The Way We Were: Mary Jane Blanchard

The Way We Were: Mary Jane Blanchard
Mary Jane’s 1984 wedding to Bruce Carter

Mary Jane Blanchard has many memories of growing up on Felch Avenue and in San Marco; hanging out with two close girlfriends; teachers who inspired her to become a teacher; and classmates and friends, some of whom help her today, because she is now homebound.

            Mary Jane’s mother, Dorothy Louise Burrell, moved to Jacksonville from Wellborn, Florida, in Suwannee County after she graduated from high school in the early 1940s. Dorothy’s sister, Bessie, followed her, and they lived together in a rooming house on Laura Street. Eventually, Dorothy’s other sister, Lois, moved to Jacksonville, too, and lived at 2158 Felch Avenue.

            “The sisters moved to Jacksonville to work and send money back to help the family,” Mary Jane said.

            Her grandparents, Edith Knight and Marsdon Wynn, were sharecroppers who originally settled in Suwannee County. They followed their daughters to Jacksonville in the late 1950s.

            “Aunt Betsy had one of the first daycares and kindergartens in Jacksonville – Burrell’s Kindergarten and Nursery,” Mary Jane said.

            Mary Jane’s mother met her father, J.O. Blanchard, through friends from Suwannee County, and they married in 1946. They moved from Jacksonville to McAlpin in Suwannee County and had three girls, Edith born in 1953; Mary Jane, born in 1954; and Mimmie, born in 1957.

            In 1966, Mimmie was in a Jacksonville hospital with a staph infection for more than a month. Mary Jane’s mother worked all day in the Live Oak hospital and then drove to Jacksonville to spend the night with Mimmie. To add to the family’s stress, Mary Jane’s father had a nervous breakdown and left the family.

            “It was just too much for my mom to handle, so when I was 12, we moved in with my grandmother in Jacksonville,” Mary Jane said. Her grandmother lived at 1904 Felch Avenue. Her Aunt Lois had bought a house next to her own home as an investment. She rented it to Mary Jane’s mother, and they lived there until a house at 2051 Felch became for sale. When the house at 2041 Felch became for sale, Mary Jane’s mother bought it as rental property. Mary Jane has lived in that house a couple of times through the years; it was sold in 2012.

            Mary Jane’s mother lived in the 2051 Felch Avenue house until she moved to Mandarin in 1985, when Mary Jane and her second husband bought the house from her mother and lived there until 1991.

Mary Jane Blanchard in the yard of the house she grew up in on Felch Avenue in 1977
Mary Jane Blanchard in the yard of the house she grew up in on Felch Avenue in 1977

            Mary Jane met her two best friends when she started sixth grade in Jacksonville – Vicky Hill Crowell and Karen Keisling. “Vicky lived in Ardsdale, I lived on Felch and Karen lived on Arbor Lane.” The girls rode bicycles together in the area just south of Craig Creek in San Marco that was once known as Oriental Gardens.

            The girls occasionally sneaked over to Philips Highway, too. “Felch dead-ended into a big huge vacant lot owned by the railroad. We could cross a big ditch and then the railroad track and end up at Philips Highway.” Mary Jane remember the boys in the neighborhood building forts and playing in the vacant lot.

            “Philips Highway had shopping center then with a Pantry Pride on one end, J.M. Fields on the other end, Montgomery Wards toward the back and all kinds of little shops in between,” she said. “There was a slot car track where guys would race.”

            The girls loved to visit San Marco shops, too. “I saved my lunch money so that I could buy a cookie at Mim’s Bakery or nice but inexpensive gifts at Geisenhoff’s Gift Shop.” She also remembers ladies’ clothes at Nancy Scott and Boluns, shoes at Utsey’s, fabulous material at The Silk Shop and beautiful silk flowers at Peterson’s 5 and Dime.

            Mary Jane started at Hendricks Avenue Elementary School halfway through her sixth-grade year. Coming from a Suwannee County elementary school that had only 65 students, Hendricks Avenue was a major change. She found herself in Lillian Walker’s home room.

            “I had always been a smart kid and was double promoted. But, thank God, my mother put me back in my regular grade because she knew public school in Jacksonville was going to be so different,” she said.

            Lillian taught language arts in the cafeteria with an overhead projector which Mary Jane had never seen before. “They were so far ahead of what I had learned that I was terrified, but Lillian stayed after school with me and caught me up.”

            Lillian planned fun projects for her students, like the country report that each student did. Lillian also had each student write a letter and address it for Lillian to mail to the student at a later time. “Lillian’s daughter found a stack of those letters after her mother died and through Facebook was able to reunite some people with their letters,” she said.

            Lillian was famous for her operettas. The Spring 1966 operetta was “Babes in Toyland.” Every afternoon two casts and a chorus rehearsed. Everyone got to participate in some way. Mary Jane was a toy shop worker.

