“I always felt like I grew up in the best of times,” says 1951 VCHS graduate Joyce Staff. She remembers the noise and color of the hallways as they were during her high school days. “It was wonderful,” she adds. “We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had an awful lot.” In Joyce’s eyes, growing up in a small community like Vandalia is a blessing. A slower pace of life, lower cost of living, safer neighborhoods, and a close-knit group of community members are only a few reasons why Joyce chose to plant her roots in her hometown. From her volunteer work at the Fuller Center for Housing Resale Store to her organization of city plantings due to her seat on the city’s Beautification Committee, she has remained an active and available asset to Vandalia long past her retirement from teaching in 1992.
You Get What You Give
Her foray into teaching started at a period in history not unlike the one we’re passing through now. The country had faced a teaching shortage off and on since the war, and when Joyce graduated, she says teachers were “scarce.” There was also an enormous wave of women moving into jobs in education. “At that time, for girls, it seemed like there were three choices,” she remembers. “Nursing, secretary, teaching. I had always enjoyed children. You know, I came from a family with five children.” “I thought, well, I guess I’ll be a teacher.” And that was that.
The first teaching post she held was a third-grade class. During this moment of new job elation, she married her late husband, James Staff, who was also a Vandalia graduate. Kids soon followed, and Joyce eventually called a ten-year timeout on her teaching career. But she couldn’t stay away for long. Three children later, she returned to teaching. She bounced between a fourth-grade class assignment and kindergarten before she landed in the spot where she stayed for twenty-plus years, teaching second grade at Lincoln School. Joyce’s husband’s life and work intersected with her own, as James was an educator who began his career teaching in a one-room schoolhouse. He was later elected Fayette County Superintendent of Schools in 1958 and soon after became Regional Superintendent.
Joyce relishes every moment she can give back to Vandalia and to the general geographical area that shaped her personality and drive and provided her with security from rows and rows of familiar faces. “It’s a very close-knit community,” she says. The closeness most residents feel results from the opportunities for volunteering that Joyce, who is not one to sit around, jumps for any way she can. She’s everywhere: you can catch her delivering Meals on Wheels to Vandal fans and families in need, teaching Sunday School and Bible school at her church, staffing the Fuller Center for Housing Resale Store, which benefits Habitat for Humanity, or discussing the appropriate flowers and foliage for the season as a member of the city’s Beautification Committee. Though membership has undoubtedly changed, she maintains the bridge club she started in the 1950s and regularly plays with her friends.
The love for Vandalia has passed on to her three children, six grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. “The kids loved it. They cherished their time growing up in Vandalia,” Joyce emphasizes. “They felt like it was the best place. They could go to the park, take their lunch and spend all day. They’d fish for crawdads and sell them to the guy that fishes. Oh, they just thought it was something.” Last year, the family held a reunion in Vandalia, and her son and daughters made the trip from Springfield, Michigan, and St. Louis. Because of James’s progressing dementia, Joyce considers the gathering a marvelous gift. “We had a wonderful time just eating and playing games all weekend,” she says with a grin. “The weather was perfect at the last of July.”
Sadly, James passed away in January of this year. “He was a wonderful guy. He really was,” Joyce says. “He was very education-minded, community-minded, church-minded, and a wonderful husband and father. I was so blessed.” She’s also blessed with spectacular, scenery-packed memories of the traveling she and her husband did together: northern Maine, a Canadian rocky mountain train tour, and their annual summer camping trip. They also traveled the avenues of community leadership, advocating for policy and infrastructure improvements throughout their careers. As Joyce Staff discovered, there are times when you give all you have to your community, and it surprises you by returning the favor. In this instance, Vandalia provided Joyce with the moment to meet and grow beside the love of her life, and she didn’t have to look very far to find him.