Joan Olmsted Oates – Lioness of the Arts in Education

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Estimated reading time: 22 minutes

Recall when you sheltered in place at the start of the Covid pandemic. You had nothing to read, nothing to listen to, and nothing to watch. What you missed were the arts. Joan Olmsted Oates foresaw a world without the arts. Her vision made a lioness of her. The lioness dedicated herself to putting the arts in education.


Joan Olmsted Oates, a lioness of arts in education

Being a first cousin of America’s historic icons Frank & Jesse James meant nothing to Joan Olmsted Oates. Her personal vision made her a lioness, dedicated to putting the arts in education.

The family gene that Joan inherited through her James ancestry compelled Joan to leave a distinctive legacy of her own for education. When imagining her destiny, Joan reflected with pride on the constellation of guiding lights among her family who proceeded her. Those ancestors made teaching, education, and the arts the priority of their lives, for themselves and for others. Joan has done the same.

The Joan Oates Institute for Partners in the Arts is Joan’s contribution to the field of education. The Institute empowers teachers with an arsenal of tools to enable teachers and schools to bring the arts into the classroom.

Joan’s Family History of Wildcat Genes in Education

Teachers & School Founders Abound in the Family of Frank and Jesse James.

Susan Lavenia James-Parmer, the sister of Jesse James, was a teacher. So was Frank’s wife Annie Ralston-James. The Civil War partisan himself engaged in impromptu stomp teaching to children near the school in Excelsior Springs where Annie taught.

When the James gang robbed the train at Gad’s Hill, Frank recited Shakespeare’s play Henry VI for his victims. Frank was tickled to no end to pattern the Gad’s Hill robbery after what he read in his father’s book of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Previously in 1842, Frank and Jesse’s father, Rev. Robert Sallee James, was sent into the Missouri frontier from Kentucky by Rev. Jeremiah Vardeman. Brother Robert was given the mission to establish a congregation, a church, and to found William Jewell College. All of which, he did.

The James are not only preachers and teachers, they also are founders of educational institutions.

John Crawford “J.C.” James, Great-Grandfather of the Lioness

John Crawford James, a great grandfather of Joan Olmsted Oates, was a trustee of William Jewell College. His path to the job did not come easy.

When a student at Brown University, J.C. was dogged by politics. J. C. witnessed how class factionalism transformed into obstructive political factionalism. J.C. disdained both. Politics to John Crawford James was an unsavory influence on education. Politics made J.C. reluctant to serve as an educator.

While being recruited to serve on the Kansas City Board of Education, politics made J. C. reluctant to serve. J.C. demanded evidence that the Board was comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans. Only then did he agree to serve. As long as that policy was maintained, J.C. served the Board faithfully. For twenty-seven years he volunteered his service repeatedly. He accepted no pay. His accomplishments were formidable.

James Elementary

I have seen the school grow from small beginnings, from 9,000 pupils, then to 36,000 now in 1912; from 147 teachers to 973; from seven small buildings to seventy-two splendid school structures; from a small high school with 241 pupils to four magnificent high schools with an attendance to 5,000. Our library, insignificant then, now is in an appropriate building, housing 110,000 volumes.

J. C. James, Retiring President

Kansas City Board of Education

“Mr. James brought into the Board high ideals of manhood, womanhood, and childhood…he would listen to the wants of little children from the humblest home, or its parents, with infinite patience. He is true and loyal in his convictions, clear-headed, truthful, frank, sympathetic… kind and unselfish. It is always the possessor of the polished, cultivated mind that attracts him. The charm of cultivated simplicity went straight to his heart. Refinement of the mind and solidity of character he placed far and above the accidents of birth and fortune…With these sympathetic qualities, he brought into the inner circle a calm, warm judgment, a wide observant experience, and flexibility…Only a large soul can do this with good grace.

James Mickleborough “J. M.” Greenwood
Successor to John W. Crawford “J. C.” James

James Elementary – Inclusionary Education for the Disadvantaged

Kansas City built a new school when J.C. retired. They located the school at 5610 Scarritt Ave. They named the school James Elementary School in honor of John Crawford James and his invaluable contribution to ensuring a quality education for all children.

James Elementary logo

In the progressive tradition of John Crawford James, James Elementary School continues to break new ground today. The leadership of her great-grandfather was not lost on Joan Olmsted Oates.

A pilot program at James Elementary provides for inclusionary education.

Vassie James, Grandmother of the Lioness

Vassie James graduated from Vassar College in 1897. Vassar College was her namesake. Her mother Fannie Shouse-James graduated from Vassar in 1874.

Students in Vassar College art gallery
New students welcomed in Vassar College art gallery

Fannie was among the first students to attend Vassar College. Art set the tone and introduction to the educational institution. Vassar welcomed the new students in the art gallery of the school.

Endowed by $20,000, the collection of Hudson River landscapes, drawings, engravings, and etchings that engulfed Vassar entrants offered a promise of artistic self-development. This was above and in addition to other fields of interest meant to expand and enhance a young woman’s frame of reference drawn from cultural traditions. Vassar intended to produce female graduates who would challenge a male-dominated world. Moreover, they would equalize it.

Vassie’s Pembroke Hill School – Freedom with Responsibility

The Mission Statement of Vassie’s Pembroke Hill School states the following:

“At Pembroke Hill, our educational goals help us form our beliefs and our values. We believe in…

  • fostering in our students the joy of learning, the love of discovery, the confidence to grow and a sense of responsibility and respect for others.
  • creating a nurturing environment in which children are central and where they develop a sound knowledge base in core academic disciplines.
  • placing a strong emphasis on character and citizenship education and providing experiences in life skills, leadership and service.
  • creating and maintaining an inclusive community that welcomes, respects, values and benefits from individual differences.
  • fostering and promoting emotional, social and physical health and well-being.
  • nurturing creativity and aesthetic appreciation.
  • We believe in our students.

Frances Ward-Olmsted, Mother of the Lioness

Frances Ward-Olmsted attended Vassar College, as did her mother Vassie James-Ward and her grandmother Fannie Shouse-James. She graduated from Vassar in 1925. The following year, Frances married George T. Olmsted Jr. and Joan Olmsted’s legacy of the arts in education took root.

Financial Awards for Teachers
New York Times, Aug. 28, 1983

Williams College Awards

Williams College has announced that it will give $1,000 in cash annually, starting this year, to four secondary school teachers for teaching excellence and $500 to their schools. Nominations will be made by seniors, the college said Wednesday, and a committee of faculty and students will make the selections. The money will come from a $102,000 fund established through the estate of the late George Olmsted Jr., a 1924 graduate of Williams….and gifts from his wife, Frances.


PAGE 2 – The Lioness Empowers Her Own Education Lair

Official website for the family of Frank & Jesse James