Photo by Duane Tinkey
Photo by Duane Tinkey

Joan Middleton is "a woman that you would want in your lifeboat," say Stan and Jody Reynolds, who have been friends of hers for more than 40 years.

"Her energy, enthusiasm, character and compassion never cease to amaze us," the Reynoldses wrote in one of several letters of recommendation for Middleton as a 2009 Woman of Influence.

Middleton, a Drake University alumna, retired schoolteacher, community volunteer and philanthropist, has continued to teach those around her the difference one person can make. At the same time, she has successfully launched community programs at Drake that enable others to become involved in helping the less fortunate. She is also an avid supporter and volunteer for Planned Parenthood of Greater Iowa, One Iowa and Central Presbyterian Church.

Middleton was instrumental in making Drake the home of the "I Have a Dream" program for the Des Moines area. While serving as a teacher for students with behavioral disorders at Moulton Elementary School in 1990, Joan and her husband, Lyle, served as mentors for one of the students in the inaugural Des Moines group and have continued to provide significant financial and volunteer support.

"Throughout their involvement in the Oakridge Dreamers, Joan has been a mentor to each and every one of the children in the class," wrote Stacy Kluesner, executive director of the Des Moines "I Have a Dream" Foundation. In addition to personally taking each Dreamer to Washington, D.C., and accompanying many of them to their college orientations, "she has often been the rock to get families through tough personal times, job loss and has celebrated milestones such as GEDs for parents, new jobs and countless others," Kluesner wrote.

Middleton observed additional needs for the children going through the "I Have a Dream" program, which led her and her husband to establish two related programs at Drake: the Middleton Center for Children's Rights in the School of Law and the Urban Education Program in the School of Education.

"What's wonderful is that now all of those young lawyers coming out of school have an opportunity (through the Middleton Center) to make a real difference not just in the lives of children, but in the lives of communities they serve, whether they stay here or not," she said.

Similarly, the Urban Education Program, one of just four such programs in the country, exposes new teachers to urban children's needs.

Earlier this year, Middleton received the Drake Alumni Award in recognition of her continuing involvement with the university.

"Joan has managed not only to have a profoundly important impact on the university, but has done it in a way that reverberates far beyond University Avenue, reaching into the community to change the lives of those who have not been as fortunate as she," Drake President David Maxwell wrote.