Teachers run in Ione King James's family. Five of her six sisters became educators, and a niece has followed in her footsteps, too.
James was so devoted to teaching that after she retired from her 37-year career in D.C. public schools, she went back to the classroom to teach first and second grades at District Heights Elementary in Prince George's County.
"She always wanted to be a teacher, an early childhood educator," said one of her sisters, Angie Corley. "She pursued that most of her life until she became an assistant principal. She loved children."
James, who died May 20 at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C., of complications following liver transplant surgery, and her husband, a retired mechanical engineer and Navy architect, lived for the past 30 years in a rowhouse on a scenic block of C Street SE, just a short walk from the Eastern Market Metro stop.
Most of her career was spent at Kimball Elementary School on Minnesota Avenue in Southeast Washington. Sheila Miller, now the principal, came to the school as a young teacher and was dazzled by the experience and expertise of the teachers already there. She called James "a legend."
"No child went without anything in her room," Miller said. "If I was missing something or needed to know the background of a family, she would know it."
She knew it because she spent long hours each night on the phone with parents, said her husband, Louis James.
"She invited parents of children to call her," he said. "One particular parent would call virtually every night, and Ione didn't mind."
Every year, he said, his wife prepared new teaching aids for the children, drawing and cutting out animal characters and the letters of the alphabet. And like so many teachers in so many underfunded school districts, she would dip into her own bank account to pay for things the classroom needed.
Fellow teachers, former principals and family members said she firmly believed that all children could learn and all could learn to read.
"She was patient and persevering, and she knew different children learn at different paces," her husband said. "That's one of the keys to her success as a teacher."
And, as young children always hope, their teacher was cheerful and pretty. Students got hugs, and for one particularly rambunctious child, James switched places, making him the teacher in the class while she acted as a student, said a fellow teacher, Audrey Banks. While she was in the hospital awaiting her liver transplant, letters and drawings from former students decorated the walls of her room. They assured her that they were working hard, improving their handwriting and spelling. The pictures recalled class projects such as planting flowers and making ice cream.
Her South Carolina upbringing gave her the gift of cooking rich Southern foods: grits, salmon cakes, fried apples. She also liked to go clothes shopping with her nieces and loved hats, so much so that she once sat in on a class to learn the art of hat making. Her sister Angie Corley, who was a D.C. school board member and would appear on television, said that James would often come up with the perfect suit, dress or accessory to help her look good in public.
As the seventh of nine children, she learned early to get along with others. Corley called her "an independent thinker. She didn't always approve of things without thinking them through. [If she disagreed], she was reluctant to say it because she didn't want to hurt your feelings. But if you prodded her, she'd tell you the truth."
Her brothers ran the family funeral homes in South and North Carolina; then the one sister who wasn't a teacher (she was a lawyer) took them over. James, who already had bachelor's and master's degrees in education, received a degree from the University of the District of Columbia in mortuary science and was delighted and proud when her class took a field trip to one of her family's funeral homes.
She was promoted at work to assistant principal and moved to Marie Reed Educational Center and then to Bruce Monroe Elementary School. She retired in 1998 but couldn't stay off work; the next year, she took on the first- and second-grade classrooms at District Heights. Principal Connie Jones said she didn't hesitate to ask younger teachers to show her the latest procedures and techniques, and Jones emphasized that James's classroom was "child-centered."
"If she was sitting with a reading group, the other children were moving about working on projects. They were free to move wherever. It was just a busy, happy place," Jones said.
Her impact on reading at District Heights was such that the school has set aside a spot in the library in her name. Donations from friends and family have bought books for the school, and they have been stamped with her name, in memory of the 66-year-old teacher.