Education’s Storied First Lady, Frances Meeks
Written by Beth Odom Photos by Michelle Lynn Morris and Contributed by Friends and Family
Many question whether leaders are born or made. It’s not a simple observation to make about most, but it is easy to make about one very special leader in the storied past of education in Bryan County.
This school year will go down in history for many reasons, and that includes the grand opening of the Frances Meeks Elementary school in Richmond Hill. So, who is the woman for which this school was named?
Frances Lane Meeks, born in 1932, was eldest of seven children. Originally from Rebecca, Georgia, her mother was a 3rd grade teacher and her father was a businessman and farmer. Mrs. Meeks recalls both her parents stressing the importance of an education beginning as early as she can remember. Frances taught Sunday School as a young teenager, served as secretary of her Sunday School class, taught swimming to young children during the summers, and taught four-year-olds at the University of Georgia Lab School, while attending college at UGA. Upon graduating in 1953, she was hired to teach Home Economics and Science at Cartersville High School. She taught former Georgia Governor Joe Frank Harris; he was only three years younger than her at the time.
Frances met Walter Meeks at a dance at UGA in l952. The story is that they were the two tallest people in the room, and he joked that she was easy to see above the crowd. They dated for two years before marrying in 1954. Little did she know what their move to Walter’s family home in Richmond Hill would mean in the lives of so many people, including her own.
The students in her very first class at Richmond Hill School recall vivid memories of the young woman at the helm. Her senior homeroom class took a train trip to Washington D.C. in l955, where stories about her ability to effectively redirect any shenanigan most likely got its start. If you ever have the pleasure to sit and reminisce with Mrs. Meeks, her stories are incredible, full of detail, and always end with a lesson. You leave feeling learned, no doubt.
Walter’s job moved the young couple to Texas and Alaska. Their oldest son, Buck, was born in Alaska in February 1964. They came back to Richmond Hill that same year and their second son, John, was born in December 1965.
Frances returned to teaching at Richmond Hill School in the building that still stands today behind historic Martha Mary Chapel. At this time, Richmond Hill School was a K-12 school and Mrs. Meeks was a self-contained 7th grade teacher for many years. Mr. Roger Jessup was her principal. When he fell ill to heart problems and passed away, Frances was named interim principal. The fear of leading would never override her willingness to take on the responsibilities and the term “interim” is an irrelevant detail, as her time as a principal lasted for decades.
Unlike today, there was not much to brag about our school at that time. The community was poor, but Frances saw more. Like today, Richmond Hill was growing and expansion to accommodate students was necessary. A new school was built (the west campus of the current high school today) and the school was split into the K-8 (Richmond Hill Elementary School) and 9-12 (Richmond Hill High School). Mr. Bert Fields was hired to be the high school principal and Frances remained principal with the K-8 students. Dahlia Hood was asked to be her assistant principal and they later added Mr. James Bing as an additional assistant principal. The splits continued at a rapid pace as Bryan County Schools became widely known as some of the best in the state. In 1992, Frances and Dahlia opened Richmond Hill Primary School together, a K-2 school located behind Richmond Hill Elementary School. James Bing became the principal of Richmond Hill Elementary students with Joye Johnson as his assistant principal, two great catches from Chatham and Liberty County Public School Systems.
Mrs. Meeks “retired” from education in 1992, but her retirement was just a formality as it didn’t last long. As education and leadership are truly in her blood, she decided to run for a seat on the Bryan County Board of Education and won handedly. She served for years and former students and teaching colleagues still look to her for guidance today. We live in her memories and she lives in ours. My husband and I both taught under her supervision for almost 20 years. We continue to call her our dear friend and we are thrilled each time we have the chance to see her and reminisce.
Frances is often credited for leading the school system to success. It was Pat Rossiter (Richmond Hill’s first high school football coach) who coined her Bryan County’s First Lady of Education. Her direct impacts honored with not just one, but two namesakes in town. Frances Meeks Way, which leads to the tri-elemntary schools in the heart of Richmond Hill, and the new school bearing her name. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who would disagree with the moniker first lady, and Mrs. Meeks would be the first to let you know that she had a pretty strong “cabinet” that served with her during those years: Dr. June Baylor, Dahlia Hood, and Dr. Sallie Brewer.
It was only proper that they name the road that leads to Richmond Hill Primary, Frances Meeks Way, as she was the Principal who opened the first NEW elementary school in Richmond Hill. Bryan County Board of Education policies did not allow naming a school after a person who was still living, so they did the next best thing, they named the road leading to it in her name.
One of my former high school students, Derrick Smith, serves on the current Bryan County Board of Education today. He is a fine product of Bryan County Schools and Mrs. Meeks was a big part of his educational life. It was Derrick who made the motion to set aside the by-law that prohibited naming a school after a living person last year with the opening of FME on the horizon. The motion passed and the vote was unanimous to set aside the by-law. This opened the opportunity for Derrick to recommend naming the newest elementary school after Frances Meeks. The vote was taken; it, too, was unanimous. What an honor for Mrs. Meeks and all those whose educational history includes her. It will be a glorious celebration when and if we are able to honor her with a special day of dedication. Students and Colleagues from all around will be in attendance.
Frances loves to say, “I have endeavored to bloom where I was planted and to teach those with whom I worked that we take care of each other first, so that we can take care of the children best!” It wasn’t just a saying, it was a truth.
Here’s to the First Lady of Education in Bryan County,