As one of the Founders of the Jewish Community Center Elementary School, now The McGillis School, I have so many wonderful memories of Joanne I wouldn't know where to begin. I remember the first time I reached out to her about funding for the school. It was a letter I sent to her Rancho Mirage home with a VHS tape showing the school classrooms and introducing the school to her. I told her we needed money to sustain the school. I told her that she needed to come to the school and spend a day to really understand how special it was/is.
When she returned that spring she did visit, and we had the first of many, many lunches at The Oasis Cafe (one of her favorites). We talked for hours about the vision for the school and her passion for learning. How the school would fill a gap in education in our community by providing an experiential learning experience, how there were not enough Jews in the community to make it financially viable, that it would not become a ‘Jewish Day School,' where would it live, and on and on. At that time, our vision was to educate children to become critical thinkers, not just sponges who spit back what they learn, to truly understand HOW to find and create answers to questions and problems.
We printed a quote on our marketing materials that stated, "Our students may not know all the answers, but they will know how to find them." (That was 1991.) As far as I can tell, that is still true today, 30 years later. We dreamed then of a middle-school, a permanent home, a dynamic faculty, a diverse student body, and thanks to Joanne, so many of our dreams for the school became reality over the past three decades.
I remember the first graduation of 6th graders; there were only 6 of them. Then the classes got bigger and bigger each year, but we kept our promise to keep a low student:teacher ratio, eventually adding multiple classes for each grade. I remember that Joanne apologized for not being able to make her initial donation larger, but Dick was very conservative, she told me.
She told me when they bought the Douglas School, that when Dick passed away, she would build a condo on the top floor so she could always be there to enjoy the students and that they would keep her young. And that they did (even though she decided not to move).
When it came to naming the school, Joanne wavered back and forth about whether to call it the Richard and Joanne McGillis School. We finally came to the decision that was too long and wanted it to be memorable. (No one calls the JCC the I J and Jeanne Wagner JCC.) So, The McGillis School it was.
In the early days of the school, Joanne and I would talk about how unique our students were from those who went through the traditional school system, how ours were BIG thinkers and understood that there may be multiple solutions to a problem and that answers might not be in straight lines, but far outside a box and circuitous, and that coloring outside the lines is a good thing!
As a parent of two McGillis graduates, I often still see these traits in my boys, Nathan and Aaron. I am so proud and grateful to have had the opportunity to build this legacy in our community with a woman whom I deeply admired and respected. Joanne and I were always on the same wavelength when it came to the importance of education, and the process by which our young people should learn so they can proliferate knowledge and become lifelong learners like her.
Over these years that the school expanded, Joanne and I kept in touch through email and a few dinners at her home. She never ceased to amaze me with her wholehearted adaptation to technology to keep her friends engaged, educated, and entertained. Many of her emails simply made-my-day, with a laugh and a smile, with a tear, and some with an ah-ha!
Thank you, Joanne, for this journey and making the dreams of a few become a reality for so many!
Zikhrono livrakha. May her memory be a blessing.
A Founder, The McGillis School
Inaugural Board Chair
Parent of Nathan ‘98 and Aaron ‘99