Longtime Pekin teachers retire together
Pekin Elementary School will lose 129 years of experience when four teachers dust off their erasers for the last time today.
Suanne Dickey, Luann Swanson, Carol Kelly and Ruth Lowenberg are ready to call it quits after spending nearly all if not the entirety of their teaching career in the Pekin Community School District. The four will be honored at a retirement party today, after their family and friends sprang a surprise party on them Wednesday.
The teachers were told to report to a meeting in the cafeteria, where they would receive instruction in how to check out the students for the end of the school year. They thought it was a bit odd they were asked to attend considering they had been doing that for decades. When they arrived in the cafeteria, the song “Celebration” began playing and their friends jumped out to yell “Surprise!”
It was a fitting tribute to four women who have given their lives to educating young people. They all knew from an early age that was their calling. Dickey is from a family of 10 boys and two girls.
“I was a teacher ever since I was little,” she said. “I played school with them, and I had a whole classroom.”
Dickey grew up on a farm, and her parents had attended the kind of one-room schoolhouses she created with her siblings. She also got ideas about teaching from watching “Little House on the Prairie.”
She graduated from Pekin High School and attended William Penn University in Oskaloosa. After college, she took a job as a second grade teacher at her alma mater. At Pekin, she taught alongside a familiar face in Elizabeth Hoskins, who was her second-grade teacher at Pekin.
Dickey is now completing her 30th year in the district. She said she doesn’t know how she’ll stand being separated from her co-workers and students.
“When kids come to second grade, they want to learn,” she said. “By that age, they have developed their own interests.”
Kelly didn’t run her own school as Dickey did when she was a girl, but she developed a passion for helping children through her work as a babysitter.
“It seemed to be a good fit for me,” she said. “It was what I enjoyed doing and what I was good at doing.”
Kelly graduated from the largest class in the history of Ottumwa High School at the height of the Baby Boomer era. She attended Ottumwa Heights, now known as Indian Hills Community College, and later went to William Penn University.
While enrolled at the university, she student taught a second-grade class, and decided she’d take a stab at doing that again at Pekin. However, she learned the second-grade job had already been filled, but there was a new opening in kindergarten. The principal at the time told Kelly she probably didn’t want to teach kindergarten, and Kelly agreed.
“Then I went home and thought, ‘Cripes! There’s a job! What are you thinking?’” she said.
The principal called her back and asked if she was sure she didn’t want to try kindergarten. By this time, Kelly had a change of heart and told the principal she would like to apply for the job. The decision proved to be a wise one, because Kelly has enjoyed every minute of her 38 years as a kindergarten teacher.
Early elementary instructors are much more than just teachers to their students. Kelly said she has to wear many hats as a kindergarten teacher.
“The teachers are everything to the kids at that age,” she said. “You’re the mother, the mentor, the priest, and everything else.”
A man who student taught with Kelly advised her she would have an easier time if she taught an upper grade instead.
“He told me that if I taught a higher grade, I could have lunch and not have someone yanking on me for attention, because that’s kind of what kindergarten is,” she said.
Swanson hails from a family of eight kids, and got plenty of practice playing yard games with them on the farm. Her brothers taught her how to play baseball and football, and of course children’s games like “Annie Over” and “Kick the Can.”
Swanson’s mother and several other relatives taught country school, providing her with many sources of inspiration for her own career as a physical education teacher. She participated in numerous extracurricular activities at North Mahaska High School and went on to participate in three sports at Northwest Missouri State – cross country, softball and basketball.
“I went into physical education from the start,” she said. “I had a lot of great professors there I’m still in contact with.”
Swanson said the part of the job she likes best is to see the kids develop hand-eye coordination and grow mentally.
“It’s incredible to see their progress jumping rope from age 5 to age 11,” she said. “I like the challenge of keeping kids moving everyday.”
Swanson is finishing her 38th year as a P.E. instructor at Pekin.
Lowenberg, just like the other three teachers, did not have to move very far for her job at Pekin, having grown up on a farm near Hedrick. She went to college at Northwest Missouri State, finished at William Penn University and got married in between.
Lowenberg is in her 23rd year teaching at Pekin, but has taught many more years than that in all, having taught at other districts, such as Ottumwa. She also took a little time off to get what she calls her “mom degree,” which she earned after raising three children.
She spent 12 years teaching at Mother Goose Preschool, which she taught with another mother in a church basement in Hedrick. Of all the grades she taught, she said she liked preschool the most.
Kelly said this year’s crop of retiring teachers is very close and has every intention of staying in touch after the final bell rings for the summer. A few of them, such as Swanson, are considering being available for substitute teaching next year. But before she does that, she’s going to visit her son in England, who’s studying conducting at the University of Cambridge.
Kelly said she’s going to miss seeing the faces of the “little people,” as she calls her students. She is amazed that the kids take to heart every word that comes out of a teacher’s mouth. She remembers one incident in which she taught a class what to do in case their house catches fire. One little boy went home and argued with his parents about the proper escape procedure from their home.
The boy’s mother called Kelly to say, “Mrs. Kelly, could you tell him that the plan we’ve put in place might work just as well as the one you’ve put in place so he’ll do what we’re telling him to do?”