Marion Brooks grew up in Kirkwood, in a house where her family had lived since 1906. But she wasn't allowed to attend Kirkwood High School during the 1930s: The all-white suburban school still barred blacks.
She later earned her teaching degree, and in 1955 became one of the first three black teachers at the high school where she once had been unwelcome.
Two decades later, the school honored her as "Teacher of the Year." She went on to win the statewide award and was a finalist for top teacher in the country.
By then, her bosses were singing her praises and comparing her with Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela.
Marion Marieda Jenkins Brooks died Aug. 16, 2010, at Laclede Groves nursing home in Webster Groves after a stroke, her family said this week. She was 96.
"She didn't change the world," said Rick Burns, retired associate principal at Kirkwood High. "But she changed the world of a lot of kids."
How she came to do that Mrs. Brooks explained in 1990 when she chronicled her life.
She was born in 1914, the sixth of seven children. Her father had been a slave until the age of 12. He died when Marion was young. Her mother did laundry, domestic work "and anything else she honestly could."
Mrs. Brooks noted that Kirkwood then had no schools for blacks beyond the eighth grade. She took buses to Sumner High School in St. Louis and graduated in 1932.
She recalled how white children wouldn't play with or speak to her.
She wanted to ride the Ferris wheel at the Lions' Carnival, "but I couldn't because very 'sunkissed' boys and girls were not permitted to ride on the merry-go-round or the Ferris wheel."
Her mother sent her and a brother to test whether blacks could use the city library. They held each other tightly and were "v-e-r-y scared" until the nice librarian handed them a book.
They raced home to tell the good news.
During World War II, the people at the Red Cross office on North Kirkwood Road "refused to permit me to make bandages for the war injured. I was directed to volunteer at the Red Cross office in St. Louis," Mrs. Brooks wrote.
She graduated from what is now Harris-Stowe State University and Washington University.
In 1947, she got a job at a black elementary school in Kirkwood, where the superintendent called her a "troublemaker" after learning that her mother had asked for better educational opportunities for blacks.
Her mother also washed extra bundles of clothes to help pay a lobbyist in Jefferson City to work for a law requiring any school district that didn't provide a high school education for blacks to pay the tuition at a district that did.
The Legislature enacted such a law in 1920.
When the new Kirkwood High opened in 1955, Mrs. Brooks was hired to teach what she was told were "the dumb kids."
"I was named 'Congo Queen' by some Caucasian students," she recalled. Someone sent a half-dozen taxis to her home one night, made anonymous phone calls, and sent a TV repairman from south St. Louis.
Meanwhile, she was earning respect. In 1978, Kirkwood and then Missouri officials named her "Teacher of the Year."
Colleagues said she never gave up on a student.
After Franklin McCallie became principal in 1979, he asked Mrs. Brooks to help raise academic achievement for the African-American students.
"But she would have none of it," McCallie recalled. "She was going to raise the level for everybody.
"She loved every single one of her students," he explained.
Dave Holley, class of 1967, remembered how 'she just radiated joy."
He returned as a teacher and is now the principal.
Said Karen Eschenroeder, class of 1977: "You could talk to her about anything. And she would give you the straight scoop."
Mrs. Brooks was not happy when the district told her to retire at 70.
She wrote President Ronald Reagan, pointing out that he was even older than she and nobody was making him retire.
Retirement didn't mean slowing down. She continued teaching — on her porch, as a volunteer at Kirkwood and other schools, and at the Juvenile Detention Center in St. Louis.
In her profile, she concluded: "I believe that I bear the weight, the obligation and the opportunity to lift and support others who are honestly working toward good for themselves."
On Sept. 25, Kirkwood High will induct Mrs. Brooks into its Alumni Hall of Fame.
Friends and family will hold a memorial service at 11 a.m. Oct. 9 at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, 9001 Clayton Road, Ladue. Mrs. Brooks donated her body to Washington University School of Medicine.
Among the survivors are a daughter, René Aitch of Kirkwood; a niece, Minnie Pearl Bruce Chinn of Indianapolis; and a grandson. Her husband, Barnett B. Brooks, died in 1988.