Dyed in the Wool Community Servants
By Brad McEwen
It was with genuine sadness and a heavy heart that I made my way downtown a few days ago to attend the funeral of Mr. W.T. Henry, the long-time headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor School and renowned area educator.
Having had the pleasure of getting to know Mr. Henry over the years—first through my association with his son Bo and his wife Kate and then through my children’s connection to “T”s grandchildren—it was hard to fathom that such a vibrant and formidable man had succumbed so suddenly and quickly to a weakened heart just a few days prior.
It just didn’t seem right that W.T. didn’t have the opportunity to touch even more lives as he enjoyed his retirement at the Harvest Moon or with his four, beloved grand-boys.
But for all the disappointment I felt that he was gone—and that I had not gotten more time to get to know a man so highly regarded throughout our community—it didn’t take long for my spirit to be lifted as his memorial service got underway at First United Methodist Church.
While there were few dry eyes throughout First Methodist’s various church sanctuaries, chapels and fellowship halls, those tears of sadness quickly turned to joy and admiration as those who knew Mr. Henry shared their fond memories of him.
As I sat in the back of Ford Hall watching the service unfold on a video stream (since roughly every square foot of FUMC was packed with mourners), I was struck first by the moving words of friends, colleagues, and family who proudly stepped to the podium to honor W.T.
But I think what really touched my heart that day—and was the first thing I mentioned to my wife when I got home later in the evening—was the sheer volume and diversity of those who had taken the time to attend what might be one of the largest funeral services in Albany’s rich history.
Everywhere I looked—be it around the fellowship hall or at the crowd shots showing on the monitor—I saw a rich tapestry of the many faces that make up Albany and Southwest Georgia; white faces, brown faces, female and males faces, smooth, youthful faces and faces lined by the passing of seasons, all there to pay tribute to a great man who had touched their lives.
Later, as I considered this and spoke with Tay about what a powerful experience it was to witness the magnitude of W.T.’s impact on the world, I couldn’t help but think about how Mr. Henry’s lasting legacy was forged not just by him being the man he was, but by the way that man chose to make his living—and consequently make a difference in the world around him.
What I’ve come to believe is that W.T. was able to touch so many lives and inspire so many to pay their final respects that day because at his core he was a true educator.
Throughout my school years and beyond I’ve come in contact with countless coaches, teachers, paras, professors, principals and other administrators and educators. And while the overwhelming majority of those individuals seemed to enjoy their job and take it seriously, only a select few had that special thing that let you know that teaching was more than a job for them.
I’ve been blessed to have been personally impacted and inspired by a few of these fine individuals, and I’m doubly blessed to be married to one as well. So I feel I’ve got some credibility when it comes to recognizing those special educators, like Tay and W.T., whose passion and commitment to shaping lives burns in every fiber of their being.
For people like them, being a teacher is not only a calling, it is truly who they are.
I simply can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone asking about my wife that she’s a “dyed-in-the-wool teacher,” that she was born for that job and that teaching is God’s gift to her that she’s compelled to share others.
I equate people like Tay and Mr. Henry to artists and musicians and other folks who quite honestly would practice their craft regardless of whether or not it came with a paycheck.
They simply have to teach.
While I could absolutely argue that those kinds of teachers are definitely NOT common, I am pleased to report, however, that I wouldn’t exactly consider them rare either.
Fortunately, our community is blessed to have several dedicated, “dyed-in-the-wool” educators leading our classrooms and shaping young lives.
Wander into any Dougherty or Lee County school and you’re bound to find at least a handful of classrooms occupied by inspirational and dedicated servants who aren’t just there to make a living.
But as important as those men and women are to this community, this week’s Beyond the Bank isn’t about those educators who are still rising before the sun to beat early morning traffic and get to school early so they’re ready for another day of leading their students.
No, this week’s story is about folks like W.T. Henry, who despite being retired from the daily grind of active teaching, are still searching for ways to satisfy that inner need to positively impact young lives, prepare future generations for success and build a stronger community in the process.
