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February 28, 2018
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Much more than an educator

Kiera Allen

Lillie Ford, 89, of Bourbonnais, taught and mentored many members of the community. She made such an impact on her students, that generations down the line wanted her to teach their children.

Longtime Kankakee teacher Lillie Ford (center), now 89, poses for a photo with her daughters Roxie Speaks, left, and Sylvia Rockett. Daily Journal Mike Voss photographer.

After graduating from Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., Ford taught for 38 years, first starting out in Pembroke, then teaching at multiple elementary schools in the Kankakee school district, including Taft Primary School and Franklin Elementary School.

Fighting to get special print books for a student who had astigmatism is just one example of how Ford went above and beyond for her students.

"As I grew older, I wanted to emulate Ms. Ford," said former student Debbie Prude. "She taught more than the curriculum. We could ask her questions about most anything, and she was always open and very knowledgeable. She was a voice for the voice-less and a resource for just about anything."

Many former students and members of the community might remember Ford living on Harrison Avenue in Kankakee, but now she lives with her daughter, Sylvia Rockett, 65, in Bourbonnais. Rockett takes care of her mother, with the help of her sister, Roxie Speaks, of Chicago.

Rockett followed in her mom's footsteps, spending 34 years with District 111 as a teacher at King Middle School, assistant principal and later principal of Kankakee Junior High School.

As a teacher, Ford was known for doing something that was unheard of — bringing soap, toothpaste and deodorant into her classroom for students.

"And I washed hair," Ford exclaimed. "Students would come to school smelling so strongly. I wasn't gonna have that. All they wanted to do was play."

Ford was a no-nonsense teacher who demanded respect from her students, but she gave that same respect back to them. Not one student was more important than the other.

Ford was so much more than a teacher to her students throughout the years. "When they walked into my classroom, I was their mother, their father — their everything," she recalled.

She was not only involved in her students academic life, but life after school as well. On Sundays, she made sure her students were going to church, and she also made sure her students got out and did things such as going to Brookfield Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and even live tapings of "The Bozo Show."

She interacted with her students on a daily basis. That included taking kids to and from cheerleading practice and Friday night crosstown rival games featuring Westview versus Eastridge.

Ford was able to check in on her students because a lot of them were her own next door neighbors, such as the Daily Journal's Shalone Graves, who attended a Michael Jackson concert with other neighborhood girls and Ford on a school night.

"I'll never forget it," Graves said. "She talked to our parents, bought tickets and we got something to eat on the ride home."

From a daughter's standpoint, Rockett saw her mom as much more than a mother and teacher. She was a community advocate.

"She always wanted to help. She jumped right in and did things," said Rockett. Whether that meant cooking meals for people in need or being the voice of people who were otherwise too shy to come forward with concerns in the school system and the community.

"She believed in her neighborhood, and she always wanted to expose children to different things," said Rockett.

Being able to change many young people's lives was Ford's favorite part of teaching.

"It was a privilege to see children changing. When you'd see them on the street, they didn't forget you," said Ford. "If you showed interest, the children showed an interest."

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