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Annandale retiree helped bring foreign language classes to Catholic schools

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Joan Urban has worn many hats in her life, but most involved spending time in a classroom. 

The longtime parishioner of St. Michael Church in Annandale grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and was raised Catholic. At age 11, her life was marred by tragedy. Urban’s mother died of a kidney infection a few days after her 38th birthday. Then her maternal grandmother died after seeing her deceased daughter laid out in a coffin. The 86-year-old Urban can still see the two coffins of her mother and grandmother placed side by side in the church at the funeral. The pre-teen began to help more with the shopping and cooking for her father and three siblings while continuing her education.

After graduating from high school at Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart, she attended D’Youville College in Buffalo and earned a master’s in science education at the Canisius College in Buffalo. She began teaching at D’Youville. “I taught teachers how to be the best biology teachers they could be,” she said. 

Urban readily admits she has her mother-in-law to thank for bringing her and her husband, Alfred, together. Alfred needed a date to his aunt and uncle’s anniversary party and his mother, who had seen Urban’s photo in the local paper, encouraged him to ask her out. The two had attended first grade together but hadn’t spent time together for many years. Nevertheless, Urban agreed to that first date, and many more. “I owe her a big, big thank you,” she said.

The couple was married Aug. 31, 1963, and then immediately moved to Northern Virginia for Alfred’s job as an aeronautical engineer for the Department of Defense. Urban couldn’t find a college teaching job in the area, but she did find a position teaching high school science. “I was in Wakefield High School in Arlington teaching the day after Labor Day,” she said. “I had no honeymoon for 30 years.” Their belated honeymoon was a cruise from Alexandria into international waters and back again.

Virginia was in the midst of integration when Urban arrived. She said it didn’t go smoothly. She remembers being chastised by the school leaders after she was seen accepting a ride from a Black colleague. She left the school after one year to take care of her newborn, JoEllen. The couple had three more children: Anne Marie, Michael and Carolyn.

They sent their children to their parish school, St. Michael School in Annandale, and Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington. When JoEllen was in eighth grade, St. Michael had 1,200 students, said Urban. She noticed there were no foreign language classes, so she and her friend and fellow school parent Marie Tidwell saw an opportunity. They launched the Catholic Elementary Foreign Language Program, hiring teachers to instruct students after school. “We wanted our schools to be competitive in languages,” said Urban. “So we taught French, German, church Latin and classical Latin, and Japanese.”

The program started at St. Michael, but expanded to Queen of Apostles School in Alexandria, Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna and St. Bernadette School in Springfield. The two women hired the teachers, coordinated with the schools and parents, bought textbooks and wrote letters of recommendation for students as they went on to high school. Urban also occasionally substitute taught French, the language she had learned growing up. She shut the program down after 27 years because foreign language classes in elementary school had become mainstream.

Urban also worked for 20 years as a voter registrar, going into high school civics classes, teaching the students about voting and then registering the ones who were eligible. She enjoyed the work — “I could get back in the classroom,” she said. “Because my forte was the classroom.”

Nowadays, Urban lives in the Annandale home she and her husband bought 58 years ago, though her husband died in 2006. She enjoys watching college football and basketball, and horse races, and spending time with her children and grandchildren. Urban has five living grandchildren; her grandson Findlay had cerebral palsy and died at age 10.

The former teacher also enjoys word games, such as word searches. It was the principal of St. Michael, Annie Fernandez, who first piqued her interest in the subject.

“The first week of school, she said make 10 words out of the letters you find in ‘I am a child of God.’ She wanted to give (the students) a lollipop or a popsicle if they made 10 words,” she said. “Well, I made 57.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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