In February, Sandra Ahlquist planned a May 1 celebration marking her retirement after 40 years as the owner, teacher, and driving force of Aunt Sands’ Preschool. Instead, like nearly everything else this spring, COVID-19 rewrote the script. The school closed its doors forever in March, but its legacy will live on through the truths she taught and exemplified.
In 2001, Sandra received West Valley City’s Essential Piece Award. She was featured in a Salt Lake Tribune article and a video by WVC-TV in connection with this honor. The award was a custom fit for Sandra as its name captured the magic of Aunt Sands. Essential is defined as “absolutely necessary, extremely important, crucial, and indispensable.” Each of those adjectives describes her influence as an essential piece of her family, her community, and hundreds of preschool students and their families who eagerly extol the key part she has played in their lives. Still, there are no words powerful enough, no history long enough, no accolades high enough to do justice to this 73-year-old ball of perpetual motion and love.
Rebekah Pierce, a new member of our Big Ocean communication team, joined Aunt Sands’ first class and made sure her four children had the same opportunity. Rebekah summed up Sandra and her preschool. “There are few people in this world that can exist in their communities with only one name. Sandra Ahlquist is one of them. For forty years, “Teacher” has been loving and teaching children in the basement of her home and has created an environment where kids feel nurtured, loved, guided, and in my case, humbled a time or two.”
She explained that humbling came in a Halloween art project requiring her to fold accordion-style legs (that she couldn’t seem to master) for her spider and getting a part in the year-end show that took her completely out of her comfort zone. “Teacher” patiently helped her try again and again with the spider legs, finally accepting Rebekah’s best efforts. In later years, Rebekah appreciated the lesson from the part she played “to make people laugh because taking yourself too seriously is not good for you whether you’re 4 or 45.”
From the humble beginnings that fall, Aunt Sands’ became an institution, THE preschool to attend. Rebekah explained this popularity. “By the time my first was born in 2000, preschool registration had evolved to the point of two phone calls. The first was to your obstetrician telling him/her you’d gotten a positive pregnancy test and the second was to Sandra to tell her to put your unborn child on the list for three years from now. I’m not even kidding.”
Rebekah shared some other essential pieces that make Sandra so loved and admired in her eyes. “Sandra focused on teaching children to be kind to one another, to share and think of others before they thought of themselves. She encouraged her students to find a friend, and if there was someone left out, well, they were assigned a friend. Sandra has always been true to the principles she lives. She is a patriot and teaches her students about the history of our nation. … At Christmas, they do all the fun stuff, but she takes time to teach them about the birth of Jesus Christ and the angels that announced His coming.”
There are two related pieces I believe are essential to telling her story: her no-holds-barred productions and their influence at the end of each school year, and her unfailing love of families, her own and everyone else’s.
The annual spring show piece. Many such programs fill our calendars as the school year winds down. This one, however, is not like the others. She rented a school auditorium, provided costumes, props, and made sure every girl and boy had vocal solos, speaking parts, and some dance moves. Family members would swell with pride and amazement as they watched what Sandra had pulled out of these young performers. Always, there was a patriotic section including flag waving and “I’m Proud to be an American.” There were videos from classroom activities featuring every child, a “diploma” and a very personal note expressing her love and confidence. On May 13, the night before what would have been the 40th and final show, Sandra reminisced in a Facebook post about these programs and how her family made them possible.
Tomorrow was to be our last preschool show after 40 years. Wow. Things can change. … As I look back, I have lots of memories. … My family has been there for me through the years. Luane and Echo behind the scenes; Nieces and nephews staging, Changing costumes, loading and setting up, driving scenery to the rented elementary school. My sister Jeri flying in from Colorado to play the piano so each little girl could be the princess of their choice and be accompanied by a professional and each little boy could have someone who could play fast or slow depending on their nerves during their solo. All hands on deck by my great family so parents could enjoy from the audience. My sweet friend Rosemary Bingham every year backstage controlling children. Love you my sweet family. Thanks for all the years of Service to me. Always ready and willing to help. My heart is empty for the class of 2020; no show tomorrow night. …. but my heart is so full of beautiful memories from years gone by. Love you all who came to preschool and have sent your children here. The lane has changed since we started class in fall of 1979 … But I have a book with pictures of each child. And a heart full of love for all. Sorry this is so long.
The family piece. Perhaps because I know her family and her roots, I know that family is another essential piece of Sandra’s package. Her parents were settlers in Hunter, long before it became part of West Valley City. They were legendary for their goodness, compassion, and their interdependent relationship and respect for each other. This was her model and aspiration. She and husband Tom built their home down the lane from the home where she grew up. Her mother Bonnie made lunch for the preschool teachers every school day until near the end of her life.
It was family that led Sandra to start the school in her basement so she could be near her daughter Shellise, who has special needs. Tom called himself the principal and bus driver. Life did not turn out the way she thought it would. Her marriage ended, but she persevered and managed to parent her children and powerfully assist Shellise in parenting hers with singlemindedness and unwavering dedication. She still believes in and supports family. She was just as passionate about her son Tommy–as an avid fan during his high school basketball career, a delightful grandmother to his children, and political supporter in his run for governor of Idaho. She is a loving sibling, aunt, and in-law. Her two permanent teachers have been family: her sister, Echo Thomsen, and her sister-in-law, Luane Jensen. Shellise became an assistant as well.
But her love of family doesn’t end there. She adopted our family because we were good friends of her brother. She knows our stories, gave us pet nicknames, and never forgets the connections we share. We felt we were some of her favorites. Come to find out, nearly everyone feels like a favorite when added to her ever-growing family circle. Her grandson explained that they can’t even go to Walmart without running into at least ten of such best friends and family that merit her time, attention, and teasing. For me, this is her most essential piece—her love and inclusion make US feel like an essential piece of her life.
Sandra summarized Aunt Sands’ history in a text. “I started the preschool September 1979. We just finished the 40th year. I’ve had the same three teachers during that time. We love children. And are so sad the end of our 40th year was like this. Haven’t made a million dollars. But have made a million friends. Have had three generations twice. The grandma, mom, and student. Tried to help and love each child and prepare them for kindergarten. Forty years is hard to put into a paragraph …”
It’s a story far too big to be written and marked as “complete.” She continues to teach and love every member of her family and her students (and their parents and grandparents); and her lessons will live on as they teach their children and grandchildren. The essential pieces that comprise Aunt Sands will provide answers and essential peace for generations to come.
What are the essential (necessary, extremely important, crucial, indispensable) pieces you can share in your family, community, and daily endeavors that provide such generational solutions? Does someone need help and encouragement folding spider legs? Need to be adopted into your circle of influence? Need your faith and encouragement? Let our lessons continue and be passed on and on!
Rebekah Pierce contributed to this story.