It’s about the Lee County Retired Educators Association and the incredible work retired educators like SaraBess Lunsford, Debra Smith, Elaine Ruckel, are many others, are doing to support their community. It’s about those educators who are still sharing their love of learning and their gift for inspiring students whenever the opportunity arises.
“I do it for the love of the children and being able to know that even if they don’t remember my name 10 years from now, I had a little bit of an influence on them,” Debra Smith said of her decision to spend a large portion of her retirement volunteering with the Lee County Retired Educators. “It’s like that poem about it doesn’t matter what your rich is; it’s whatever you need. I was important in the life of a child. Even if that child doesn’t know me, or know that I was important to them, I did something for them.”
Debra shared those thoughts about her love of helping children during a delightful morning I recently spent at Kinchafoonee Primary School with her, Elaine and SaraBess as they hosted one of the regular Books for Kids book club programs that the Lee County Retired Educators are involved with throughout schools in Lee County.
“I’m a retired media specialist,” SaraBess explained when I inquired about the three women’s backgrounds in education in hopes of getting to the root of what drives them to serve at an age when others might be more interested in traveling or hobbies. “I worked in the Lee County Elementary School for 30 years—10 as a teacher and 20 as a media specialist.
“And personally I missed the kids. I have five grandchildren, but I missed hanging out with the kids at school and doing things with them. I really missed reading to the kids. I mean, I read to my grandchildren all the time when I’m with them, but I missed reading to the other kids. So when this opportunity came up, I just jumped on board, because this is what I want to do.
“I just love hanging around the kids. They’re just so much fun to be around.”
Elaine—who spearheads the book club program that currently places new books in the hands of some 146 area students a month—shared similar sentiments, saying that for her, the need to stay connected to area students is an important priority in her life, even if she’s now spending time with kids who are much younger than those she taught during her long career as a high school English teacher.
“I’m working at it, because I dealt with 18 year-olds,” she said with a smile. “I like teenage people and I always have and always will. But one of the things that has become really important to me, as I’ve done a lot of reading, is I understand now how horribly, terribly, and completely important it is that children begin reading early.”
Indeed, the lion’s share of many of the activities the retired educators are involved with seemingly center around literacy. In addition to the Books for Kids program—through which the educators partner with Lee County Family Connection to provide books to children enrolled in the Lee County Kiwanis Club’s Backpack Blessings program—the retired educators are also involved in other literacy-based programs like Literate Lee and Family Literacy Night.
“This project is my fave, as I’m sure you can tell,” Elaine said with a smile as we discussed the various programs the group is involved with. “I love the books. The books give us multiple opportunities.”
That Elaine would have such fervor for literacy programs, it turns out, is not all that shocking considering her life-long obsession with reading.
As we discussed what inspired the three women to become educators in the first place, Elaine shared a little bit about her own childhood, explaining how the importance reading has always had in her life eventually blossomed into a desire to teach.
“Mine started more with a passion for reading than for teaching,” Elaine said of the path that led her to the classroom. “I remember wanting to learn to read so badly. My mother would read to us and I didn’t go to kindergarten. I wanted her to read 24/7 and she would say, ‘You’re going to learn to read when you go to first grade.’
“Well, I will never forget this; I went to first grade and I came home and got off the bus crying. My mother, she was just devastated because I was the oldest, the first she’d sent off to school and she thought I would love it. I was crying because they had not taught me how to read.
“To this day, I remember the first day in reading group, with the Dick and Jane books that had the big flip pages, it was Sally pointing to the ground saying, ‘Look.’ That was the first word I learned to read. I went home and everything I could find, I would find the word ‘look’ in it. I could prove to my mother that I could read. That was the thing.”
