The keeper of the schoolhouse

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Lola Belle Underwood-1+

Lola Belle Underwood (second row, fifth from right) attended Webster County’s Oak Hill School before teaching at rural districts.

 Not long ago, many Ozarks children didn’t receive more than an elementary education. Youngsters’ hands were needed at home, and at times book learning was a luxury families couldn’t afford. For some, that meant that childhood knowledge had to be enough to last a lifetime.

Cue the Ozarks’ army of rural schoolteachers. Although not officially organized, this group played a collective role in influencing generations of the region’s hill folk.

Lola Belle Underwood is one of those people. Although it was more than 60 years ago, she remembers that first day of teaching with a mind’s eye that hasn’t dimmed with age. “It was quite daunting,” she says of walking into Webster County’s Eighty-Eight School — a day when she wasn’t much older than some of her students. “I had my schedule all figured out, but you just have butterflies in your stomach,” she recalls. “You’re just really uptight, I guess.”


Lola Belle sits inside the Greenwood School, one of the Webster County rural districts for which she taught.

Thankfully, the day went well, launching a teaching career that would span nearly 45 years. But Lola Belle’s introduction to rural schools actually began much earlier. The Webster County native began her school years at the Oak Hill School, a one-room building where she attended with her younger sister Marie. As a child, Lola Belle decided that she wanted to be a teacher when she grew up. The inspiration, however, didn’t tie to her classes. Instead, it linked to her mother. (more…)