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Darlene Bailey triumphed over a life full of challenges

FAIR OAKS — From her early childhood through the end of her life, Darlene Bailey faced challenges that might have made other people despair.

When she was 7, a crippling disease forced her to spend an entire year confined to an iron lung. It left her unable to walk unaided for the rest of her life.

Legal and administrative barriers almost kept her out of public schools and delayed the start of her career as an educator for a decade. And, there were prejudices she faced almost every day of her life because she was disabled.

No one would have blamed her if she had given up, but she never did. Ms. Bailey determined to live the way she wanted.

"She had to fight," said her sister, Velma Day. "She had to fight for her education, she had to fight for her career, she had to fight for respect. And she got it all."

Ms. Bailey, who was recovering from pneumonia, died March 18. The family believes she suffered from cardiac arrest. She was 62.

As a young girl, she was stricken with polio. She spent a year at St. Joseph's Hospital in an iron lung. Her entire body lay inside the machine's metal compartment, with just her head and neck sticking out.

Doctors didn't think she'd survive, but she did, though she would walk on crutches or use a wheelchair the rest of her life.

She couldn't wait to get back to school, her sister said, but there was a problem. Children with disabilities, in those days, weren't allowed into local public schools.

She went to a private grade school, but Ms. Bailey didn't see why she couldn't study alongside the able-bodied kids. She went with her father to enroll in Madison Middle School but was politely told she had to go to a private school.

"She said 'If I can't go to school here, I'm not going to go to school at all,'" Day said. "My father was there, but she was the one who did it. Finally they gave in, and she became one of the first disabled children in the public schools (in Tampa)."

Ms. Bailey graduated from Madison and then Robinson High School. She went on to the University of South Florida, with dreams of becoming a teacher.

She was popular, had plenty of boyfriends and at least one marriage proposal. But she recognized that her disability would make it difficult for her to be a wife, a mother and a teacher. A teaching career was the one thing she wanted above all else, so she decided to remain unmarried.

Ms. Bailey earned a bachelor's degree in English, but one more obstacle stood between her and her career. In the late 1960s, people with disabilities weren't allowed into USF College of Education.

Although she was a fighter, Ms. Bailey picked her battles. She became a social worker for about 10 years, and when attitudes and laws finally changed, she went back to USF and got her master's in education.

She spent almost her entire teaching career at the Academy of Holy Names, where she taught freshman English for some 20 years until she retired in 2003.

Teaching turned out to be as wonderful as she had imagined.

"She was a teacher, and she loved to teach," her sister said. "She loved every day of it."

Health problems recurred throughout her life, though. Ms. Bailey overcame cancer a few years ago. About a month before her death, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. But the family thought she was recovering.

Ms. Bailey and her sister had been living together in recent years. On March 17, just before bedtime, Ms. Bailey told her sister that she hoped she would die painlessly and in her sleep.

The next morning, Velma Day walked into Ms. Bailey's room with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. She found that her sister had passed away, painlessly, in her sleep.

"It was her last request," Day said.

Darlene Bailey had lived, and then died, exactly the way she wanted.

Besides her sister, Ms. Bailey is survived by her mother, Virginia.

Darlene Bailey triumphed over a life full of challenges 03/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 26, 2009 4:30am]
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