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Bayou Icon | Donna Underwood

By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Apr 1st, 2024
0 Comments
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article by Georgiann Potts
photography by Kelly Moore Clark

When Donna Preslar Underwood entered high school at a new school, in a new state, with all new surroundings, she found the transition challenging. As Donna explains it, she learned quickly that she must have been standing in the wrong line when God handed out athletic, artistic, and musical skills. What she also learned, however, was that she had been given an extra measure of skill with the written and spoken word. Today, her life journey is a story of countless words, carefully crafted and distributed with compassion. Effective May 31st, Donna will retire as executive director of QuesTECH Learning, an organization that Donna co-founded with businessman Alex George. They shared a vision for what could be done to help students struggling — for a variety of reasons — to learn. Today QTL is recognized throughout our region for its educational leadership by which it has helped countless young people succeed. BayouLife is proud to salute Donna Preslar Underwood as our Bayou Icon for April for her 54 years of tireless service in education.

Donna Preslar Underwood fantasized as a child about being able to fly across the ditch that was beside her family’s home. Today she says that this daydream was likely her inner spirit telling her that anything was possible in her life. Indeed, Donna has led an amazing life during which she has not only proved that many things are possible, but she has also proved that many things are possible to countless others. Her dedication to helping others through creative approaches to teaching and learning has left a remarkable legacy in this region.

Beaches, Dreams, and Finding Focus
From childhood to retirement, Donna has lived by the creed her parents instilled in her: “Kindness matters to everyone.” Those parents were critical influences on her and her slightly younger brother, Terry. Their father, Ned Wakefield Preslar, served in the Merchant Marines during WWII and then began a career in the shoe department of J. C. Penney in Hickory, North Carolina. It was there that he and his bride, Marie Frye welcomed Donna and – 10 months and 3 days later – her brother, Terry. Donna describes her dad as a “kind, gentle giant” and her mom (a stay-at-home mom) as an “empathetic drill sergeant who taught us not to do any task half way.” The family moved often as Donna’s dad’s career advanced. Because of this, Donna and Terry were best friends and remain so today.

Luckily, Donna’s father’s early career moves were to other locations within North Carolina – a state that offered mountains, the beach, and lots of history. The family moved to Elizabeth City where they spent many weekends on the Kill Devil Hills beaches. They learned about the Wright Brothers flying their first airplanes there while enjoying the delight of toes in the sand. For Donna, this was the genesis of her lifelong love for beaches. The next transfer was to Henderson where the family enjoyed spending weekends on Kerr Lake. Donna, naturally lefthanded, was trained by her first-grade teacher to write with her right hand. Even so, Donna learned to write correctly with her left hand. 

The family’s next stop was Wilmington where once again those beloved beaches were nearby. “Sundays found our family on the beaches where Dad loved to surf fish and then grill our food there,” Donna remembers. “Terry and I loved riding the waves at high tide.” There were times when the family had no electricity thanks to hurricanes that frequented there. When that happened, Donna says her dad would grill raw oysters and other favorites. 

It was in Wilmington that Donna blossomed. She became a Brownie and then a Girl Scout and became the top performer selling those infamous cookies at the entrance to her dad’s J.C. Penney store. To earn one badge, Scouts were challenged to name 39 dog breeds. Donna won, a victory that she says probably led to her collecting ceramic dogs while traveling. Donna also enjoyed trips to the Great Smoky Mountains where the family learned about the Cherokee and their culture.

During the years that the family lived in North Carolina frequent trips back to Hickory to visit with grandparents was a great treat. Donna’s paternal grandmother Ossie would always have an icebox cake ready when she and Terry arrived. “That treasured family treat appeared at my granddaughter Emma’s wedding last year. Emma asked me to make a gigantic one for her wedding,” Donna says. “What a delight to see the wedding guests consume our family’s traditional dessert!”

Donna’s maternal grandmother Edna lived in a home with a tin roof. She remembers the sense of peace that came when she cuddled with her grandmother on a cold, rainy day under one of her grandmother’s quilts. “I still have her quilt which I treasure,” Donna says. “She would also give Terry and me change from her pocket book. Other fond memories were of drinking well water and retrieving canned veggies from her cellar!”

