Simon Steffens would later recall that Lima in the years after the Civil War seemed like the kind of place he would not want to be caught dead in.
“When I first came to this town, it did not impress me very favorably. I used to pass through on the railroad, and few towns look inviting when seen from a railway car, and I used to think it was a town where I would not want to be buried, let alone live,” he wrote in a November 1923 reminiscence.
“Since that time,” Steffens added, “I have changed my opinion of it. I am not averse to being buried here, for I would rather be buried here than where I have no acquaintances at all. I do not know whether we can take our acquaintances along where we go or not, but it is something to be buried among old friends.”
Steffens, apart from one short interlude, lived in Lima for more than a half century as the city he first glimpsed through the window of a railway car grew from fewer than 5,000 people to more than 41,000. During that time, he served as high school principal and language teacher, working long enough to usher the grandchildren of former students through the education system.
Steffens was born in Germany on March 10, 1847, and his parents immigrated to the U.S. when he was very young, settling in Wisconsin.
“He received his early education in Sheboygan, Wis., and later attended Heidelberg University at Tiffin,” The Lima News wrote in June 1925. “Following his graduation in 1874 he came to Lima, where he became a teacher in the public schools. He was for many years principal of the high school.”
In August 1873, he married the former Emma Bostich in Fort Wayne. The couple were the parents of four daughters, Edna, Charlotte, Helen and Florence.
In 1885, Steffens was chosen as principal of Lima’s high school.
“For twenty years, with but a single lapse of less than a year when he taught in his native Wisconsin, he has piloted the pupils of the high schools of Lima through the troubulous waters of learning to the smooth harbor of graduation,” the News wrote in June 1905 as the new Central High School opened, “and during all this time no word of reproach or condemnation of his methods has ever been heard.”
Twenty years after starting with “not more than 100 pupils” in the high school, the News added, Steffens guided 150 boys and 198 girls to “the smooth harbor of graduation” in 1905.
“Of a quiet, unobtrusive personality, yet with a dogged perseverance and unflagging energy, he has been the man for the place, which fact is strongly attested by the high position occupied by Lima high school,” the News added.
On September 24, 1898, a violent storm, described by the Allen County Republican-Gazette as a “cyclone,” blew off the bell tower and most of the third floor of the East school building and left Steffens a high school principal without a high school.
“The room occupied by Prof. Steffens, which is in the second floor of the tower, is filled with debris and every thing is wrecked,” the Republican-Gazette wrote. Fortunately, the storm struck on a Saturday.
Lima High students completed the year at the Lima College, which was located on the northwest corner of North Jameson and Rice avenues before moving into more permanent quarters in the Holland Block at Main and High streets the following fall.
Steffens’ perseverance and energy made him a popular principal. In May 1911, the News announced that graduation would be held a day earlier than customary so that “Prof. Steffens, veteran principal of the high school may sail from New York for Europe …” The trip was a Christmas gift from the Lima high school alumni.
On June 10, 1911, according to the News, “The largest crowd that ever gathered to cheer bon voyage to any private individual in Lima was at the (Pennsylvania) station when the train pulled in this afternoon. There were 13 automobiles filled with happy high school students and teachers, while others came on foot to say farewell to the high school principal.” By October of that year, Steffens had returned to Lima and was delivering talks on his trip.
Four years later, he was again saying farewell, this time to the position he had held for 30 years.
“The biggest surprise included in the several resignations recently received by the board (of education) was that of Prof. Simon H. Steffens, principal of Lima high school,” the News reported June 23, 1915. “In a letter to the board, which was read last night, Prof. Steffens stated that while he desired to relinquish the principalship, he would be glad to serve the board in another capacity. He was retained as head of the department of foreign languages.”
The 72-year-old Steffens was still at work in 1920.
“He is now teaching the children and, in a few instances, even the grandchildren of his first and earlier students,” the News wrote Jan. 18, 1920, adding that “Miss Blanche Andrews, teacher of mathematics at Central for over 30 years, received her high school training under his jurisdiction.”
From his home at 1137 Rice Ave., the News noted, Steffens watched Central High football games played across the street at the Lima college field.
“He has a special dormitory gable built on the top of the house from the front window of which he sits in an armchair and keenly watches every battle the squad has played since the introduction of athletics into the school,” according to the News.
By 1921, Steffens retired from teaching in the Lima schools but not retired from teaching. In August 1921, the News announced that Steffens, “a proficient teacher of foreign languages,” had opened a school of foreign languages on West High Street.
Steffens died June 3, 1925, at his home on Rice Avenue. In addition to his work in the Lima schools, the News noted, Steffens was a trustee of Wooster university, from which he had received an advanced degree in philosophy in 1885. He also was “an honored member and an authority of the Lima Philosophical Club” and one of the founders of the Citizens Building and Loan Building Company “of which for years he was an auditor.”
On June 7, 1925, the News wrote, “Hundreds of former pupils and relatives of Prof. Simon Steffens, well known educator, visited Market Street Presbyterian church Saturday and paid their last tribute to the deceased, who for the past 50 years has been a faithful instructor in the Lima schools.”
Steffens was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, among his old friends.
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.