Elaine said that love of reading eventually fueled her desire for more knowledge and thanks to what she says were “remarkable teachers,” by the time she got to high school she knew teaching was her true calling.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to teach and I wanted to teach high school,” she said. “And I wanted to teach literature.”
Debra shared a similar story about her childhood, saying that she shares Elaine’s ardor for reading, and added that she’s seen herself as a teacher since her earliest days.
“There’s six in my family and I was the oldest,” she said. “I was always the one teaching the younger kids. I was the teacher from day one. I mean my one brother’s nine years younger than me, but he slept with me from the first day he was home from the hospital. My mom said, ‘Here.’ She said, ‘This one’s yours.’
“She put the crib in my room and after he was six months old, we got rid of the crib and he just slept with me. He went to bed with me telling him made up stories. He still remembers to this day; he’ll call me and say, ‘Deb, I still remember the bears coming out of the sky to tell me goodnight.’ So from the beginning I was the teacher.
“It was so cool for me. I was like, ‘This is really important, you need to do this.’ My mother, with six kids, she wasn’t able to sit there and rock this baby to sleep and give this one a goodnight story; big sister got that job. So it’s just always been a part of me. It was never a second thought.”
Despite seeing herself as a teacher for most of her life, however, it was quite some time before she finally combined her passion and her vocation.
“I started teaching when I was 30,” she continued. “I didn’t go right to college and start teaching. I had my family young and when I first went to college I went into nursing. Then we moved down here and I went to Albany State for computer science. Then I switched over to education and knew, ‘This is where I need to be. This is where I belong.’”
Like her two compatriots, SaraBess said she too has a passion for reading that endures to this day, and like Debra and Elaine, feels that she was called to teach. And her calling came at very early age.
“I was the youngest of five children,” she said. “My sister that was 15 months older than me went off to kindergarten and I was devastated because I couldn’t go. I wanted to go to kindergarten so badly that I would sit with my mom and we would play teacher. I was four years old. I had my chalkboard and everything. I think I came out wanting to be a teacher, or wanting to be in education. I mean I wanted it so badly.
“And I just loved it from the beginning. I’ve never wanted to do anything else. When I was in the fifth grade I said I was going to be a teacher. I remember telling Ms. June Nichols that I was going to be a teacher. I just think I was born to be a teacher.”
While all three women came to their profession in slightly different ways, there’s no denying that they remained in those roles so long because they share the same drive and determination to make a difference in the lives of young people. And it’s that kind of conviction, they said, that fuels the entire Lee County Retired Educators group.
Elaine, who recently served as president of the Lee County chapter, said the Lee County group—which was founded in 1985 and is part of the larger Georgia Retired Educator Association that was founded in 1958—is very active and boasts more than 125 members.
“We are a very formalized organization that we’re members of,” said Elaine. “It is a very active lobbying group representing retired teachers’ rights and supporting other educational projects.
“There are statewide projects, like last year we raised a lot of money for the Children’s Miracle Network. One year we raised money for comfort dogs, service dogs, for veterans. We’re raising money for Eggleston Children’s Hospital. So while it’s a political organization in a certain respect, it’s also philanthropic.”
And it’s that philanthropic aspect of the organization that Elaine said really appeals to the retired educators who are so active in Lee County.
What also appeals to the group of retired volunteers, Elaine said, is the variety of ways the retired educators can get involved.
“That’s one of the good things about the organization,” she said. “There are a number of ways you can help.
“Even if you’re not someone who can get out, if your health isn’t as good as it used to be, or you’re not able to do certain things, you can collect box tops and you can collect can tabs. You’re still making a contribution to help the kids in the system.
“That’s really important, I think, for a lot of us to be able to feel like we’re still contributing to something. Even if it’s a small thing, a little thing, you’re still making a contribution.”
“We’ve got Books for Kids, the Lee County Distinguished Alumni program, Pop Tops for Kids, we do scholarships for seniors, all kinds of things,” Debra added. “Then there’s the thrift store.”
