Danville Express

Cover Story - March 16, 2007

Hey Joan

School board trustee is a mom to all

by Jordan M. Doronila

Joan Buchanan has been a mother to many.

Here's the list: her five children; their friends; girls soccer players; two Russian exchange students; and a foster child. In fact, she opened her home for those who wanted to hang out.

"Everyone calls her Joan," said Lindsey Buchanan, 23, Joan's daughter. "She's sociable with a good heart."

"She's kind of a mother to everyone," she added. "Every single one of my friends could knock on her door. The door was always open."

Being involved as a mother was just part of her investment in children. She has also has spent 16 years serving as a trustee on the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education in Danville, working to expand schools, improve curriculum and raise academic standards.

"I make a difference on the school board," said Joan Buchanan, 54, an Alamo resident.

"I think the one thing with my mom, she is such a community leader," Lindsey Buchanan said. "Her own children didn't get to see the benefits of what she has done."

Now, as Joan finishes her last three years on the board, she has been tinkering with idea of running for the California State Assembly. Buchanan, a Democrat, said with her experience in education, she could influence legislation.

However, a state legislator has to deal with competing needs, more money and a longer process of passing bills. Additionally, one of the main problems in the state and federal governments is their partisanship.

"Nonpartisanship is the ideal government," Joan said.

She believes government should support strong communities, and she advocates sound financial management.

"I'm fiscally conservative and morally more liberal," she said.

She said she will decide in the next few months about her future.

Joan and her fraternal twin sister Jean were born in 1952 and raised in San Francisco. Her mother came to California from a population 200 town in Idaho, and her 6 foot 3 father came to the West Coast from Minnesota. His 6 foot 9 father had emigrated from Yugoslavia to Minnesota then sent for the rest of his family.

"He was a big strong man," Joan said.

Buchanan's parents met through mutual friends.

Her father worked as a bartender and her mother worked as a waitress, and they were separated during part of her childhood. Her mother worked the breakfast and lunch shifts to make it home and see her kids, Buchanan said.

Nonetheless, Joan said she enjoyed growing up in San Francisco.

"It's a small big city," she said. "In New York, I see these tall buildings."

She flourished in the parks and grew up with multi-ethnic neighbors and played a lot of sports. She had friends from Jewish, African, Russian and Chinese cultures.

"It was such a melting pot," she said. "We all got along."

She said her parents were big believers in the American dream, and they instilled their ideals in their four children.

"They made us believers that we could do anything," she said. "There was no pressure."

She played a lot of sports: kickball, softball, basketball and dodge ball.

"I was such an athlete," Buchanan said.

As a student, she called herself a "selective learner." She said she didn't have to open a book but could still manage to get a "B." Although she said she received "A's" and performed well in her SATs.

She said she felt that her academic record was strong, but it wasn't good enough to get into the prestigious universities such as Stanford. She could get into the University of California schools but felt UC Berkeley was too close to home.

After graduating from high school, she followed her boyfriend Phillip to UC Santa Barbara, a method of choosing a college she does not recommend to other young folks.

Buchanan began as a math major. However, she realized she wanted to study applied mathematics after getting bored in class upon seeing the backside of a 5 foot 4 professor writing mathematic problems on the board.

She dropped out of the class and took an economics class instead. Buchanan flourished in focusing her studies on econometrics, which deals with creating models and theories for predictions.

Buchanan wrote about the economic impact of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). She no longer has her college papers on economic theories, but she wishes she kept them, she said.

Buchanan said it was her circle of friends and her personal connections that made her college experience fulfilling.

At 20, she married 21-year-old Phillip, though she felt she was too young. After graduation, she got a job working at Delta Dental, and Phillip was offered an opportunity at Proctor and Gamble.

A few years later, she became supervisor of special projects at Delta Dental - despite the existence of a "glass ceiling" against promoting women. An executive asked her to make recommendations to solve a snag in the company's processing of customer fees.

She answered the challenge and submitted a report with her recommendations. However, Stanford Research Institute gave a different analysis. She was asked what was right.

"Well, I think they are wrong," Buchanan recalled telling her boss about SRI's report.

Delta Dental followed her recommendations, and its processing systems improved dramatically. Shortly after, she was promoted to director of operations at the age of 26.

Though the company was small back then, she said the opportunities were great and she learned plenty. Buchanan said that crisis was the best test to see who were the reliable workers at Delta Dental.

"You get to see who produces and who doesn't produce," she said.

During her tenure at Delta Dental, her husband Phillip left Proctor and Gamble and became an insurance broker for another company. Eventually, he became successful enough to purchase his new employer.

"He did extremely well," she said.

Meanwhile, they had five children: Jennifer, Christopher, Steven, and twins Lindsey and David. The Buchanan family moved and a built a large home in Alamo, and she retired to raise her family in 1983.

Joan and Phillip divorced in the 1990s. She said it was difficult being a single mother. Her children were competitive and fought occasionally. Buchanan said they went through a swearing stage, but they did outgrow that.

"You love your kids but sometimes you may not like them," she said. "I never got a break."

"There was a lot of fighting. We were very competitive. We were all good at sports," said Lindsey Buchanan. "At the same time, we were a family."

Despite the challenges of being a parent, she was able to pull through and be heavily involved in her children's lives. She was part of activities such as being soccer and softball coach, and a member of the parent teachers association.

Lindsey said it was difficult playing for a Mustang soccer team when her mother was coach.

"It's hard to have your mom yelling at you," she said. "It was tough."

"It was difficult, but she made it work," she added. "She didn't play favorites."

She recalled her mother inviting her teachers and school administrators over for dinner. And she remembers being a fifth-grader lying in her mom's bedroom and waking up to a school principal singing happy birthday to her.

Lindsey said her mom knew all of the faculty members at Alamo Elementary School when she was a student there. She noted that it was difficult to get in trouble without her mother not knowing about it.

"The weird part is she is still best friends with my fourth- and fifth-grade teachers," she said. "She knew all my teachers."

Additionally, her mom would have a faculty, staff and parent football party at her home when the game was over at Monte Vista High School.

"She was always involved," Lindsay said, adding that she got used to it.

Joan said the most exasperating years were parenting her children during their teens. She had to set boundaries as a parent.

"Too many parents want to be their kids' best friend," she said. "It's hard. You've got to say no. It's not OK."

She became involved with the School District when she wrote grant requests to the state for a new computer center and software for Alamo Elementary. She became involved in the PTA, and then its president.

She ran for School Board in 1990 when the district had teachers go on strike, it was suffering financial troubles, and there were conflicts in the school curriculum.

Parents held a recall election, and five new members were elected to the board that year. Buchanan, her fellow trustees, and the district have managed over the years to not only become financially and academically stable, but most of the schools have grown.

"It was a team effort," said Marianne Gagen, who ran for the school board with her. "When we were on the school board, we worked together. It was an extremely challenging time,

"She provided a lot of leadership," she added.

Joan Buchanan's children are now all in their 20s, and she is enjoying them as adults, she said. She is expecting a grandchild soon.

"They have grown and matured," she said. "They have become wonderful human beings."

"They're just beautiful," she added.

"My relationship with her blossomed as I matured," said Lindsey Buchanan.

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