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May 18, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Virgnia Debs: The spirit within Virgnia Debs: The spirit within (May 18, 2005)

by Bill D'Agostino

Long-time friends aren't surprised Virginia Debs is staging a modest protest of her own award.

She will officially receive the Avenidas Lifetimes of Achievement honor on May 22. But tickets to the ceremony cost $65 each, so she's holding an unofficial ice cream social the day before at the Parent's Nursery School in Palo Alto.

"I told them I will have a party here because my friends can't afford $65," she said, talking a stranger on a tour of the cooperative school that she has called home since 1969.

That firecracker spirit, which can hide behind her childlike enthusiasm and infectious smile, has been at the center of a lifetime of service to youth, women and others.

It counseled, behind the scenes, her husband Bob Debs when he served on the City Council. It led two California YWCA chapters as president. It has brought guidance to both the League of Women Voters and AAUW, where she served as board member. And it helps the Episcopal Diocese of California promote social justice.

The spirit also prompted her to protest, by wearing a chicken suit at the Palo Alto Farmers' Market, the City Council's approval of the controversial condominium project on 800 High St. in 2003. She hasn't been politically active since that election, but warned: "If they start something like that again, I'll be right there."

But mostly, Debs' spirit has been the heart of the Parent's Nursery School for 35 years, where she worked as teacher and co-director and now volunteers as "school grandma."

In her biography for the Avenidas award, Debs wrote that her proudest moment was celebrating her 80th birthday last year with her "true family," the school's parents and children. "'Happy birthday!' 'Happy birthday, Grandma Virgnia!'" she joyously scrawled.

Debs unconsciously showcased her spirit when she helped a toddler swing on a rope hung from a tree in the playground. She moved a small plastic chair in just the right position so the boy could get the best sway, while still being safe. She then offered him something from her hand.

"I've got good sticks," she told him quietly, as if she was revealing a long-held secret. "I've got four. You can have the big one if you want." He unabashedly took the broken-off twig and smiled.

She then watched him runs around, and later gave him encouragement as he tries to ride a plastic bike up a small hill.

"We believe children teach children and adults are here to support that effort," she said, explaining the school's philosophy.

As she continued her tour, she pointed out each of the play structures. To some, they might seem shabby and old. But to Debs, they are treasures: a house donated by local designer, wooden planks built by prison inmates, the cable swing for children the school gave her as a birthday present. "It's just story after story after story here," she said.

Debs begins each day by baking something delicious, which she freely shares with strangers. (Despite journalists' ethical concerns about free gifts, neither a photographer nor a reporter could resist her insistent offer of ginger snaps.)

Surprisingly, the 81-year-old teacher didn't always know she wanted to be in education. She grew up during the Depression near the oil fields near San Quinton. "It was just the ideal place to grow up," she exclaimed.

Like the families at the cooperative school, her neighbors helped and supported each other through tough times, sharing resources and celebrating victories together. "When a well would come in, the whole town would get drunk."

She went UC Berkeley for her college education, and then was one of Harvard University's first women graduate students after it merged with all-female Radcliff College. Studying economics, she was mistreated by the male professors, and once threatened to complain to local media.

She found her path after two mentors took her aside and gave her a good talking to. "You don't belong with papers and numbers, you belong with people," they told her.

Debs changed gears, got her graduate certificate from the Eliot-Pearson School of Early Childhood Education and then got a job teaching at the Parent's Nursery School in Cambridge, Mass. She moved to California in 1959 when her husband got a job at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Because she was so busy teaching, raising two children and then supporting a sick husband, Debs hasn't been outside the country much. That's beginning to change now in her active retirement, but she has no regrets about her life's path.

"I haven't done that much traveling," she said, "but all these people come to me."

Staff Writer Bill D'Agostino can be e-mailed at [email protected]

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