Joan Horn: life as a doer, teacher and friend
- Published: March 23, 2017
This series profiles Yellow Springs residents in their 80s and above. The News seeks to share older villagers’ stories and perspectives, honoring those who have lived long among us. If you have a story that fits our theme, contact us at email@example.com.
Articles in this series
- Elder Stories: Painter Jack Merrill
- Jane Baker: a life of books
- Always coming home to the village
- Fifty years in the same house
- Harold Wright— A bridger of words, and worlds
- Arnold Adoff: A shared life and love of literature
- Joan Horn: life as a doer, teacher and friend
- Jim Agna: Showing up and taking a stand
- Phyllis Lawson Jackson: Deep roots, and a historian’s eye
- Paul Graham: a soft-spoken force for equality
Joan Horn is a doer. Nine years ago, she wrote a biography of musician Walter Anderson simply because no one else was available to do so. A local writer working on the project had passed away, and Horn, a longtime friend and former student of Anderson’s, sought to carry the project forward by engaging another writer. After contacting “13 or 14 professional writers” about the biography, she realized the book might only come to be if she did it.
So she did it.
“I have Little Red Hen syndrome,” Horn said, laughingly referring to the children’s book featuring an industrious barnyard fowl. “I think, ‘I’ll do it myself.’”
That quality defines Horn, according to villager Mary Stukenberg, a good friend.
“She sees a need and she doesn’t leave it there,” Stukenberg said.
Horn has lived in Yellow Springs for over 60 years, first coming to the village as a student at Antioch College in the early 1950s. Her contributions to the community are legion. Now 83 and long retired from two careers, as an elementary school teacher at Mills Lawn School and director of the Outdoor Education Center at Glen Helen, she volunteers twice a week at the assisted living unit at Friends Care and drives for the Yellow Springs Senior Center.
Those are just two of a slew of volunteer positions she’s held over the years, including organizing progressive dinners for Home, Inc. and Friends Care; arranging visits to Yellow Springs by people from all over the world through Experiment in International Living, an exchange program; and bringing music to the Dayton schools through the Dayton Philharmonic’s music outreach program. She’s held seats on various local boards and even served on Village Council.
“What would we do without Joan Horn?” asked Karen Wolford, the local senior center’s executive director. As a volunteer driver, Horn is faithful, reliable and “has a very caring spirit,” Wolford said. Horn’s been driving for the senior center so long — at least 15 years — that no one quite remembers when she started.
Horn attributes her lifelong zeal for serving others to two factors: a Quaker-influenced childhood, and her formative years at Antioch.
“I’ve forever been thinking about helping other people. It’s a natural thing for me,” she said in a recent interview in the sunny living room of her Yellow Springs home.
Born in 1933 and raised in Philadelphia, Penn., Horn was one of three children of parents who were not themselves Quakers. Thanks to the generosity of Horn’s paternal grandmother, however, Horn received a Quaker education, at the venerable Germantown Friends School. “I was imbued with Quaker ideas for 12 years,” Horn recalled. Chief among these ideas was the conviction that “service is the rent you pay for living,” she said.
While other Germantown graduates headed to East Coast colleges, Horn chose Antioch. “I didn’t want to follow the herd,” she said. And it didn’t hurt that the Antioch recruiter was “the most handsome guy I ever saw,” Horn recalled, with an embarrassed laugh. “I was boy-crazy then,” she confided.
Antioch was a good fit for a doer. A co-op with a nursery school in Connecticut sparked Horn’s desire to teach, though she also had an interest in the medical field — but was disinclined to be a nurse, the template for women at the time. In her first weeks at Antioch, she met the man who would become her husband, Dick Horn. They got married prior to her senior year; she graduated in 1956 with a degree in elementary education.
The young couple decided to stay in Yellow Springs. Dick was a graphic designer, eventually forming his own company in Dayton. The Horns had three children, Debbie, Steve and Timothy, all raised in the village. By 1969, in her late 30s, Joan was ready to put her elementary education training to professional use.
She taught at Mills Lawn Elementary for 10 years. There she met fellow teacher and villager Betty Felder, who became a close friend. The two joined with a third teacher to team teach, a concept new to the school at the time. “We did lots of fun things,” Felder recalled, including taking the second-graders to sleep out in the Glen for a unit on Native Americans.
And they saw each other socially. Felder remembered one time when five couples, including the Felders and the Horns, drove in two trailers to Indiana, just to dine at a fancy restaurant called Shambarger’s. After dinner, they stayed the night, “girls in one trailer, boys in another,” Felder chuckled, then drove back to Yellow Springs the next morning.
“I would call Joan an all-round good person you’d be happy to have as a friend,” Felder said.
Horn took a sabbatical from Mills Lawn to attend Ohio State University, where she earned her master’s degree in environmental education. That inaugurated the second phase of her career: directing the Outdoor Education Center, or OEC, which for 60 years has trained college-aged naturalists and offered educational programs for younger students. Horn ran the OEC for nearly two decades, from 1979 to 1997. Betty Ross, a later-in-life naturalist intern who became the director of the Raptor Center, trained at the OEC under Horn, then became a colleague and friend.
