Joan Mendel: An inspiration to base community

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Hensley
  • Fuji Flyer contributor
Although she was barely five feet tall, Joan Mendel was the stuff legends are made of.

When she wasn't busy teaching precocious third-graders, she was rescuing stray animals and collecting food and clothing for a local orphanage. In fact, it's almost impossible to walk through the halls at Yokota East Elementary School and not see something - anything - that Ms. Mendel hasn't touched.

In her 34 years at Yokota, Ms. Mendel managed to create a legacy that's sure to last forever.

Ms. Mendel came to Japan more than 40 years ago. After teaching for a few years at the former Johnson Elementary School, Ms. Mendel was hired on at, what was then, Yokota Elementary. When Yokota East opened in 1973, Ms. Mendel was one of the first teachers to staff the school.

Former student Debra Merritt remembers her fondly.

"Ms. Mendel will always hold a special place in my heart. I was one of her third-grade students in 1978. My mother made sure I would be in her class because she was my older brother 's teacher and Mom knew that she was one of a kind," said Ms. Merritt. "Our family moved stateside in 1979 and for 27 years, we have stayed in touch through correspondence. My day was always brighter when a letter arrived from Joan Mendel."

Although she never had any biological children, Ms. Mendel served as parent, mentor and friend to literally hundreds of children.

In addition to her teaching duties at YEES, Ms. Mendel spent countless hours at Aiji-No-Ie Orphanage, Nakano-ku, Tokyo. She single-handedly oversaw the collection and distribution of clothing, food and supplies to the orphanage. She also set up a sponsorship program so each class at YEES sponsored an individual member of Aiji-No-Ie.

"Working with Joan Mendel and seeing her dedication has been a life lesson in itself," said colleague and friend Jennifer Miller, a fifthgrade teacher at YEES. "She really was the 'Mother Teresa' of Yokota Air Base. Her life example and commitment to children has touched so many through the years."

Just ask anyone on campus. Students, teachers, parents - everyone who knew Ms. Mendel has a happy memory or a funny story.

The petite teacher with the sparkling white hair has left her mark on this school and this community.

When news of her passing reached school officials in December, the school revised their Web page so community members could post comments and tell stories of how this charismatic woman touched their lives.

The response was overwhelming.

To date, the site features hundreds of memories and anecdotes from former students, friends and colleagues.

One student, Dylan Sowell, wrote: "At first I thought she was a mean teacher, but then I realized she was the best teacher I will ever have for the rest of my life."

It's a sentiment shared even by her boss, YEES principal Lillian Hiyama.

"Everyone at Yokota East Elementary School has been touched by Ms. Mendel in some way. When we admire the flowers around campus, collect pop tabs, remember Mt. Fuji trips, decorate her silver Christmas tree or attend Children's Day festivities at Aiji-No-Ie Orphanage, we will always have a warm spot in our hearts," said Ms. Hiyama fondly. "Ms. Mendel made sure that children, teachers, and parents knew their places and behaved accordingly. She expected that of us.

We'll never forget such a wonderful human being and we are so fortunate to have shared in her life."

A memorial service for Ms. Mendel will be Feb. 10. More details will be published as they become available. A reception will follow the service at the YEES Mendel Gym named in her honor.

Memorial donations may be made in Ms. Mendel's name to Aiji-No-Ie Orphanage and to another cause, so near and dear to her heart, Yokota's Pet Boarding.

For more information regarding the memorial service or contributions, call Yokota East Elementary School at 225- 5504. To visit the memorial Web site or post a personal message for Ms. Mendel, visit