The Transformation of a Shy Girl: From Adolescent Protestor to Piano
Technician, Nurse and Child Advocate
Mary Anderson Richards, Ph.D.1
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to
freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.2
This shy girl did not know that wearing a black armband to school would forever define
her life. Thirteen-year-old Mary Beth Tinker wavered on the idea of wearing a black armband to
Warren Harding Junior High School in Des Moines, Iowa on December 16, 1965. But with the
media providing graphic visual and audio reports on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam,
Mary Beth had developed strong feelings on the issue. This sensitive eighth grader knew she
needed to listen to her conscience. Her family, long time Methodists, had recently become involved
with the Quakers, which only strengthened her resolve.
Mary Beth was the fourth child in a family of six. Her parents, Reverend Leonard Tinker
and Lorena Jeanne Tinker, lived in Iowa, serving the Methodist Church Conference, where her
father was a minister. In Iowa, Mary Beth enjoyed playing hide-and-seek with her working class
Des Moines neighborhood friends in the evening. There were slumber parties to attend and the
weekly roller-skating nights. She enjoyed music from rock-and-roll to gospel, and wore a jumper
constructed in her sewing class. Math was a favorite subject in her seemingly ordinary childhood.
Her dad, Reverend Tinker, had previously served a church in Atlantic, Iowa. There, in
1957, Mary Beth’s father became involved in an effort to change the segregationist policy at the
local municipal pool, where African Americans were not allowed to swim. Some in the
congregation thought that the young minister should stick to preaching and helping the youth choir.
With the cooperation of the Methodist Bishop, they asked Reverend Tinker to leave the church in
The family moved to Des Moines, where Leonard Tinker began his new assignment at
Epworth Methodist Church, and Mary Beth, at age five, started kindergarten. Time and again,
Mary Beth would witness her parents putting their democratic values, along with the values of
their faith—love and equality—into action. For the Tinkers, they seemed to go together.
In 1962, when Mary Beth was ten years old, the Tinkers developed an affiliation with the
Religious Society of Friends and began attending the Des Moines Valley Friends Meeting
(Quaker) House on the city’s west side. Leonard Tinker went to work for the American Friends
Service Committee, the Quaker affiliate, as Peace Education Director for a five-state region of the
Midwest. Although he worked for the Friends, Reverend Tinker proudly maintained his status as
a Methodist minister.
1 It is with an expression of gratitude to Mary Beth Tinker who shared her experiences during the legal process and
following the United States Supreme Court decision in Tinker. Mary Beth’s willingness to participate in the taped
interview and personal communication made this jurisprudence research a reality that provides a historical perspective
about this landmark case. Diane Geraghty, J.D. and Mary Burns, J.D. provided positive encouragement and teachable
opportunities throughout this academic process. I am grateful for their support and their scope of knowledge which
they shared. My education includes studies at and degrees earned from Simpson College, Truman University, Iowa
State University, and Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
2 Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 89 S. Ct. 733 (1969).