Fabiola Santiago

She championed freedom of the press for students. No subject was taboo.

Black and white photo of Bonnie Sipe (far right with glasses and hat), journalism teacher at Hialeah High School, with her award-winning newspaper class of 1977. Second photo is Bonnie Sipe (center) surrounded by family in California.
Black and white photo of Bonnie Sipe (far right with glasses and hat), journalism teacher at Hialeah High School, with her award-winning newspaper class of 1977. Second photo is Bonnie Sipe (center) surrounded by family in California. Courtesy of Fox-Mar and Sipe family

She didn’t want anyone to make a fuss about her death. No memorial service or eulogies. No purple flowers of mourning or requests.

But you’ll have to forgive me, Mrs. Sipe.

I want to make a fuss — like you taught me.

Every young teacher in America should know Bonnie Sipe — a pioneering freedom of the press champion at Hialeah High School, 1968-1983, a time of immeasurable social and demographic change in South Florida.

Highly intelligent, feisty and quick-witted, Mrs. Sipe had no patience for spineless educators afraid of student journalists or for clueless, racist ones either. What this mother of three had plenty of was energy for her students, including this Cuban refugee girl with flawed English grammar but things to say and a heart eager to embrace all things American. None better than the learning environment Mrs. Sipe created as the journalism and yearbook advisor. So many of her students, now living as far as Australia and right here in Miami, went on to enjoy careers born in her laboratory of words, pictures and storytelling.

She ran our school newspaper as if we were the real thing — and no subject was taboo.

In 1977, the year it snowed in Miami and orange juice maven Anita Bryant launched her hateful anti-gay crusade, Mrs. Sipe egged us on to devote an entire issue of The Hialeah High Record to sexuality.

We surveyed the student body about their attitudes and practices and published the results. We ran around town, interviewing Bryant and Bob Kunst, leader of the gay-rights movement, and published their perspectives side by side. Mrs. Sipe protected us from censorship. By the time the principal found out about the project, our work was a done deal. That I don’t have a copy of that issue is only a tribute to how powerful and pioneering it was. I didn’t bring it home because I didn’t want my strict parents to see it.

Surely, the crowning of the homecoming queen was front page news and I wrote a fluffy column dubbed "Fabiola’s Fashions" because Mrs. Sipe understood that youth and fun is part of the learning equation. But our newspaper also covered Hialeah elections, the controversy over smoking on school grounds, and the 50th anniversary of Dade County’s second-largest city. We won awards, but she insisted on our own critique of every page of every issue.

Mrs. Sipe, who died peacefully in her sleep June 25 at age 80 in her California home, was a lifetime mentor. She was my most generous reader — and an inspiration. If only I could write with the authenticity and originality with which she penned her letters and cards, the words bursting with personality.

"Someone has set the world on a cockeyed slant — so here comes Mother Nature or Super Sipe or Bonnie Bungler to try to put it all back into perspective!" she began a letter she wrote when I was away at the University of Florida. The rest is a wildly hilarious window into her parenting, her woes in school, an eye-opener lesson on boys — and a special gotcha for my enjoyment.

She had rescued me from the class of a teacher hell bent on humiliating me everyday. "Guess who has all the flunkies this year?" she wrote. I could easily imagine her typing with glee.

She was my America, a second mother — and I could never let go. We corresponded every year for a lifetime. We lunched at Beverly Hills Café in Miami Lakes. "I don’t need to look at the byline to know when you’ve written a story," she once said, and tears rolled as I drove back to work newly filled with purpose.

She was so special — and her three children, Britt, Tim, and Kim, and her five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren — knew it and adored her.

"My mom had the greatest sense of humor," said her daughter, Kim Sheehy. "She was kind, loving and strong. She was the glue of our family."

Born in Hueysville, Kentucky, she moved in the second grade to Ohio, where she thrived. At McArthur High School, she was the 1954 salutatorian, the homecoming queen, and the senior class president. She attended liberal arts Wilmington College, where she was on the dean’s list, "campus cover girl," and part of the homecoming court. She moved to Miami in 1956, married, worked as a clerk for the School Board, and graduated cum laude from Florida Atlantic University in 1967. She did her student teaching at South Broward High School.

From Hialeah, she went on to teach at North Miami Senior High’s international baccalaureate program. She retired in 1997, and five years later, moved to Temecula, California, to be close to her children and their families.

"She always made me laugh, even when her pen bled red ink all over my copy," said one of her students, Dave Marr, a 21-year Navy veteran who recently wrote Mrs. Sipe to thank her. "I exceeded my professional goals and expectations by a wide margin, and I can trace my success to your Hialeah High School classroom."

The owners of Fox-Mar photography also remember her fondly.

"She helped us make our start," Ira Fox told me. "Back in the day, there was no spell check or grammar check and when we would write letters or do marketing paperwork, we would always have her proofread our stuff before we sent it out."

She also hustled new clients and wrote letters of recommendation.

"She was a special teacher. She took on the principals. She let us write," said Mark Maynard, who was Sports editor in 1973 and was asked by Sipe to write about abortion. Raised Catholic, he was against it, and that’s exactly why she wanted him to pen the piece. In the throes of the women’s movement, everyone else writing was pro-choice. Mrs. Sipe wanted the other side reflected. No subject was taboo.

As Marr says, "We couldn’t help but respect her as a teacher and a human being. Calm seas, Mrs. Sipe."