Constable: After retiring from school named in her honor, principal took aim at polio

  • Legendary educator Mary Stitt, 96, of Arlington Heights has won awards for her work with Rotary International to eradicate polio.

    Legendary educator Mary Stitt, 96, of Arlington Heights has won awards for her work with Rotary International to eradicate polio. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • After retiring as principal from the Arlington Heights school renamed in her honor, Mary Stitt volunteered for overseas trips with Rotary International to help vaccinate children against polio.

    After retiring as principal from the Arlington Heights school renamed in her honor, Mary Stitt volunteered for overseas trips with Rotary International to help vaccinate children against polio. Courtesy of Mary Stitt

  • This map in Mary Stitt's apartment in Arlington Heights shows all the countries she has visited. She made nine trips overseas as a leader with Rotary International's campaign to eradicate polio.

    This map in Mary Stitt's apartment in Arlington Heights shows all the countries she has visited. She made nine trips overseas as a leader with Rotary International's campaign to eradicate polio. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 10/24/2021 9:27 AM

When Mary Stitt retired in 1992, she had built such an impressive career as principal of Olive Elementary School that the Arlington Heights Elementary District 25 board renamed it the Olive-Mary Stitt Elementary School in her honor.

Stitt quickly found a new calling. At age 67, she joined the Rotary Club of Arlington Heights and Rotary International's role in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. She remains an active member as Rotary recognizes World Polio Day on Sunday.

 

"I'd grown up with different people getting polio in little towns," says Stitt, 96, who lives in an assisted living apartment at The Moorings of Arlington Heights. She vividly recalls a classmate's sister contracting the infectious polio virus when she was a student.

"She got sick and died over the weekend. Those things you remember," says Stitt, who became a leader in the international effort to eradicate polio. In 2011-12, Rotary International presented Stitt with the International Service Award for a Polio-Free World in recognition of her "significant, active personal service toward the goal of polio eradication."

"Four times I went to India to do polio, four times to Nigeria, another time to Niger," says Stitt. She has no idea how many doses of the lifesaving vaccine she distributed, but she does remember the welcome she got from people who lived in huts in rural tribal communities in Nigeria.

During her nine trips overseas to help vaccinate children against polio, Mary Stitt made friends with families in Nigeria.
During her nine trips overseas to help vaccinate children against polio, Mary Stitt made friends with families in Nigeria. - Courtesy of Mary Stitt
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"We went door to door," Stitt says. "Anytime you go and are helping people, they are excited. One lady came up and said, 'I remember you from the last time you were here.' I made some wonderful, wonderful friends. People are the same all over the world, aren't they? We just look a little different."

Since Rotary's first project to vaccinate children in the Philippines in 1979, members worldwide have contributed more than $2.1 billion and lobbied governments to spend another $10 billion vaccinating children. During Monday's Arlington Heights village board meeting, Mayor Tom Hayes presented a proclamation recognizing Sunday as World Polio Day to Betsy Kmiecik, president of the Arlington Heights Rotary Club, who talked about Rotary's End Polio Now campaign.

"I think it really paid off," says Stitt, noting that when Rotary began the polio eradication campaign, 1,000 kids a day were contracting polio. "This year, there's only been two cases, one in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan."

She remembers seeing the devastating effects of polio at marketplaces in Africa.

"You just saw people on the floor, crawling on the ground," Stitt says. She befriended one paralyzed 17-year-old who got his education and started a business converting bicycles into wheelchairs. She not only paid for a wheelchair for a needy child, but she invited the inventor to talk to kids at Olive-Mary Stitt.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
When she was 87 years old, retired principal Mary Stitt of Arlington Heights delivered this wheelchair made from a bicycle to a child in Nigeria as part of her work with Rotary International to eradicate polio. Now 96, she remains active in Rotary.
When she was 87 years old, retired principal Mary Stitt of Arlington Heights delivered this wheelchair made from a bicycle to a child in Nigeria as part of her work with Rotary International to eradicate polio. Now 96, she remains active in Rotary. - Courtesy of Mary Stitt

"Look what it did to the people, how they cooperated with each other," Stitt says of the vaccination effort that had the public's full cooperation, unlike the current push to vaccinate people against COVID-19.

"I don't understand the attitude today. After (President) Trump, we don't trust. Why is that?" says Stitt, who remembers enforcing mandatory health rules for teachers and pupils during her years as principal. "For years, I had to make sure all the children had their vaccines by Oct. 30."

