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Obituary of Leadora Extein: Taught at University City High School for 25 years

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2012 - You could say that Leadora Extein was a typical teacher. You could say that, but it wouldn’t be true.

“Judging from what many of her former students tell me, she was everybody’s favorite teacher,” said her eldest son, Irl. “She was the kind of teacher kids could go to about anything and not be embarrassed.”

Her watchwords were “you can do it,” and "there's no such thing as a stupid question."

In teaching, Mrs. Extein had chosen a classically female profession, but it was a bit radical that she chose a profession at all. She was born and raised in a time when most young women, particularly pretty ones, were encouraged to find a “good” husband who would be the family’s breadwinner so the woman could devote her time to hearth and home. Higher education was optional.

It was the 1940s, and despite being a striking beauty, she chose a non-traditional career to go along with the husband and children.

Mrs. Extein died Mon., Feb. 20, of congestive heart failure at Delray Medical Center in Delray Beach, Fla. where she and her late husband, Alvin, had moved in 2005 to be closer to family. She was 88. Before moving to Florida, she had lived for many years in University City and most recently in Chesterfield.

Traditional detour

Leadora “Lee” Sparberg had chosen to go to college and major in the male-dominated area of mathematics. After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Washington University in 1945, she briefly taught statistics at the university. As a faculty member, she was the pitcher at student/faculty softball games.

For a time, she took a detour into the traditional. 

She met Alvin Extein, a Washington University Law School graduate, when he returned from service in the South Pacific during World War II. Mr. Extein joined his father in the family’s wholesale diamond business, and eventually headed the firm, Extein & Co. of St. Louis.

She had found the proverbial “good” husband, but unlike most women who did not “have” to work, she chose to. After both of her sons entered school, so did she, joining the ranks of only one in ten married women who worked outside their home in the mid-1940s. She began teaching mathematics at University City High School, where she remained for 25 years.

It was a controversial decision, emblematic of the times.

Ahead of her time

“Some of our father’s friends made fun of him,” Irl recalled. “They said, ‘Oh, your wife has to work’.”

Helene Sherman was aware that Mrs. Extein was outside of the cultural norm. She was still Helene Wagman when Mrs. Extein was her high school math teacher in the early ‘60s.

“The cultural pressure was tremendous, but she bucked the system,” said Sherman, who became a math teacher and is now associate dean for teacher education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The belief was that girls weren’t well suited for math careers, but she thought we had the smarts to succeed. There was no doubt in her mind.

“Lee was so ahead of her time, having a husband, raising a wonderful family and having a teaching career in math all at the same time,” Sherman said. “Because of her, I knew I could do it too.”

Mrs. Extein was born in New York City on August 18, 1923, the only child of Marie and Isadore Sparberg. Her father died when she was an infant and she and her mother moved to St. Louis. She attended Soldan High School where she graduated as valedictorian in 1941.

No compromise

Education remained paramount in her life. She proudly plastered bumper stickers on her car that bore the names of the universities her sons — and later her six grandchildren — attended.

“By teaching, Lee was able to magnify her influence and the impact of her nurturing, loving personality, and educate and mother thousands of young people,” eulogized Paul Wagman, a family friend and partner at Fleishman-Hillard. “She did this without compromising at all what she gave her own sons.”

Mrs. Extein’s husband died in 2007.

Her survivors include her two sons, Irl Extein, a psychiatrist in Boca Raton, and daughter-in-law, Barbara; her son Mark Extein, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and daughter-in-law, Lynn; and six grandchildren: Melissa, Jason, Andrew, Seth, Brian, and Jonathan Extein.

Funeral services were held on Thurs, Feb. 23.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.