On Nov. 30, Barb LaPlant, formerly McDermott, nee Stuckenschneider, celebrated her 79th birthday. She’ll be the first to tell you how much she’s packed into those nearly eight decades. Her mind spins the memories from her years in the convent to her years at Our Lady of Lourdes to her more recent European and Caribbean travels and everything in between like a web. 

“My mind is just swimming with stuff,” LaPlant recently told The Missourian. 

For nearly 50 years, the lifeblood of that web of memories was LaPlant’s passion for teaching. She taught in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan before settling down at Lourdes in Washington. To her students, “Mrs. McDermott” was clearly in charge but didn’t mind having fun in the classroom.

“I wasn’t their friend, necessarily, although I was friendly with them,” LaPlant said. “My kids still come up and hug me, as old as they are. Some are in their 50s and 60s. We always got down to business, but I always tried to bring humor into it.”

Lifelong Role Model

LaPlant’s inspiration for teaching also was her inspiration for another choice that shaped her life. Her fifth-grade teacher at Immaculate Conception in Union was Sister Emmarita, a tough but comedy-loving woman who remained a mentor and friend throughout LaPlant’s life.

“I always remember wanting to be like my teacher. She was so much fun. She’d play ball with the kids, but she was very strict, and we learned,” LaPlant recalled. “That’s why I went to the convent, because I wanted to be just like her.”

At 14, LaPlant enrolled in an all-girls high school at a convent in Mishawaka, Ind., part of the South Bend metro area, about six miles away from Notre Dame University. 

She briefly considered going into nursing, but even years after having Sister Emmarita in the classroom, LaPlant’s desire to emulate her was still strong. “I just knew, always. I wanted to be of service and just help others,” she said. “So I chose the teaching field.” 

By age 19, she had advanced to the second vows and become Sister Norman. She was sent to teach in an all-Polish parish in Hammond, a city on the very northern tip of Indiana and part of the Chicago metro area. On her first day of third grade, she had no training except for 42 credit hours of religion and 52 students in her classroom. 

“I remember sitting on a Sunday morning with all the sisters after Mass, and they all were working on their lessons. I didn’t have a clue what a lesson plan was,” LaPlant said. “I soon learned.”

As she taught, she spent summers and nights working toward a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of St. Francis. She got the degree in 1970, the same year she decided to leave the convent. She laughed remembering how formal a process that was.

“Because we were an order of sisters, we went through Rome. I had to write to the Holy Father (asking to leave) and wait and wait and wait for an answer,” LaPlant remembered. 

She said some of the changes to the Catholic doctrine decreed at the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965, which was intended to modernize the Catholic Church, made her think she could do as much good and would be happier outside of the religious order.

“All the rules were changing. There were disagreements about what we should wear and (whether we) should change our way of praying and being with people,” said LaPlant, who prefers a Latin mass. “It just didn’t sit well with me.”

Her first job outside the order was teaching third grade at Gerald Elementary School. She laughs when she recalls calling Lourdes every year asking if they had an opening. A couple years later, she was hired there to teach language arts and religion to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students. 

At Lourdes, LaPlant found a second mentor to rival Sister Emmarita. Ruth Himmelberg was the principal of Lourdes, and the two women quickly became friends. Another friend LaPlant made early at Lourdes was coach and social studies teacher Jim McDermott. 

McDermott’s wife, Irene, was ill at that time, and LaPlant said she’ll always vividly remember the care he took with his three children, Jan, Joanie and Joe, and the time he spent visiting his wife at the hospital. McDermott was at a staff meeting when he got the call that his wife had died, and LaPlant and the rest of the staff at Lourdes made it a priority to be there for him.

He asked some of the teachers whether they’d be able to help him with the Christmas shopping for his children that year, and LaPlant volunteered. After the shopping, LaPlant was getting ready to head home when McDermott asked her to stay a little longer.

“He said, ‘I don’t have any money to take you out to a nice dinner — mind if we go to Steak ’n Shake?’ LaPlant laughed. “That truly was the beginning of a difference in the relationship.”

The pair started dating, and about eight months into the courtship McDermott said, “You know, we really should get married.”

“He was right,” LaPlant said. “But this is a tidbit and a half. I had been dating a guy about three years and said we needed to take a break. That was when I started going with (McDermott). Then one night I was going to a class and was outside in the parking lot.”

Both men showed up with a diamond. 

“It was bizarre,” LaPlant chuckled. “My whole life is like that. Just bizarre.”

For her, McDermott’s sense of humor and kindness made the choice easier. The couple married in 1975. In 1986 they moved to Hopewell, a small community north of Marthasville, where LaPlant loved being near a Christmas tree farm. 

Realized Potential

It was during these years that LaPlant, then known as Mrs. McDermott, received the promotion that would make her widely known to the Washington community. Principal Himmelberg had accepted a job at Borgia, and she and the leadership at Lourdes wanted LaPlant to fill the vacated role.

