The more I read about Mrs. Balmer, the more I wanted to know. Who was this courageous widow who raised four children and spent more than 30 years laying the foundation for La Jolla Country Day School? We know she was highly regarded in the La Jolla community and was considered a pioneer in the nursery school field, yet, what traces of her vision remain today? Would Mrs. Balmer be proud of what her school has become?
Born in Evanston, Illinois on February 27, 1886, Mrs. Balmer grew up in the heartland of the progressive education system, which later influenced her career and the foundation of the Balmer School. She attended Northwestern University before transferring to Bryn Mawr College as a sophomore. She graduated Cum Laude in 1908 with a double major in French and Latin. In 1910, she married Julius Balmer, a Princeton graduate working in advertising. They had four children before Julius died of cancer in 1919.
As a single mother of four, Mrs. Balmer packed up her family and moved to La Jolla to join her sister, Dorothy. As her son, David, recalled, “She simply couldn’t stand the maudlin sympathy and pity she was getting after Father died.” Mrs. Balmer attended San Diego State Teachers College to earn her teaching certificate. Although she was offered jobs in the public schools, she chose to tutor children in her home to devote more time for her children. By 1926, she realized her dream by opening the Balmer School with just four students and three teachers.
One of her first students remembered that after only a few days, the school felt like a second home—words repeatedly expressed by current students and alumni. Be it the Balmer School or La Jolla Country Day School, this institution serves as a sense of community or neighborhood for faculty, staff, parents and students alike.
Like many of the teachers who came after her, Mrs. Balmer was singlehandedly devoted to her students and was eager to continue her educational journey by enrolling in classes at Claremont College. As a mother, she modeled a passion for lifelong learning. Her children received college degrees from Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, Pomona and Scripps College.
Mrs. Balmer was instrumental in creating a school, where children were encouraged to be the best version of themselves. One of the teachers recalled, “She recognized the individuality of each child, looking for the potential in each one. Her interest in people being kind to each other and working together was a very important influence.” Mrs. Balmer would surely champion our emphasis on character and dignity education today.
Patricia Daly-Lipe, a former Balmer School student and author of newly published, Historic Tales of La Jolla, holds fond memories of her nursery through second-grade years with Mrs. Balmer. She recalls her teacher often reciting, “School should be life, not a preparation for life.” She remembers building birdhouses, studying the stars at night and dancing in the front room because creativity was the key to learning. However, paying attention, maintaining laser focus and doing proper homework were very important requirements as well—so much so that she clearly remembers the day Mrs. Balmer washed her mouth out with soap for talking in class!
The La Jolla Journal noted in the 40s “that the availability of excellent teachers abounded because of the sound reputation of the school.” Throughout our 90-year history, it has been the school’s mission to attract and retain the very best teachers. The expertise of our teachers and coaches coupled with their ability to build and sustain relationships has been an LJCDS hallmark for generations.
In 1958, Mrs. Balmer wrote in a Bryn Mawr alumnae publication, “I am interested in arts, music, reading and knitting, but I know my main interest will always be in the welfare of young children, for, in them, is the hope of the world.” Our founder was keenly aware of the promise and potential of every student to make the world a better place, and I am certain she would be proud of the school we have become.
As part of our ongoing Heritage Project, the entire student body will gather at milk break on Mrs. Balmer's birthday on the Middle School quad to celebrate her birthday and honor her vision and legacy. The Heritage Project is working to bring our unique history to life and to instill a sense of pride in our humble beginnings. Parents and friends of LJCDS, please feel free to join us as we pay tribute to our founder and honor her dream fulfilled.