— By Frank Santos
The building had served a teachers training facility before it opened as Timber Ridge Magnet School in 1995. Ten years later it became the Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School, the first educational facility in Evanston-Skokie school district to be named after an African-American woman.
She was a diminutive Black woman in stature but a giant in the field of education. That succinctly described Evanston’s Bessie M. Rhodes-Santos Ph.D., a teacher, administrator and a pioneer in the field of education.
The renaming of the school did not come easy. A committed group of Evanstonian’s, led by retired schoolteacher Yvonne Davis, initiated the name change request before the District 65 school board in 2005. Thanks to their diligent efforts and growing support, the name change became a reality.
Mrs. Davis said in her petition to the board, then chaired by local businessman Hecky Powell, “it is not uncommon to name public buildings to honor and show respect for the work and memory to persons who have demonstrated exemplary leadership.
Dr. Rhodes, as her peers and students affectionately called her, strongly believed in the education of our children and preparing the young ones for the challenges they would meet in the adult world. She was mentally equipped to help them on their way.
Looking at her background from the time she was able to walk until her passing in April 2002, one could easily see that it was in her genes to be a success in the field of education.
Rhodes was born November 15, 1935, in a small Kentucky town called Hodgenville. She was the youngest of four children. Her siblings and father were educators. Her, dad, Amos was a prominent Baptist preacher and also the principal of a local school. Her two sisters, Marie (now deceased) and Cornelia of Greenville, Texas and a brother, William of Somerset, Kentucky, were teachers.
At 16, she entered Kentucky State College. She was 19 when she completed her requirement for bachelor arts degree in music education in 1956. A year later she received her masters degree in the same field from Iowa State College.
It was on to Chicago for the start of a challenging career in the educational field. Why Chicago? Dr. Rhodes would laughingly think back to that period of time.
“Chicago always fascinated me,” as she explained her introduction to the Windy City. “My dad was a Chicago White Sox fan and he went to as many home games as his time allowed. He always took me with him,” Dr. Rhodes said.
It was a brash, but extremely confident young black woman who wanted to enter the Chicago school system. She thought that with two degrees, she was ready. But it wasn’t to be then. Chicago required a teaching certificate. Not to mention she was trying to enter the system as a music teacher and there were no openings.
Undeterred, Dr. Rhodes took some courses toward the needed certificate and entered the system as a primary teacher at Forrestville Elementary School for five years before coming to Evanston in 1962.
In Mrs. Davis petition she said, “Dr. Rhodes was first and outstanding teacher in this community after her years of service to the Chicago Public Schools. She was a kindergarten teacher on the first staff of the new Martin Luther King Laboratory School and the first principal of Timber Ridge Magnet School. Both were new educational concepts for this community.”
Continuing, Mrs. Davis wrote “she [Dr. Rhodes] served District 65 and Evanston with commitment.” She pointed out that Dr. Rhodes received a Doctoral degree from Northwestern University and served in the District’s Central Administration as the Director of Curriculum, which brought many innovative learning programs to our students and teachers.
“Her commitment spilled over into this community. She co-founded the District 65 Community Chorus,” Mrs. Davis said. “The core members of this group were District staff persons at every level and included their friends and families. Dr. Rhodes also served as the official organist at Second Baptist Church here in Evanston.”
Dr. Rhodes formulated, opened, staffed and promoted Timber Ridge in Skokie. She specifically developed the schools teaching platform and selected the teachers to carry it out. After putting the staff together, Dr. Rhodes set about recruiting the students. Because of an interracial mandate in District 65, the prospective students had to come from two targeted areas—northwest Evanston homes consisting largely of white wealthy population, and south Evanston homes largely dominated by lower class minorities.
It was not an easy job, but Dr. Rhodes knew it would be a challenge. The school opened in the fall of 1995 as a magnet school.
Dr. Rhodes retired as Timber Ridge’s principal in 1998 but not before leaving an indelible mark on the students and its staff. Her retirement was short-lived. She was asked to head a Northwestern University program tracking the development of high performing grade-school pupils. She also used her skillful conciliatory talents when she served as a school district facilitator to deftly diffuse tensions in a school dispute that same year.
Little did any one know except for her husband, Frank Santos that the Dr. Rhodes was suffering from cancer that was being treated by doctors at Evanston Hospital. It remained in remission for nearly five years taking her life April 15, 2002.
A resolution sponsored by Cook County Commissioner Calvin R. Sutker and supported by his fellow commissioners summed Dr. Rhodes’ life completely. It read:
“Whereas Bessie Rhodes-Santos was passionately dedicated to her profession and her community and left an enduring legacy of devotion to her family, educating and enriching the lives of others and the pursuit of knowledge.”
In her lifetime Dr. Rhodes received many honors. She was named Teacher of the Year by Grade Teacher Magazine; Woman of the Year by Ebenezer A.M. E. Church in Evanston, Community Contributions Award by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in Evanston and the Distinguished Public Service Award by Second Baptist Church in Evanston. She was inducted as a Kentucky Colonel in Lexington, Kentucky, the City of Los Angeles Mayor’s Award for top Community Business Performance and the Black Educator’s Award by Second Baptist Church.
Note: This article was edited down for length and first appeared in the original Shorefront Journal, Vol. 8 No. 2, spring 2007. Information for the article were gathered from the following sources: A first-hand account as told and written by Frank Santos, husband to Dr. Bessie Rhodes; documents from Coffin Associates, 1974; Resolution sponsored by the Honorable Larry Suffredin, Cook County Commissioner and articles from the Evanston Roundtable and Evanston Sentinel; Photographs provided by Frank Santos with additional images from Dino Robinson and from the documentary film, The Integration of Foster School, by Lawrence B. Brooks, 1967.