There wasn't any question where Constance Lane stood on the importance of education.
There wasn't any question for Richard Meeks, who was a fourth and fifth grader at Henrietta Intermediate School when Lane was principal.
"She wanted education to be as important to us as it was to her. She did everything she could by being a role model, by showing us what we could do," Meeks said.
There was never a question for her son James Renick, either. As a middle schooler, he would keep his mother company in the car as she drove from Rockford to Northwestern University in Evanston, where she was working toward her master's degree.
"Education was a priority in the house. We always had books. It was pretty clear it was important to learn, and she really knew how to work with all people. I learned that directly from her," Renick said.
Renick became a top administrator at several colleges and universities. He will speak for the family at a ribbon cutting and dedication at 3 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, for the school named for his mother, Constance Lane Elementary School, 620 Gregory St., Rockford. Lane's daughter, Betty Jefferson, will also be there. Jefferson, who is retired from a career working with juveniles in the court system, said her mother was direct and orderly but had a soft and loving side.
Angela Hite-Carter saw that love in action. Hite-Carter was a student at McIntosh Elementary School when Lane was principal.
"She was with us all the time," Hite-Carter said. "What I mean by that is that she was in the cafeteria, she was on the playground. I could not think of a day I went to school that she wasn't there. I'm sure she had to get sick or something, but I can't recall it."
Hite-Carter became a teacher and principal, and eventually rose to her current position as Executive Director of Student Services and Alternative Learning in Rockford Public Schools. "I learned the concept of greeting children from Mrs. Lane," she said. "Because I knew what it made me feel like, and I wanted my students to experience that."
Constance Vivian Carmichael was born Nov. 9, 1921, in Rockford and graduated from Rockford High School in 1938. She left home to attend West Virginia State College and graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor's degree in science in 1943. She married James Renick and had two children, but returned to Rockford in 1950 after he died of a heart attack at age 29. Betty was 4 and James was 9 months old.
Despite a stellar academic portfolio and a teaching accreditation in math, she tried for four years to get a job in Rockford. In 1954, a new superintendent of schools, William R. McIntosh, hired her as the first black teacher in the district. Nine years later, she would become the district's first black principal – and the first principal of McIntosh School, named after the man who opened a door for her.
"Can you imagine how good that made me feel?" she told the Rockford Register Star in 1979.
Lane was as beloved to her school staff as she was to students. The secretaries in the district named her Administrator of the Year in 1973. They recalled how, on a snow day, she did payroll when the secretaries couldn't come in. She knew their life. To support her family and put herself through school, she earned $1.50 an hour, working as a secretary for the Jewish Community Board in Rockford.
Estelle Black knew about Constance Lane's dependability firsthand. They were friends for nearly 50 years after meeting because their parents were neighbors. They worked together in a service club and played bridge. Her friend, who married Andrew Lane in 1964, always asked what extra things she could do for spouses or families.
"Her name was Constance, and she was always constant in her friendship," she said. "You didn't have to worry about her being wishy-washy."
That much was clear to students who acted out. "It was not like she was following us to find fault," Meeks said. "But whenever we did something, she called it to our attention so we knew we could do better."
Meeks went on to teach fifth grade in Rockford Public Schools for 18 years. He was fortunate to have other role models in education, but he always knew where he stood with Lane.
"She made us proud to be who we were," he said. "She always wanted us to do our best."
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