Joyce Tolman Palmer, a former Bryan resident but more recently a longtime resident of California, passed away in her sleep on Jan. 23 at the age of 97.
The former Joyce Tolman was born in Akron, Ohio, but spent her early elementary years in Des Moines, Iowa. She was an only child. Her mother Marthena was a homemaker and her father Hugh was manager until his retirement from the novelty advertising department of Bryan’s flourishing Ohio Arts Company.
Joyce remembers walking many blocks to school as early as kindergarten, meeting a friend halfway. Joyce liked school, except for art. She ate the paste and was sent to the principal’s office.
When Joyce was in the fourth grade, the family moved from Des Moines to Bryan due to the Depression and she missed the lessons on cursive and didn’t learn it until her sophomore year of high school.
One particular day, Joyce was bored in math class because she knew more geometry than the teacher, so Joyce taught herself cursive by copying a left-handed friend’s backhanded handwriting.
From her school days in Ohio, there were two activities she used to reminisce about the most. One was the girls and boys group of friends that would pal around together after Bryan’s United Methodist choir practice.
The other was her female friends at Bryan High who met socially together in a group they playfully dubbed “Eata Bitea Phi.” Those dozen girlfriends were still writing annual round-robin letters to each other 70 years after graduation!
Joyce’s father Hugh Tolman was a colonel in the reserves at this time and was called up to fight for his second time in a World War. After landing in Normandy three days after D-Day, he served mostly in Belgium with a large command of 300 African-American drivers and truckloads of weapons to supply the advancing allied troops.
After graduating from Bryan High School as class valedictorian, Joyce graduated from Oberlin College in just three years, then chose to earn her master’s in mathematics at the University of Michigan, where she went because she “liked their football team.”
There, she met her future husband, Clark Palmer, while he was there in Michigan studying Japanese for the U.S. Army, after having completed only one semester of his freshman year at Stanford University. Their first meeting was a blind date at a beer hall.
Joyce described Clark in those days as “a very skinny guy with a big chin, a big nose and a newly shaved head” compliments of Army boot camp. But Joyce was captivated by his sense of humor and the fact that he was from California.
This was familiar territory since Joyce and her mom spent summers with grandparents in Campbell, California, while her dad was off at war. Clark also reminded Joyce of her favorite uncle in California, who was built a lot like Clark.
Clark went off to serve in the Pacific as a lieutenant in military intelligence, and after V-J Day supervised translations in post-war Korea. During that time, Joyce started her teaching career with one year in Michigan, then the next couple years right here at Bryan High School, her own alma mater.
The final Tolman family home was on Park Lane, just adjacent to the current high school campus. Joyce stayed in Bryan until the man she called “the Light of my life” was discharged from military service, allowing them to reunite for a California wedding on Thanksgiving Day, 1946.
After attending Stanford Law School on the GI Bill and passing the bar exam in 1951, Clark and his young wife Joyce sat overlooking the fledgling town of Novato, California. They talked over whether to accept an offer to join the tiny law practice of the judge who levied the fines from any out-of-town drivers who forgot to slow down at the edge of town. Well, Clark did take the job.
After a stint living very frugally in a rural rental, Joyce and Clark finally moved to their new tract home in the heart of town in 1955. The mortgage payment for the next 30 years was $79 per month.
For his dedication to turning this rural corner of Marin County, California, into a self-supporting city, Clark was called by the Novato Advance “the father of incorporation,” and served as city attorney for the new city’s first 19 years.
Joyce was still residing in that same tract home until her 93rd birthday. Their children had been active in Novato sports, with older son Bruce still in town to this day having recently retired from the family’s law practice. In later years, in a mischievous jab at the lifestyle spawned by the ‘60s, Joyce enjoyed raising people’s eyebrows by announcing that she “had only two sons but six daughters-in-law.”
Joyce said one of her passions in life was “to help as many young people as possible reach their full potential.” She had felt that some of her teachers in high school “did not like and understand teenagers very much.” That’s what motivated her to become a high school math teacher for 50 years — 30 in public school, mostly at Novato High, and 20 more tutoring from her home until Clark’s stroke in 2001.
One of her professional evaluations included this insight: “her greatest asset is her ability to teach to all intellectual levels.” That was important to her. She deeply believed in public education, for all.
At Novato High, she was intensely involved in extracurricular activities, encouraging the sharpest students with the California Scholastic Federation (including many years serving as secretary of the California CSF Board) and, with Clark, officiating at weekly track and field meets for over 25 years, including even the California state high school championship meet.
This particular interest led the two of them to many travels around the globe, including seven Summer Olympics and many World Track and Field Championships.
The other passion that gave Joyce so much joy ever since high school was music, but she admitted that “I sold my high school clarinet for a toaster and have limited my music ever since to choral work.”
She and Clark were very proud of their 40-year membership in the stellar Winifred Baker Chorale, including a number of singing tours of the great cathedrals and music halls of Britain and France. She quipped that “at Canterbury Cathedral the cash register kept ringing in the wrong key.”
During the 1980s they delighted in singing for fully staged Northbay Lyric Opera productions of Pirates of Penzance, Carmen, Desert Song and the Mikado at the Marin Civic Center, and for more years after that sang show tunes with the Novato Music Association.
Joyce often called herself “an organization gal.” She served as president of the Stanford University Bridge Club, skipper of the Novato Presbyterian Mariners, president of the Novato Community Club, led Novato’s Great Books discussion group, chairperson for Novato’s Western Weekend Frontier Dance, a founding member of the local Sunny Hills Guild and secretary of Novato Music Association.
In 1964, she and her friends founded Novato’s branch of the American Association of University Women, so she could “discuss important issues with other educated women.”
Other organizational efforts Joyce threw herself into were Project Amigo that helps poor rural youth in Mexico to continue their formal schooling and Novato Rotary’s World Community Service committee.
The Palmers hosted many foreign exchange students over the years. Joyce’s other hobbies included bird watching (one year recognized for the rarest sighting in Marin), supporting local symphony and theater groups, catch and release fly-fishing, and being a life master of the American Contract Bridge League.
Her husband predeceased her in 2005. Joyce leaves behind two sons, Bruce Palmer from Novato and Wayne Biraj Palmer from Palo Alto, California; and two daughters-in-law, Karen and Lahari; two grandchildren, Heather Eck near Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Tim Palmer from San Diego, California; plus four stepgrandchildren, Kevin Kearney from Seattle, Colleen Horowitz from Mill Valley, California, Christal Vandecar from Gofftown, New Hampshire, and Jason Elliot from Santa Fe, New Mexico; three nieces and nephews; and 11 great-grandchildren.
Joyce’s parting wish that she wrote to her many friends from the past: “I wish you all have had as happy a life as I have had.”