            She moved to Landon Middle School in the seventh grade. She found it exhausting to go up and down the stairs to class. “I had to go lay down and rest in the dean’s office almost every day. I told my mother I needed lighter shoes.”

            When she started receiving Cs on her report card, she knew something had to change. “I had never made Cs before, and I knew it was because I was staying home sick so often.,” she said. “I told myself that I had to stay at school or people would think I was dumb.”

            It wouldn’t be until she turned 30 and almost died, in 1984, that she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles. “Before my diagnosis, people would tell me I was just depressed or anxious,” she said.

Mary Jane Blanchard’s high school senior photo

            When Mary Jane became a library aide in eighth grade, she met the boy who would become her first husband, Roger Danson. He was in ninth grade and played baseball.

            Mary Jane and Roger both went to Wolfson High School after Landon. She remembers that Wolfson had no air conditioning and no windows. “It was on a cow pasture and when it rained the building smelled like a cow pasture,” she said.

Front of Roger Danson baseball card, 1976
Front of Roger Danson baseball card, 1976

            The couple dated through her senior year. Mary Jane graduated in 1972 and went to Stetson University, and Roger started playing Minor League Baseball. She had scholarships to attend Stetson but decided to enroll at the University of North Florida after her freshman year. She graduated in three years with the goal of becoming a teacher.

            They married in 1973 and had a daughter, Jeanette Marie, in 1975. For six-and-a-half years they traveled the Southeast wherever Roger needed to go to play baseball. Then they divorced in 1979.

Jeanette Blanchard let her hair grow long for her senior photo so that she and her mother could have matching graduation photos.
Jeanette Blanchard let her hair grow long for her senior photo so that she and her mother could have matching graduation photos.

            Jeanette Marie attended Landon, Stanton, and Wolfson, before moving to Durham, North Carolina for her senior year. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill. Now Jeanette Yates, she is communications director for Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, where Mary Jane is a member and used to be a bell ringer, until her disease prevented her from doing that.

            After a year teaching at West Jacksonville Elementary School, Mary Jane’s favorite teacher, Lillian Walker, made sure she got accepted at Pine Forest. “It was my privilege to teach with Lillian for about five years.”

            Mary Jane remembers other great teachers who inspired her to become one. Leland Mims and a Mr. Barkey (she doesn’t remember his first name) team-taught civics in her-ninth grade year at Landon.

            Loyd Bragoz taught American literature at Wolfson. “He taught us how to write academic papers with really good sources,” Mary Jane said.

            Emory Cook taught AP American history at Wolfson. “We learned so much about original sources. We had to really know our stuff. Every day he would come to class, perch on the corner of the desk and tell us stories.”

            Bill Lyne started teaching at Wolfson High School in 1969. In 1972, Mary Jane was in his political science class of handpicked students. “We had the only political science class in Duval County at the time,” she said.

            Mary Jane participated in the first high school presidential mock convention at the Civic Auditorium organized by Lyne. High school students from the entire county participated. Presidential candidates Shirley Chisholm and John Lindsey, and Oscar winner Warren Beatty for George McGovern addressed the attendees.

            “I just loved teaching at Pine Forest,” she said. “It was a fifth- and sixth-grade center then. All of the students were from the neighborhood. They went to Hendricks or San Jose Elementary, then Pine Forest for fifth and sixth grade, and Landon for seventh grade. We had a really good PTA and so much support from families. Lillian did operettas there, too. Claybel Phares played the piano and handled the music. The sixth graders did the operetta, including those from Loretta Elementary School.”

            After five years, while still teaching full-time, Mary Jane attended UNF at night to get a degree in accounting. “I thought I needed to make more money to support myself and Jeanette,” she said. She found a job with a CPA. “I was working six or seven days a week, and while I loved learning about accounting, I didn’t like the work. After that I went to Prudential and worked as a claims examiner for two years. Then I went back to teaching at Long Branch Elementary in 1984.”

            She and Bruce Carter got married in 1984 when she was transferred to R.B. Daniels Elementary, where she only taught for a few weeks. “I had been married to Bruce for just a month,” Mary Jane said. “I got up one morning and passed out in the shower. Bruce took me to the doctor’s office who said my blood pressure was extremely low. I ended up in the hospital for three months and had to give up teaching.”

            Mary Jane’s disease may keep her from getting out and about as she wishes, but she hasn’t let it isolate her. Her girlfriend from junior high school, Valerie (Westbrook) Bennett helps Mary Jane now by buying her groceries and checking on her in the handicapped accessible condo in which she now lives. She stays in touch with friends and family on Facebook and on the phone and is a lifelong learner.

By Karen J. Rieley, Resident Community News

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