The next move took the family to Corinth, Mississippi, where Donna began high school. She says that finding a niche was very difficult for her as the new “kid” in school. Yet another transfer – this time to Bogalusa, Louisiana – made a big difference for Donna. At Bogalusa High School she developed a friend base through the AST Club. There she was part of the yearbook and newspaper staffs where her facility with words came in handy. As a result of her work and the support of the publications faculty sponsors Sharanga Lawrence and Mildred Boyd, Donna won a full scholarship to Southeastern Louisiana University.

Donna majored in English and minored in journalism at SLU. She became a member of Phi Mu Sorority. She edited the Lion’s Roar there and took 21 hours per semester plus attended summer sessions. As a result, she graduated in 3 years.

Love for a Lifetime
While Donna was in high school at Bogalusa, she fell in love. It was a love that would last a lifetime. She laughs today saying that Geoff Underwood was impossible not to love. “How could I not fall in love with the handsome dude who played football, basketball, and golf as well as ran track and was elected ‘Wittiest’?” 

In 1970 Geoff and Donna married while Geoff was serving in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Donna was teaching English at Bogalusa High School while Geoff was serving. In 1971 after Geoff was honorably discharged, the two moved to Monroe. There Geoff finished his undergraduate degree in law enforcement and obtained a master’s in criminal justice from ULM. Donna continued her studies  at ULM as well by earning a master’s in education with an English minor. 

Two years teaching at Bogalusa High and one at Wossman High were turning points for Donna. “I experienced the racial turbulence in schools that was Louisiana, unfortunately, in the late ‘60’s and ‘70’s,” Donna explains. “During racial school protests during those 3 years, I never really understood why people couldn’t accept one another. I’m certain that my own upbringing contributed to that.”

In 1972, Donna took a position at River Oaks School to teach English and sponsor the yearbook and newspaper. She continued there for 28 years, serving as a teacher and later as an upper school coordinator. Donna loved the written word and grammar and instilled that in her students; as a result, even today some former students call her the Grammar Nazi! She developed an ACT workshop in English and reading that helped hundreds of public and nonpublic students throughout 7 Northeast Louisiana parishes. She credits her friend and fellow ROS English teacher Mary Walker with suggesting that the same workshop format could be used to help seniors to qualify for TOPS. Along with Walker, Donna credits Harry Pankey, Tom Middleton, and many others for their guidance during her ROS years.

In 1979 Geoff and Donna welcomed their only child, a son they named Geoffrey. One of her favorite memories of her time at ROS was teaching her son. “He learned more about me that year just as I learned more about him,” she says. Geoffrey ultimately became an educator and is currently assistant principal at Choudrant High School.

Taking a Career Leap
In 1997 – the same year that son Geoffrey graduated from ROS – Donna joined businessman Alex George to begin QuesTECH Learning. Although George wasn’t an educator, he realized that there were many students — like his grandson Matthew – who needed a smaller, more specialized, more nurturing environment in which to learn. Donna says that George was the “idea” man from whom she learned much. “I learned from George about business,” Donna explains. “Coupling his business experiences with my many years in education helped us to create an alternative for academically thirsty students. I am fortunate that he chose me to be a part of his education idea – an idea that has grown into what is known today as QTL For the first time in NELA, families had a choice.”

During the years since QTL’s inception, Donna has accumulated many memories. Shortly after QTL first opened, a ULM coach came in to discuss what might help a player who had suffered traumatic brain injury on semester break at home in New Orleans. QTL offered a therapy program that Donna thought might help him. One of QTL’s first teachers, Sara Wood, worked with him and saw some improvement plus increased confidence and perseverance. Later Donna learned that the young man worked for Ritz Carlton in several states and had written a book about his journey — I Never Would Have Made It Without You by Keith Gardner.

Donna has always admired the dedication of those who select teaching as a career and has witnessed that dedication firsthand many times. Donna remembers one time when Kari Counsellman, a QTL teacher, called to see if she might bring her infant school with her because her childcare was closed. “Of course, I said yes,” Donna says. ‘The image of her teaching math with Jamison strapped to her chest is just one indication of QTL teacher commitment to student success.”

