Near the entrance of Towne Acres Elementary School, there stands a tree.
This tree provides both shade and beauty for the students who file past it on a daily basis, which is fitting since it was planted in memory of a teacher who enriched the lives of countless students over the years.
Sandra Bayne Griffith was an educator, a wife, a mother, and a pillar of the community. She was a champion of children and, as a founding member of the Washington County Humane Society, a champion of animals as well. Her daughter Emmalea Johnston fondly remembers her mother taking in any animal she saw abandoned on the side of the road.
That boundless empathy was evident in Sandy Griffith’s chosen profession. She became a teacher to change the lives of children in hopes the impact she made would stretch far beyond the walls of her classroom.
“She began her teaching career at Keystone Elementary because she believed she would change the world and the neighborhood by teaching children who she agreed were the keys to their own future,” Johnston said.
Griffith was both a scholar and a consummate professional, a member of the Gamma chapter of the Delta Kappa Honor Society for teachers. She represented the Johnson City School System on countless committees, councils and task forces. Griffith was also an advocate and an involved citizen, as evidenced by her membership in the Junior Monday Club and the Animal Welfare & Rescue League.
And in 1985, Griffith added another title to her resume – mother. Following the birth of her daughter Emmalea, Griffith transferred to Towne Acres, where she became a third-grade teacher. A year later, Griffin received the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Through her chemotherapy treatments, Griffith continued to show up each day and teach her students. That dedication and determination made quite an impact on her daughter Emmalea.
“Although she lost her hair and became weak at times, my mother continued to teach even after she began receiving chemotherapy,” Johnston recalled. “She felt so strongly about showing her students that failure was not an option. Her energy was so contagious, and she had the best sense of humor.”
While Emmalea marveled at the strength of her mother, she also took note of the medical professionals who were caring for her mom during her battle. Looking back, Johnston says the bravery of her mother and the commitment to healing displayed by the staff who aided her changed the course of her life.
“As a young child, I experienced the true dedication of her medical team,” Johnston said. “This inspired me to become a nurse so that I could help those with a medical illness just like the nurses who had helped my mother.”
On Feb. 6, 1990, Sandy Griffith passed away, leaving behind her husband Bill Griffith – also a dedicated educator in the Johnson City School system who went on to teach for over 30 years – and her daughter Emmalea as well as three sisters. But her legacy continued well past her untimely death.
Griffith was an avid reader, so the Towne Acres PTA set up the “Sandy Bayne Memorial Fund,” which led to the donation of several books to the Towne Acres Library in her honor. And shortly after her death in the spring of 1990, a tree was planted in her memory. That tree has grown sturdier with each passing year, quietly greeting students every morning and seeing them off each afternoon.
But nowhere is Griffith’s legacy more evident than in the life of her daughter Emmalea, who has become a professional, an advocate, a wife and a mother in her own right. Johnston graduated from ETSU with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing in 2008 before going on to receive her Master’s degree in 2010.
She now works as a nurse practitioner, inspired by the medical professionals she watched care for her mother.
However, it was the ordeal her mother went through that literally saved Johnston’s life.
“Due to our extensive family history of breast cancer, I decided to have genetic testing for the BRCA gene in 2008,” Johnston said. “After being positive for BRCA2, I underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center at the age of 22. Genetic testing saved my life.”
Emmalea is married to Dr. Chambless Johnston III, and the couple has three children. Lula Mae is now a first-grader at Towne Acres, where her grandmother once sought to change the world by positively impacting the lives of her students. The Johnstons also have twin boys – Ryder and Fisher.
When Lula Mae was in kindergarten, a plaque was installed at the base of the tree to remind folks of the legacy Griffith left behind. The tree – which stands just outside the window of Griffith’s old classroom – was officially dedicated on Oct. 22 of this year, which was fitting since October is breast cancer awareness month.
The Johnstons are in the process of organizing an effort to bring more books into the Towne Acres library in Griffith’s honor. Also, the Sandra B. Griffith Scholarship will be awarded each year to a Science Hill graduate pursuing a degree in elementary education starting next spring.
But Bayne’s legacy shines brightest in her daughter, who is determined to live her life to the fullest while helping others do the same.
“I know that my mom would want me to spend the rest of my life raising awareness for breast cancer screening and treatment,” Johnston said. “I received genetic testing because of her diagnosis. I am able to see my children grow up and eventually get married, all things she missed.
“My mother lost her life so that she could save mine.”