Tuberculosis was a health concern then, and Stitt remembers visiting a van in an Arlington Heights parking lot where a medical staff made sure she didn't have TB. "You had to have a chest X-ray, and teachers didn't fight that," she says. "It's what you do to help other people. We should be our brothers' keepers, you know."

She grew up with that philosophy as Mary Morrison, the child of Methodist pastor David T. Morrison and his wife, teacher Mallie Tapp. She was born in the tiny hamlet of Williamsville, Missouri, in the Ozarks, and grew up during the Depression.

Her work as a volunteer with Rotary International's effort to eradicate polio took retired Arlington Heights principal Mary Stitt to India, Nigeria and Niger, where she made friends, made an impact and won awards.
Her work as a volunteer with Rotary International's effort to eradicate polio took retired Arlington Heights principal Mary Stitt to India, Nigeria and Niger, where she made friends, made an impact and won awards. - Courtesy of Mary Stitt

Her parents met at Vanderbilt University and always stressed education as they moved wherever his church work was needed.

"I lived in little towns where there weren't any libraries. I lived in seven different places, three or four years at a time," Stitt says. "And that was really fun."

Interested in science, she graduated at the top of her class of four girls and seven boys in Linneus, Missouri, in 1942, and enrolled in Central College, which is now Central Methodist College in Fayette, Missouri. With World War II raging, a semester before she would have graduated, she married fellow student John Stitt, who joined the Navy and served on a ship bringing troops home from war. After the war, they bought a home in St. Louis and started their family.

A neighbor talked her into being a substitute teacher, replacing a junior high teacher who couldn't handle the stress of all those children. "I had children of my own, so it didn't bother me," says Stitt, who took two night classes at Washington University. "It was wonderful. I loved it."

A mother of four at the time, she became a full-time student the next year and earned a bachelor's degree from Washington University in 1955 with the idea of being a teacher. Pregnant with her fifth child, she delayed that plan a year. Living in Riverview Gardens, near the Chain of Rocks Bridge that spans the Mississippi River on the north side of St. Louis, she taught eighth-grade science for four years. When her husband got a sales job in Chicago, she got a teaching job in Park Ridge, and they bought a new house in Arlington Heights.

Not only does she have an Arlington Heights school named in her honor, but retired principal Mary Stitt has also won awards for her leadership and work with Rotary International's global campaign to eradicate polio.
Not only does she have an Arlington Heights school named in her honor, but retired principal Mary Stitt has also won awards for her leadership and work with Rotary International's global campaign to eradicate polio. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

In 1961, she was hired as a science consultant by District 25, traveling from school to school to help teachers. "I worked in all the schools. My office was the teacher's lounge," Stitt says.

She got divorced, so her mother watched the kids for three straight summers as Stitt went to Webster University in St. Louis to get her master's degree. In 1967, she was named principal of Olive School, where she introduced experiential learning, multi-age and open classrooms, and other progressive ideas. The school's reputation drew visitors from around the country.

"The philosophy was you learn by doing. You can't just read it in a book," Stitt says. Every Friday afternoon, the school had an activity period where students learned about science, cooking, drama or some other interest, "and the kids loved it." A highlight of the multi-age class was when an older child taught a younger student how to read.

"I just think that's what life is about, to help each other. It really is," Stitt says. She is the mother of Karen Snodgrass, John Stitt, Bonnie Jannasch, David Stitt and Carolyn Heffner, who recently made a quilt with T-shirts from Stitt's polio trips. She also has 11 grandchildren and is expecting her 14th great-grandchild soon.

Mary Stitt loves this quilt that her daughter, Carolyn Heffner, made with T-shirts from Stitt's many trips abroad as part of Rotary International's campaign to eradicate polio. The 96-year-old retired Arlington Heights principal has won awards for her work in the fight against polio.
Mary Stitt loves this quilt that her daughter, Carolyn Heffner, made with T-shirts from Stitt's many trips abroad as part of Rotary International's campaign to eradicate polio. The 96-year-old retired Arlington Heights principal has won awards for her work in the fight against polio. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Whether it's learning about infectious diseases or other cultures, education has always been a focus in her life.

"I've just been anxious to learn," Stitt says. "If you have a mind that wants to learn, there's a lot to learn about in the world."

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