“Joan’s a very welcoming person,” Ross said. “She took all those students under her wing and made them feel so comfortable.”
Ross was impressed by Horn’s blend of openness and traditionalism. “She’s open to new ideas … but still stuck by the traditions of the OEC,” Ross said. That loyalty to tradition continues to this day, with Horn hosting the final OEC staff training dinner at her house each year. And Horn still makes the cloth napkins, complete with sewed-on initials, that naturalist interns use at the OEC to avoid the waste of paper napkins, according to Ross.
“Those little things — if she didn’t do them, who else is going to?” Ross said.
It was during Horn’s years at the OEC that she began enduring one of her life’s great losses — her hearing. “I was so embarrassed,” Horn recalled. “I hated for anybody to think that the OEC director was an old fogey.” Though reluctant to admit to the problem, she eventually got hearing aids. In recent years, she’s experienced another major decline in her hearing. It’s been a blow, she said.
“They don’t tell you that when you lose your hearing, you also lose your directionality,” she said.
But for Horn, the worst part about hearing loss has been a loss of full enjoyment in music. Instruments now sound “tinny,” she said, diminishing the fun of attending the Dayton Philharmonic and the Springfield Symphony, which she’s done for decades. Several years ago, she stopped singing in the Yellow Springs Community Chorus — having sung in choruses since high school — because she could no longer hear the pitch of the person beside her.
She’s learned to be philosophic about the loss, turning to reading, another great love, in place of music. “I’ve gotten my great fill of music,” she said.
Horn’s parents were both musical. Her mother was a professionally trained soprano, though her singing career ended after the children came along. Horn only ever remembers hearing her mother singing in church. Horn’s father, a surgeon, took flute lessons from the principal flautist in the Philadelphia Orchestra of the day.
As an Antioch student, Horn formed a lasting bond with Walter Anderson, known to his friends as Andy, a musical prodigy and the first African-American head of a department at a majority-white college. “He was very welcoming, effusive and warm. … We just clicked,” she said. Horn sang in the Antioch chorus, which Anderson led, took organ lessons from him and served as his assistant during her senior year co-op.
Following Horn’s graduation, she and Anderson stayed in touch, and after he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for the National Endowment for the Arts, she regularly visited him there. And she interviewed him during the final months of his life for the book project that became “Playing on All the Keys: The Life of Walter F. Anderson,” published in 2008.
“Andy’s just been a force in my life,” Horn said.
Friends and family are deeply important to her, even more so as the years go by, she said. Though her children and grandchildren are far-flung — living in Canada, Texas and California — she’s been lucky to have her brother, David Hergesheimer, and his wife, Keiko, just around the corner. (Hergesheimer, 15 years younger than she, also attended Antioch and is well known as a local potter. Horn’s sister, Chrissy Spagna, lives in Philadelphia.) Horn and her husband divorced after 35 years of marriage, but still stay in touch. And she’s found joy in being single.
“I’m utterly happy as a single person,” she said.
Single, but not often alone. Hanging in her kitchen is a banner she made years ago: “Horn’s Hostel.” Her Spillan Road home is always open to friends and colleagues from Yellow Springs and around the world, and she’s an enthusiastic and accomplished cook. For many years, she’s kept track of what she’s served to friends, and how the meals went over. She hates repeating a meal. One year she resolved to cook all the recipes in a cookbook called “The Streamliner Diner,” from a Bainbridge Island restaurant, and finished just under the wire by inviting her brother and sister-in-law over every day for a week.
“By golly I finished the cookbook,” she said.
Over the years, she’s kept in touch with Antioch alumni and maintained ties to the college. She led several trips to Brazil for Antioch’s education abroad program. The first trip was an experiment, which she successfully co-led with a tattoo-covered Catholic priest named Father Pete. The country became the home of her heart; she’s made a total of nine trips there, learning Portuguese and making friends.
When Antioch closed in 2008, she was “desperately concerned.” She served on the board of Nonstop Antioch to help keep the spirit and intellectual culture of Antioch alive. And she was willing to step into the fray in 2009, petitioning the attorney general to seek accountability for flooding at the closed college, which she and others believed could threaten Antioch’s future viability.
She’s kept a keen eye on the reopened college’s progress, and is especially pleased to see the flourishing of “co-op jobs all over the world.”
In the 1960s, Horn worked for several years as former Antioch President Arthur Morgan’s office manager. “That was an experience. People came from all over the world to meet him, to shake his hand,” she recalled. Though quite elderly by that time, Morgan maintained an active, useful and deeply engaged life.
Horn’s own life seems cut from a similar pattern.
“Joan’s a good and loyal friend to everyone,” said Betty Ross, who’s known her for 30 years. “People know they can count on her.”
Horn calls herself shy. “Basically I’m a shy person who hates to go to cocktail parties. I prefer to go in depth with one or two people.”
As a Friends Care volunteer, she often reads snippets from a news digest called “The Week” to stimulate conversation and reflection. She’s delighted when an item sparks personal sharing, leading residents and Horn to learn something new about each other.
“When I leave, they say, ‘We are so glad you came,’ and they say it with sincerity,” Horn reflected. “And that’s how I feel, too.”