Some called Clyde “Belle” Gray Ponder the “Fairy Queen of the Classroom” because of the way she transformed pre-K education into a magical learning experience. Clad in colorful attire and always ready with a personal anecdote or song, she charmed the children at Children’s Garden Montessori for years — right up until the day she died.
“She talked ‘children,’ ” artist Thor Sigstedt said of his wife, who died in her sleep at her Santa Fe home Sept. 26 at the age of 68. Ponder had been suffering from a number of medical problems, including a heart ailment, he said.
Ponder’s love of life manifested itself in her desire to dance, something she was still doing as recently as two weeks ago, with her husband holding her oxygen tank for her as they two-stepped around the floor. For years, the couple could be seen dancing at various venues around town.
Because of heart trouble, Ponder would tire easily if she had to do anything strenuous, her husband said. “But the rhythm of the dance didn’t tax her heart, it didn’t make her so tired,” Sigstedt said. “Something about dance had a magic way of flowing through her.”
Ponder was born in Newport, Ark., on Aug. 7, 1951. She was named after her great-grandmother Clyde, who was named after the River Clyde in Scotland. Ponder’s father, Maurelle, a county judge, began calling her “Clydey Belle,” and since she did not like Clyde, she renamed herself Belle, Sigstedt said.
Her father’s manner of making political allies and supporters by shaking hands and chatting with people in their small town caught on with Belle Ponder, who realized it was a good way to meet people and develop an outgoing personality.
An independent, self-motivated woman, she taught herself how to play Mozart on her family piano and began volunteering in a local hospital at the age of 12. She later became a nurse’s aide before attending high school in Europe.
After graduating from Randolph-Macon Women’s College (now known as Randolph-Macon College) in Virginia with a degree in philosophy, she began a teaching career. She moved to Santa Fe in the early 1970s and started the Santa Fe Preschool off West Alameda Street in 1975.
“She had an innate ability to think like a young child,” Sigstedt said. “If she walked into a restaurant or a place where there were children, she would immediately have a rapport with them. It was uncanny, even startling to see.
“She believed in taking positive approaches toward challenges. She believed that intelligence was seeded in the heart. She believed that experiencing joy and developing nonviolent relations with people were important … and that all came into play for her in the classroom.”
Ponder ran the school for 20 years, he said, eventually earning a master’s degree in early childhood development and education from Antioch University. She later worked as a life-skills therapist in Santa Fe.
Willi Haye, who said she knew Ponder for about 12 years, said that the moment Ponder walked into a room, “it was always a breath of fresh air. It didn’t matter what she was dealing with in terms of her own challenges, she was always happy and finding a way to deal with it. She had an amazing lightness of being.”
The family plans a memorial celebration of her life from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday at Aventure Trails Ranch, 82 Spirit Valley.