PHILIPSBURG — Ann Mars, a former elementary school teacher in Billings who taught thousands of children the thrill of hitting a piñata and weaving a God’s eye wall hanging, died Friday night at a nursing home in Philipsburg. She was 92.
Mrs. Mars — and most who went to McKinley Elementary School in the late 1970s and 1980s would remember Mrs. Mars — is survived by five children: Gary Barker of West Linn, Oregon, Joan Barker of Portland, Oregon, Bill Barker (Anne) of Whitefish, Sue Barker Rowe (Bob) of Missoula and Tom Barker (Sara), of Great Falls. She is also survived by 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
She was born Ann Marie Pechacek in Hallettsville, Texas, the second youngest of seven children. Her father died when she was only 2, months before the Great Depression. It was never easy, but Mrs. Mars always talked with optimism about her childhood and her life in general. She always described everything as great, even when it wasn’t.
Mrs. Mars met her future husband, Elbert S. Barker, at a U.S.O. dance in San Antonio, just before he shipped off to serve in World War II. They were both still teenagers; when he returned, they got married and moved around, from Des Moines to Denver to Cheyenne to Billings, where they truly made their home. Mr. Barker, a traveling salesman and baseball coach, died at home at 41. It was a shock. Mrs. Mars, pregnant with Tom, was a homemaker, with no trade to earn a living.
Mrs. Mars then decided to go to Eastern Montana College, to become a teacher. While at school, she met her second husband, Ray Mars, also a teacher. Mrs. Mars taught at several elementary schools in Billings, but mainly McKinley, where she allowed her eldest granddaughter to store her cello in her closet and launched an annual piñata party held just before Christmas every year. All the students wanted to go to it, even when they were sixth graders. (She taught first and second grade, mostly.) Mrs. Mars liked to tell students who asked her age that she was 100. (Even when she was 50.)
Her awards and honors were varied: She was named a distinguished teacher as part of the U.S. Presidential Scholar program in 1988. (And yes, her eldest granddaughter nominated her for the award, but she still won it on her own.) If there was a world championship for the board game Aggravation, Mrs. Mars would have won. (She took particular pleasure in landing on her opponents’ marbles--even those of tiny children--and sending them back to home base.) Mrs. Mars was probably the oldest person to ever rappel off the Rims—as part of a rock-climbing class, she lied about her age, saying she was under 60. In truth, she was in her 70s when she went over the cliff, but that was obviously not the first time Mrs. Mars lied about her age.
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Mrs. Mars filled her life with teaching. Her two daughters became teachers. Even after retiring, Mrs. Mars drove with her husband to Grants, New Mexico, to teach a few more kids. He died in 2002; Mrs. Mars never remarried, although she occasionally went on dates, once telling a granddaughter that life was still like high school, even in her 80s. Mrs. Mars later volunteered at a local nursing home, where she read to residents and felt good that she was still able to give back.
She liked to walk. She liked to paint. For most of her life, she was very healthy, taking maybe an aspirin a day. She left Billings in XX to move to Missoula, near her daughter Sue.
For the last few years, Mrs. Mars lived in the nursing home attached to Granite County Medical Center. The staff was kind to her; she was particularly proud when her sepia-toned picture was hung on the home’s walls, wearing old-time Western clothes and holding a parasol, near similar pictures of other residents. The family gives them and everyone else who cared for Mrs. Mars their deepest gratitude.
Mrs. Mars phoned her children often, almost every day, even though her memory wasn’t what it used to be, and even though she sometimes forgot that she had already called.
On Thursday, she left a voicemail message for one daughter, saying that she just wanted to make sure that her daughter, now 68, wasn’t making any trouble. On Friday, one of her granddaughters visited, and she called her children to say goodnight. She died that night peacefully, in the best way possible, in her sleep. She will be buried in Billings, near her two late husbands.
A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday, July 26, at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 2055 Woody Drive, Billings, MT 59102. Arrangements are under the care of Garden City Funeral Home.