Originally posted on July 13, 2020.
In the space of about a week, Boone County lost two educators and life-long learners, Alice Neihardt Thompson and Margaret Sayers “Petch” Peden. Conversation and activity in the Great Beyond is undoubtedly much more vibrant with the addition of these two extraordinary women. I was fortunate to know both of these women for most of my life. Throughout my life, they encouraged in me the love for and dedication to learning.
Alice Neihardt Thompson was the youngest of four children born to John Neihardt and Mona Martinson Neihardt. Dr. Neihardt, the poet laureate of Nebraska, author of Black Elk Speaks and a wealth of lyric poetry, included in his long and storied career years of teaching in the English Department at the University of Missouri, and passed his love of teaching along to his daughter. Mrs. Neihardt, a renowned sculptor who, as a young woman, had studied in Paris with Auguste Rodin, added her love of and respect for physical beauty to the makeup of the young Alice. Alice served her country as a WAVE in World War II; studied dance with Madame Cassan (herself a student of the immortal Anna Pavlova); danced professionally, but then, at her parents’ SkyRim Farm just north of Columbia, found the place where beauty, teaching and learning intersected—as, for over five decades, she trained American Saddlebred horses and taught others to ride, respect and understand these beautiful animals.
My first exposure to Alice Thompson was as a horse-crazy four-year-old whose older brother had been given a series of riding lessons. As Ian was mounted on one of the lesson horses, I was told that I was too young and would have to wait until I, too, was seven, before I could take lessons.
Despite throwing myself onto the ground in the middle of the barn lot, and having what can only be termed a “hissy fit,” I didn’t get my way. In fact, Alice (who I always called “Mrs. Thompson”), and my Mom, stepped OVER me and ignored the fit. Lesson learned. Hissy fits don’t work. Learn by watching Ian. Keep everyone on board to get lessons when I turned seven.
Lessons began. Ian and I rode with Nancy and Sally Bass, then with Debbie and Cindy Marks, first on the school ponies, then on school horses, and finally, on some of the exquisitely beautiful American Saddlebreds. And ultimately, our parents bit the bullet and we acquired one, two, and then “more” Saddlebreds. Each horse, and each teacher—from Alice Thompson and her long-time partner Uncle Dick Cook, to Annie Lawson Cowgill, to Deborah Booker, to Sue Allmart and a whole host of others—provided insights, gave ideas, and encouraged us to expand our skills and our ability to connect with different horses. And even now, almost six decades after that “hissy fit,” I still ride or drive horses, clean stalls and feed every day. And yes, the horses eat their dinner before I do.
My first exposure to Petch (who I always called Sra. Peden) was through my Mom, who, preparing for our family to move to Barcelona, took Spanish lessons from Petch so that she could keep our family functioning in that city while my Dad took a sabbatical, studying with a renowned Urologist who practiced there. Upon our return to Columbia, it was Petch to whom Mom turned for help in keeping Ian’s and my knowledge of Spanish up to snuff. It was Petch who helped Ian and me navigate the hoops to take classes in Spanish at MU while we attended the Lab School. It was Petch who later ever-so-subtly encouraged an undergraduate and then graduate degree programs in Spanish. It was Petch who opened doors and opened my mind to possibilities by facilitating discussions with people like Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa. It was through Petch and Bill Peden that my appreciation for literature and the importance of carefully-chosen words experienced exponential growth. It was Petch, then, now and always, who was one of the “role models,” and “other moms,” classy, strong, funny, who could always be counted on to transform a thunderstorm into a teaching moment. And she could always make things better with a Coke and something chocolate.
I used to say that, when you stop learning, you are dead. I was wrong. I had forgotten the life lessons from Alice and Petch. If you aren’t learning, you’ve never been fully alive. In these times, more than ever, it’s so important that we accept the challenge and continually pursue the gift of learning.