“We give out two $1,000 scholarships every year to seniors that are graduating and that’s something that I really love working with as well,” SaraBess interjected. “We select these students that need help because we understand. So many of us know these kids. We have a little bit of a connection with them. You know where the need is and all of that. So I do enjoy that.”
One of the many initiatives the retired teachers are involved with that is particularly exciting to Elaine, Debra and SaraBess (almost as exciting as their monthly book clubs) is Family Literacy Night—a Lee County Family Connection initiative where volunteers donate their time to help educate whole families on the importance of reading.
“This is our second year with it,” Elaine said of the literacy nights. “The retired teachers for that program work as volunteers and help out; then also, provide a book for each kid, even the older kids. They get a book of their choice.
“The Family Literacy Night helps to try to get parents involved in teaching at home and learning at home and doing things at home that are not TV, or not computers, or not telephones, that kind of thing.”
“Sometimes parents grew up with Sesame Street and all that and they don’t realize the importance of sitting down and reading a book to a child, because they might not have gotten that either,” SaraBess added. “It’s really important that we get the word out that kids need to be read to all the time.”
“Right,” continued Elaine. “That’s one of the things that we’re doing with Literate Lee. That program is about those parents getting skills.”
“They’re all going to benefit,” concluded SaraBess.
That so many people can be positively impacted by the work the retired educators are doing is certainly a motivation for those individuals who are active in the different programs. But for many of them, SaraBess, Elaine and Debra included, simply helping others and helping their community in some way brings intense satisfaction, even when the volunteer work isn’t connected to literacy or education per se.
In fact, in addition to being educators, it’s easy to categorize the retired teachers as simply community servants. Because it’s a servant heart that drives them.
“I’m a seamstress and so I do angel gowns and we deliver them to hospitals and funeral homes for the babies that don’t get to go home,” Debra said. “That was what I was doing after I quit doing homeschooling [which she did after retiring from the Dougherty County School System]. That was my way of giving back. Then when I found out about this, I was like, ‘This is a different avenue for me.’ It’s been nice to be able to do that.”
“Debra makes a really good point,” added Elaine. “In addition to being a pretty active organization, as retired educators most everyone who’s in the organization also volunteers in in other ways and in other aspects of the community. They’re active in their churches. They’re active in civic organizations. There are a number of other ways that they contribute to the community.”
I don’t know that my morning with Elaine, SaraBess and Debra necessarily revealed to me where that special spark that makes educators like Tay, W.T. and the Lee County Retired educators so special comes from.
At this point I believe it’s simply a God thing.
But my visit did serve as an opportunity for me to learn more about some of the efforts being made to improve the community, and, more importantly, it reaffirmed my faith in people. Quite frankly, I was reminded once again how special dyed-in-the-wool educators are, and what a powerful thing it is to share our blessings with others.
As the first and second graders filtered into the room for their monthly book club, I could see that it wasn’t just the three retired teachers who were beaming with excitement. Those children—all of whom take part in the Backpack Blessing program due to certain struggles they are experiencing outside of school—were clearly overjoyed to be taking part in the book club and in knowing that the three women were there for them.
Although the book club session didn’t last too long—maybe 20 minutes during which the retired educators read them the books the children would receiving and then led them in group activities—it was evident it was a highlight for the students.
Those children will undoubtedly grow up and forge their own way in the world, and like Debra alluded to, many of them may not remember the names of the volunteers whose love and generosity impacted their lives, but their lives will be enriched and the divine mission of those educators will once more be accomplished, thanks to the fire that burns deep in people like Elaine Ruckel, Debra Smith and SaraBess Lunsford.
To learn more about some of the programs the Lee County Retired Educators are involved with, and to find ways to help those efforts, visit the Lee County Family Connection Facebook page or visit www.lee.gafcp.org. To learn more about The Georgia Retired Educators Association visit www.garetirededucators.org.
Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - firstname.lastname@example.org - @BradGMcEwen