children we had at school.  Sometime after 7, a bus came back to school and I went home, taking 9 kids with me.  My own 2 were already home.  We ‘borrowed’ milk from a barn across the road, which would not have kept sweet in any case, with no refrigeration; and they had a somewhat scant supper.  Eventually they got to bed, several in each large bed.  One little girl worried about her kitten, while I worried lest the chimney crash into the room where I had the kids.

The next a.m. they had jelly sandwiches for breakfast.  A bus came for us about 9.  The Red Cross and National Guard were going to try to get parents and children together.  For 6 weeks we had no electricity, nor any means of communication to the outside.”

Besides teaching and her family, Janet enjoyed traveling and sharing those experiences.  For over 20 years, she taught about the United Nations and took her students by train and later by bus to New York City to visit the U.N. and othe sights in N.Y. (She wrote about some of these trips, and the L.C. Historical Society has copies.)  She also took small groups to Lexington and Concord, to Louisa May Alcott’s home, etc.

Also my grandmother loved to travel with friends, particularly in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions.  She and friends would go by freighter: “my idea of joy” and it was “a bargain”.  One such trip was on an Egyptian freighter: “32 passengers, good food, a pool, special dinners and dances, dart competiitions, a good bar, and good sized staterooms.”  Again I will include some quotes from her “Mediterranean and Middle East Wanderings” travel writings just to give a few samples; and more can be read at the LCHistorical Society.

“When we left Montreal we had a cargo of bundled barrel staves from old wine and whiskey barrels, (used to pickle olives in Spain and Portugal), bricks, and some wheat.  We picked up more grains in Quebec and were there two full days.  Fully loaded, (ship not us) we then departed with the next stop Lisbon.  We were there about 5 days, which allowed ample time for going everywhere we wanted to: the tower on the spot from which Vasco da Gama sailed, St. Gerominos Church where many famous people, including DaGama, are buried, the Coach Museum, Black Horse Square, the penny elevator that runs from one level of the city to another. The sidewalks and squares are mostly done with interesting mosaic patterns.”

Later in Egypt:  “The following day visited the citadel and a beautiful mosque located on a high cliff right in the city [Cairo].  In the afternoon went to the Pyramids, Sphinx, ruins of a temple – supposed to have been the first with clerestory windows.  Also, viewed the large funeral boat dug up from in front of the Great Pyramid, and put there to ferry the dead to the next life.  Believe it is now in the National Museum. 

We saw most of this from the backs of camels.  When we went to rent the animals, there was a very large lady near me and the Arab looked her up, down and side to side and said ‘ Will get you big camel.’  Then looking at me a bit disgusted that I wasn’t fat, said ‘ You need only small camel’, and that’s what I got, and named ‘Princess Margaret’!  Am not sure she would be flattered.”

My grandmother had a rather wry sense of humor.  You could not always tell if she was joking unless you noticed the look of mischief in her eyes and perhaps a very slight curve of her lips.  From the view of a grandchild, she often appeared to be rather stern, serious, and a bit intimidating.  She did not put up with nonsense or suffer fools and wasn’t afraid to bluntly speak her mind.  That wasn’t always popular with students or adults.  However, one former student told me that he loved her history class because it wasn’t too hard to get off the boring history book and onto stories about her travels which were much more entertaining!

She retired the year after the high school students were “farmed out to other schools” as she wrote it, because Wilbur School had  become too small to house them.  She taught 7th and 8th grade that last year.  We were told that she was forced to retire because at the time Rhode Island required teachers to retire after they reached the age of 65 and she was not happy about it.  However, she put a good spin on it and said that she’d be glad not to have to get up at 5 a.m. to shovel snow before she could get out and drive to school.  She could stay in and wouldn’t care if it snowed.

Janet Wilber was a dedicated teacher and traveler.  She was strict and stubborn, blunt-spoken, rebellious, willing to defy social conventions and authorities, and very persistent in doing what she believed was best for her students, for adults, and for herself.

Marjorie Wilber Lint, Granddaughter

April 2020

Essay by Walter and Norma Elwell

Janet Wilber lived on Maple Avenue, wife of Bernard Wilber, daughter of James and Blanche Goodwin. Janet was an elementary teacher for 44 years in the Little Compton school system before retiring in 1967. Janet had 2 sons with Bernard, plus the students of boys and girls for 44 years. As a student of hers in the third grade I can honestly say she was our mother as well for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week for the school year.

Walter and Norma Elwell

March 2020

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