Himmelberg paid a house visit to ask, and LaPlant remembers the conversation perfectly.

“Monsignor wants you to be the new principal.”

“What?!”

“He sees potential in you.”

“But, I don’t even have a degree.”

“He said it’s OK as long as you start working on it.”

LaPlant couldn’t argue with that. She enrolled in night school to earn a master’s degree from St. Louis University and began her first year as principal in August 1980.

“It was strange that I was going to go to my office and not my classroom,” she said of that first day. “I went to the office, and I thought, ‘Now what do I do? They’re all in their classrooms. Teachers are all teaching. What do I do?’ ”

She soon started to enjoy her new role, and she credits some rules with her success. Rule No. 1 was an open-door policy for every student and staff member. Rule No. 2 was to highlight the kids who were doing well any time she had to discipline a student. That way the student could see an example. She looked forward to the days when a child who’d previously been in trouble received praise for doing something well. She also kept baby Snickers on hand throughout her career to reward kids who were “witty.”

After 10 years as principal at Lourdes, McDermott became principal, teacher and secretary at St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic School in Concord Hill. After nine years there, she transitioned to teaching eighth grade at St. Vincent School in Dutzow. 

During these years, one of the McDermotts’ favorite things to do was to travel the U.S. 

McDermott’s social studies background made him a walking guidebook LaPlant didn’t need to read, and she enjoyed trips to San Francisco and the East Coast. The pair checked all but a few states off their lists. 

Endings and Beginnings

Around 1996, McDermott was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and LaPlant took care of him. In 2003 they moved back to Washington, and she took a year off teaching to care for him.

“I didn’t know how long he would remember me,” she said.

In 2006, McDermott died, and LaPlant buried him next to his first wife. 

In 2007 she retired, and in 2008 she met Paul LaPlant through mutual friends. His wife, Pauline, also was living with Alzheimer’s, and she told him to call her if he needed any advice or to talk to someone who understood the disease. 

She later found out they were neighbors when he accidentally parked in her driveway. “I just said, ‘I don’t know whose car this is but it’s going to get a dent in it because I have to get out of here for an appointment,’ ” she laughed. 

After his wife died in early 2008, Paul LaPlant asked Barb on a date. Toward the end of the year they were driving to St. Louis so he could take her to his favorite spot to eat.

“I like Zia’s on the Hill,” Barb LaPlant said defiantly.

“That’s where we’re going,” Paul LaPlant responded. “That’s my favorite too.”

“You can’t imagine the number of stories we had that were coincidental like that,” Barb LaPlant told The Missourian. “It was like soul mates.” The couple married at the end of 2008.

With her husband, LaPlant took her first trip outside North America — followed by many more. The couple visited Barcelona, several Italian cities, including Rome and the Vatican, Dubrovnik in Croatia, Monaco, Frankfurt, Germany, and several islands in Greece. They also traveled south to Panama, Costa Rica, the Bahamas and Aruba. 

LaPlant will be the first to say they packed a lifetime into their few years together. Her husband developed lung cancer and around 2012 had started to slow down. He insisted on taking one last trip to Naples for the winter, but shortly into the trip a doctor there advised them to return home to Washington on the next flight. 

“I knew what that meant, and so did he,” LaPlant said.

A World War II veteran, Paul LaPlant was offered a special seat on the plane, and Barb LaPlant mentioned to the attendant that it would likely be his last flight. Not 10 minutes later, the attendant came back with a bottle of champagne and asked that the couple celebrate every last day they’re together.

Ten days later, he died. One of the last things he expressed to LaPlant was not fear or anger, but gratitude. “I prayed for two years together, and I got four,” he told his wife.

LaPlant smiled warmly as she recalled the precious words. “You can’t beat that.”

An Instrument of Peace

In the past five years, LaPlant has kept busy as a grandmother and great-grandmother to the McDermott children, particularly granddaughter Katie who lives with her family in Baton Rouge. She’s volunteered when asked for St. Vincent de Paul, Lourdes and Borgia and is involved in the hospital auxiliary and Oasis, where she reads one on one with children. About once a month she can be found helping deliver Meals on Wheels. 

She also enjoys simple hobbies, such as sewing and crafting. This month, she’s decorating her Christmas tree, excited to see longtime favorite ornaments such as a German pickle and geodes that were her mother’s.

A lifelong Catholic who still attends Lourdes, LaPlant has always found wisdom in the saints, particularly in St. Francis of Assisi. She thinks often of her favorite quote of his — one she tries to embody.

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” he is quoted.

“St. Francis was so humble and real,” LaPlant said. “I want to be that, too.”

And she stays in touch with as many former students as she can. If she hears that any of them become teachers, she sends a single rose for their first day. 

“My greatest joy is the kids I have taught. I’ve had students say they went into teaching because of me, and it’s wonderful. That tells me I did something right.”