GUERNSEY ESTATES — Until she was in her mid 20s, Julia Darby's future seemed headed down a contented and conventional path. She was the young mother of two daughters and a homemaker, leading the life that many women of her generation dreamed of.
The only problem was that her husband was fighting in World War II. She prayed for his safe return.
He did return, but as a changed man, according to Mrs. Darby's daughter, Kathy Geubtner. He drank heavily and she fled Tennessee, where she had lived most of her life, and came to Tampa, where her mother lived.
Here, she met and married her second husband, Ben Darby. They had two sons together before he died suddenly two years later, leaving the young Mrs. Darby with four children and no career.
So, she went back to school, studying elementary education at the University of Tampa. In her mid 40s, she graduated first in her class and spent the next 20 years teaching Hillsborough County first-graders. Other than her family, teaching proved to be the most profound passion in her life.
Mrs. Darby passed away Feb. 1, after suffering a massive stroke. She was 90 years old.
"I used to tease her about being first in her class," said her daughter, Kathy Geubtner. "She'd say 'Well, it wasn't a very bright class.' "
At UT she met Carolyn Andersen, another aspiring teacher who became her close friend.
"I've had a lot of good friends," Andersen said, "but she was the best friend I ever had. She was a really, really loyal friend."
They began their career together at Lanier Elementary School. When the principal of Lanier left to become the first principal of Crestwood Elementary in 1970, he asked both Andersen and Mrs. Darby to become part of the founding faculty. They taught at Crestwood for the rest of their careers.
"She was an excellent teacher," Andersen said. "Not only did the principal love her, but all the kids loved her."
Mrs. Darby had a special connection with Crestwood's youngest students. After a few years of teaching first grade, she was asked to give second grade a try. After just one year she asked to go back to first grade.
"She loved the little ones," Geubtner said. "She absolutely adored them. She spent her life wiping noses and zipping up zippers."
Mrs. Darby's passion for teaching was so strong that she taught even on her days off. For 31 years, she taught Sunday school at Bayshore Baptist Church.
After she retired from Crestwood she volunteered to start a library at Bayshore Baptist, even returning to schools to learn new skills. She ran the library for 21 years. The church named the library for her, but soon after she left the library, it closed.
Still, she hosted a Bible study class in her home for many years.
Mrs. Darby had health problems in recent years, but led an active life. She enjoyed the company of 97 friends at her 90th birthday part last year.
Her unexpected death earlier this month shook her family and friends.
"She was my mother, but as soon as I left home we were best friends, and we just kept getting closer," Geubtner said. "We talked on the phone every day. I can't tell you how much I'm going to miss those phone calls."
Besides Geubtner, Mrs. Darby is survived by her sons Ben and Bob, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.
Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at [email protected]