Published June 5th, 2020 at 6:00 AM6 minute read
You know Tearo “Missie” Condit wouldn’t have it any other way.
The paths people take in remembering her wander inevitably toward the same meadow.
On the way there, their memories take you through her “Hero Project” — 15 years of “extraordinary” learning, first at Kansas City’s Primitivo Garcia Elementary School and then Gladstone Elementary.
You hear the names she recruited to come into her schools to be the local heroes the students met and researched, whose lives they turned into books, videos and songs.
They include John “Buck” O’Neil, Ollie Gates, the Guadalupe Center’s Diana Rojas, Crosby Kemper III, West Side leader Irene Ruiz and many others.
One year the children turned the camera around and did their hero research and writing on “Ms. Condit” herself, their vice principal.
But even then, Condit, who died recently after a long battle with diabetes and cancer, knew where all the paths led.
“I look at the kids,” said Bob Wilcox, the former Garcia principal, watching the music videos again. “And I remember them. They were 10 years old, but it’s like they’re standing next to me still today.”
Ms. Condit’s kids. Missie’s kids.
You see them anew each time in chorus in the videos they made with Kansas City singer-songwriter Bob Walkenhorst, connecting their lives to their community’s heroes.
Smiling. Dancing. Raising fists in shows of strength. Pressing hands to their chests for courage and love.
This was where her life’s work led all along.
Think of what Missie Condit’s projects did for those students, said Roosevelt Dickerson, the former site coordinator of LINC’s programs at Gladstone. They became ambassadors, venturing out in their research to hallowed spaces of their city.
“Children who’d never had the chance to talk to a person in a high position, in an office, are all dressed up, talking to the president of a bank,” he said, or a sports star, or a restaurant icon.
“I saw it lift the kids,” Dickerson said. “They’re asking questions, talking to a person of power and influence. They’re connecting to Kansas City. Their chests pump up like they met a superhero. It makes them feel like… ‘I have a voice. I can do something!’”
The Hero Project took root during a simple school tour for a new parent 18 years ago.
That parent was Walkenhorst, whose daughter was enrolling in the fourth grade.
Walkenhorst noted the name of the school and asked Condit: Who’s Primitivo Garcia?
Condit took him to a glass case that told the story from 1967 — how Garcia was a 24-year-old Mexican immigrant in Kansas City, attending an evening class to improve his English, when he saw his pregnant teacher being harassed and attacked in a parking lot by five adolescents. He ran to her aid and pulled his teacher free so she could flee to safety.
But one of the attackers fired a pistol. Garcia died in the hospital 13 days later.
The moment of sharing that story would remain on both their minds. Walkenhorst, the lead performer of The Rainmakers, mentioned almost as an aside in parting that he was a songwriter and a video artist. If the school ever needed any such thing, “call me.”
Condit wasn’t one to miss a beat.
“Twelve years later,” Walkenhorst said, “I was still doing songs and videos for Missie Condit.”
The school’s children told the world Primitivo Garcia’s story first. His sacrifice was not forgotten. The immigrant’s dream found new life in the children. Sharing the story “meant so much to his family,” Wilcox said. “The tears and connections were made.”
The next year, more students researched and told another story. Then another and another. Books. Songs. Videos.
The process was amazing to see, Walkenhorst said. The power of Condit’s project as a learning tool — academically, socially and emotionally — became obvious.
Children as young as the first grade “are studying the immigrant story (Primitivo Garcia),” Walkenhorst said. “They’re studying the farmworkers’ movement (Cesar Chavez) . . . They’re studying race relations (Buck O’Neil). “And they’re getting it.”
These weren’t easy projects either. In fact, the idea of them caused more than a little stress for her principals who had so many other pressures — standards to meet, accreditation benchmarks and ever-looming state tests.
But just when Gladstone Principal Dana Carter started to fret how to fit it all in, Carter recalled, Condit and her bottomless well of enthusiasm would say, “I got it covered . . . I’ll do it.”
Condit, Tahiti-born, with an exotic energy, always buoyed her colleagues, instilling confidence for whatever presentation, PowerPoint, or central office demand came along, Carter said.
“She always told me, ‘I’ve got your back, girl.’”
As a partner of the Kansas City Public Schools providing before- and after-school programming, LINC quickly became enamored with Condit’s Hero Project.
LINC supported the schoolwork, the extracurricular activities that went along with it, and published the story about Buck O’Neil as a book with private support.
“It was just an extraordinary, unusual sort of thing,” said LINC Deputy Director Brent Schondelmeyer. “You meet your hero. You write about your hero. You produce posters about your hero. You produce a video. It was an educational experience unlike anything I had ever seen.”
Excitement in the school swelled whenever a new Hero Project approached, said LINC Caring Communities Administrator Janet Miles-Bartee, who was the site coordinator at Garcia.
From the moment they entered first grade, children knew the chance might come. “You could hear it in the halls,” she said. And everyone, adults and children, loved working with “Ms. Condit.”
“She was just a warm spirit,” Miles-Bartee said.
One year, at Gladstone, the children’s hero to meet and research was longtime LINC Chairman Landon Rowland.
Rowland, who made an indelible mark in philanthropic service while rising to president of Kansas City Southern Railway, would die in his own battle with cancer before the children’s final projects were done. But Schondelmeyer remembered looking back over the notes the children compiled, the questions they asked.
One student asked Rowland what he liked to collect. His answer: I collect ideas.
And Schondelmeyer is thinking of the kids, what they made of that answer, how it sparked their own minds as they created what became “an extraordinary celebration of the life of Landon Rowland.”
Rowland’s family came to the Gladstone auditorium for a show of the students’ work. Just as the families and friends came with the other heroes each year.
The projects would even get national attention. The song and video that honored Crosby Kemper III, then the director of the Kansas City Public Library, became a hit in libraries across the nation. This year, Kemper, by Presidential appointment, became the director of the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
With her health deteriorating, Condit retired in 2017. The Hero Project concluded that year with a portrait of Mattie Rhodes artist and teacher Jenny Mendez.
This is where Tearo “Missie” Condit would want us to linger, watching and listening to her kids.
“Tearo, Tearo your heart shines a light…,” they sing on her video. “You became a teacher… to show us what’s right...”
The compassion and generosity that Carter said marked everything Condit did glints back in the children’s eyes.
“To read and to learn, to be kind and fair, to never quit believing, you always care…”
And the works they made, the music with Walkenhorst, “stand the test of time,” Wilcox said. “We created something permanent for everyone’s history and legacy.”
“You taught us of heroes in our community. We love you forever and that’s why we sing… Tearo, Tearo, Ms. Condit we love you.”