That career leap that George and Donna took was a long but very successful one. From the beginning, they focused on nontraditional methods to provide students what they needed to chart success paths for themselves. Over time, QTL added grades 9-12 to its offering which opened doors to other educational choices not only for those who needed a blended environment for high school, but also for those who needed academic challenges in middle school. QTL was able to offer qualifying middle schoolers the opportunity to take high school courses. Donna credits QTL principal Kevin Branson for helping QTL reach its full potential. Branson will assume Donna’s position on her retirement and will lead QTL to future development.

Donna laughs when asked about her volunteer efforts for the community during her “spare” time. She has served on the boards of the Children’s Coalition and artist Frank Kelley’s Educational Arts Foundation, but has somehow always found a way to bring QTL students into volunteerism. “To teach QTL students the importance of helping others, we have organized campaigns to collect food for the local food bank and the Ouachita Humane Society, to create cards and then visits to the War Veterans’ Hoe at Christmas and Valentine’s Day, and to collect warm clothing and blankets for Grace place Ministries and the Salvation Army, among others,” Donna explains.

In 2022, QTL added QT Spectrum, a custom screen-printing tee shirt and apparel business that hires young adults on the autism spectrum. This business creates customized tee shirts, caps, apparel or accessory products. “General manager Crystal Branson, the mother of an autistic son, has worked tirelessly to help other autistic young people to feel valued as they create quality merchandise for customers,” Donna says. “From this, QTL is pushing to begin Learning for Life, a program that will include targeted instruction encompassing resume development, interview techniques, workplace communication, financial management, and independent living skills. This multifaceted program, now in its infant stage, will use existing programs as we forge alliances with other community resources to help intellectually challenged young adults optimize their skills. By doing so, QTL hopes to create a ripple effect of uplifted individuals, stronger families, and more inclusive communities.” 

Retirement Looms
Donna’s early love of travel, the beach, and mountains remains intact. As she approaches retirement, there will be lots of family members and friends to fill her days. Her son Geoffrey and his wife Robin have given Donna 4 grandchildren – Grace, Emma, Roger, and Melaya — and 1 greatgrandchild, Harper Kate (who was born on Geoff’s birthday in 2022) — who will help fill her upcoming retirement weekends. In fact, this June Donna’s son Geoffrey and her brother Terry are teaming up to plan a perfect family weekend at the beach at Biloxi with activities arranged around the Tim McGraw concert to be held there. Country music concerts are favorites!

Donna also looks forward to needlepointing, reading, working with her plants, attending Melaya’s basketball games, yelling for the Choudrant Aggie Ladies basketball team coached by granddaughter Grace, and having lunches with friends during the week, not just on Saturdays! In her plans, too, are spending time “on the hunt” for treasures with her brother Terry. “I’ve always wanted to own an original Clementine Hunter painting,” Donna says. ‘Terry and I were searching at a show in El Dorado and saw 2 Hunter originals for sale for $350 each. Though Terry was skeptical, we each bought one. Later we received verification of authenticity indicating that each of them appraised at over $5,000.”

Donna credits her late husband Geoff with making her own career possible. When they were high school sweethearts, Donna says they proved that opposites really do attract. “We complimented each other from the beginning. Geoff was the fun one; I was the serious one,” she says. “One of my most precious life moments was helping Geoff cross over when he died in March 2022.”

On Donna’s own bucket list are trips to Key West and Tybee Beach in Georgia. A self-described American literature fanatic, Donna wants to enjoy some of what Ernest Hemingway enjoyed there and to see the waters described in his classic novel, The Old Man and the Sea. When Donna’s dad was working in Savannah, they enjoyed a number of visits to Tybee Island Beach. “At low tide, I want to drag my toes in the sand once again and find beautiful sand dollars,” Donna says. “Perhaps I’ll be able to use those to create Christmas tree ornaments just as I did years ago.”

But Donna’s sincerest wish for her retirement years is simple, and yet exactly right. She says, “I hope that people will continue to see me as a senior citizen who is digging deep and pushing forward and always trying to help others.” No doubt that is exactly what she will be doing.