Mila Banks may be small in stature, but her influence as an educator and revered community stalwart over the decades is large and far-ranging.
On Sunday, civic leaders, local clergy and other accomplished professionals told Banks how she had touched their lives at a party at the Marriott Country Club Plaza one day before her 100th birthday.
“We are here to give honor to whom honor is deserved,” said the Rev. Charles Briscoe, a former student and pastor emeritus at Paseo Baptist Church. “We are here to give praise to whom praise is deserved.”
Banks taught in Kansas City public schools from 1944 to 1978. Many of those who populated her classrooms are now a who’s who of prominent African-Americans and other minorities.
“Most of us here were touched in some way by Mrs. Banks or taught by Mrs. Banks, and I was both,” longtime community activist Alvin Brooks said. “She may be the last of her crop of teachers who taught for the purposes of teaching and not for salary. It is a great showing out of love and respect for what she did for us.”
Banks and her husband, Isaiah, moved to Kansas City in 1941. The couple had met years earlier while attending Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where Banks was named Miss Lincoln and joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She earned degrees in English and secondary education.
Once she arrived in Kansas City, Banks worked as the business secretary for the Paseo branch of the YWCA while her husband worked nearby at the YMCA. She became a teacher when the Kansas City school district relaxed its policy barring married women from working in classrooms.
“I told them I wanted to teach the students who were a little older,” Banks said, so she could influence their lives beyond basic academics. “I often used to say, I think they can read, write and spell and mind, and basically that was true.”
Brooks said Banks’ passion for teaching went far beyond the classroom, and students respected her.
“We came through during a time when a teacher like Mrs. Banks could correct you in such a way that you didn’t go home and tell anybody what you said or what they did to you,” he said.
During her summer breaks, Banks and her husband took graduate classes at the University of Iowa. She earned master’s degrees in English and education.
Banks retired from teaching in 1978 but has remained active in civic organizations. Since 1941, she has been a member of Paseo Baptist Church, where she was church clerk and sang in the cathedral choir. Banks was treated for breast cancer in 1984, the same year her husband died.
Banks is happy to have seen an African-American president and other progress, but she said there is still work to do.
“When I see students on the streets and I hear some people say they’re dumb,” Banks said, “I always remark, ‘They’re not dumb. They just haven’t been controlled, and they are just running the streets. But don’t say that they are dumb because they are on the streets.’”
Banks attributed her longevity to avoiding stressful situations and “not letting anything upset me too much.”
“In other words,” she said, “roll with the punches. There is an old saying: This too shall pass.”
During the dinner and program Sunday, many former students, fellow club members and sorority sisters in the crowd of about 350 people paid tribute to Banks. Congratulatory letters from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, President Barack Obama and others lined a display table.
“She is truly a dear friend and such a wonderful person,” Missouri Court of Appeals Judge Thomas H. Newton said. “She has educated so many people, and so many of us have benefited from her knowledge and experience.”
Banks said she was grateful and humbled by the recognition.
“I have never aspired for anything like this, but God has been good to me,” she said with a smile.