The Bartow County School System officially said goodbye to 814 years of experience this week.
Since COVID-19 restrictions prevented the Bartow Education Foundation from sponsoring its annual luncheon for retirees, organizers had to shift to Plan B: a celebration with a one-on-one presentation of retirement gifts Monday at the central office.
"This group of 31 retirees was certainly dedicated to our children, as almost half had more than 30 years of service with us," Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said. "Their collaboration and motivation to carry out our mission and vision every day will surely leave a lasting impact on this school system and community. I’d like to thank these distinguished educators once again and wish them well as they start a new adventure. It’s well-deserved."
Rufus Cantrell and Bobby Wilder from Woodmen Life provided a wall clock for each retiree while Josh McWhorter from McWhorter Capital Partners gave each one a $50 LongHorn Steakhouse gift card since the group didn't get its luncheon, BEF Executive Director Dot Frasier said.
"It was a real, real special ceremony," she said. "It was different, and I told Josh and them, I said, 'I just pray that next year, we can do the real thing,' but this virus was not going to stop us from honoring our people who have spent years helping our children. So we had to do the next best thing, and that was to provide them with a nice lunch [from LongHorn]. They seemed to be so pleased that we had done something. It was just a beautiful little ceremony."
Page, Ms. Frasier and the sponsors "put the show on" for each retiree who attended the event, Ms. Frasier said.
"They came in one at the time, and Dr. Page and Rufus and Bobby presented their clocks and then Josh McWhorter presented them with the gift certificate from LongHorn, and we talked for just a little while," she said. "Two or three had to be out of town so as soon as they get back in town, we're going to personally deliver those gifts to them."
Ms. Frasier, a retired principal, said she had worked with many of this year's retirees in some capacity during the last few decades.
"It was just a joy to see and to reminisce with so many of those 31 people that I've had the privilege to work with as a teacher, as an assistant principal and as a principal," she said. "I had worked with them on many different levels and had seen how talented they were and to have seen the abilities that God had given to them and how they were sharing and helping our children."
A few of them were hired by Ms. Frasier when she was still a principal in Bartow County.
"Alta McElrath from Emerson, I hired her as the music teacher," she said. "Then another paraprofessional that I recommended was Betty Thurman. She stayed at Emerson the entire time."
She also hired Sonya Woodham, who retired this year after spending her entire 40-year career at Cloverleaf.
"She's wonderful, wonderful," Ms. Frasier said. "I interviewed her when she first came, and that was her first school, and she stayed there 40 years. She told them this morning [at the retirement celebration] that I was her first boss."
Woodham, 60, said her career goal was to "reach my 40 years so thankfully, I made it."
"I hadn’t really planned on staying 40 years earlier in my career but decided I loved it way too much to leave," she said.
That made the decision to actually retire difficult for the first-grade teacher, who had "never dreamt of going anywhere else" other than Cloverleaf.
"No, it wasn’t easy," she said. "I still loved what I did every day but knew I had to make that painful decision."
And to have her final year of teaching cut short by a global pandemic was "heartbreaking, of course."
"I knew I had to tell my students my last goodbye on our last day," she said, noting she also hated saying goodbye to her "wonderful team" of first-grade teachers. "It was a very emotional experience for all of us. A lot of tears for sure."
Woodham said she would most miss the "great staff and the fabulous administration of [Principal] Dr. Evie Barge and [Assistant Principal] Paige Bennett" now that she doesn't have to report to work every day.
"There were definitely a lot of tears in our conversations of telling these two fine ladies my final farewell," she said. "I’ll never forget years ago when Dr. Barge asked me to tutor her sweet nephew, Owen Taff. I was a nervous wreck. He is the son of the fantastic Guy and Carrie Taff of Cartersville. Owen eventually moved to the very top of his class that year. I was so proud of him."
She also said she was "very fortunate" to have taught Colton Bennett, son of Paige and Clifton Bennett.
"Colton definitely made it worth my while to teach my last year," she said. "He is still dear to my heart. I will especially miss all my previous students 'growing up' and their smiling sweet faces."
Now that she has more free time, the Florala, Alabama, native, who has lived in Georgia for four decades, has some definite plans for her retirement.
"I will travel to my hometown in Alabama to visit my family and also do some long-term subbing," she said. "I’m an avid gardener as well, from which I learned from my parents. My flowers are definitely my best therapy."
The Cartersville resident earned a bachelor's degree from Auburn University and a master's degree from Berry College.
"I have three other siblings that graduated from Auburn as well," she said. "We didn’t have much of a choice after my dad played football in the early '50s for the late, great Shug Jordan."
Woodham spent the early years of her career at Cloverleaf as a kindergarten teacher.
"I then moved to second [grade] for several years," she said. "I then went back to my roots of first [grade] and retired in this grade."
The educator said she has been "touched deeply" by Ms. Frasier and another former Cloverleaf principal, Bobby McMillan, with whom she began her journey as a teacher.
"These two really set a fire in my soul to be the best teacher I could be," she said.
While they won't be returning to the jobs they held for years when school starts next week, many of the retirees told Ms. Frasier they plan to remain active with the school system.
"You just saw so much rich talent that had been with us so long, and each one that I talked to said that they wanted to continue to help and to make the world a better place for children," she said. "So many of them are going to sign up for the sub list or they're going to work with the Read to Grow program, but all of them told me that in one way or the other, they're going to continue to help children with their education, and they're going to help the Bartow County School System become better every day and how much they had enjoyed their time serving and that they're not stopping. They're just starting something different so it will be a new page, but we're anxious to read it."
She said she also recommended to the teachers who retired that they stay in touch with their schools to help their replacements get settled in, and many of them said that was their intention.
"So they're not really retiring," she said. "They're just repositioning, and they're going to be there helping. It's like they're just going to sort of be on the sidelines, but they're going to jump in and help when needed."
Besides Woodham, other 2020 retirees were Douglas Long, 43 years; Leisa Boulanger, 37 years; Harold Godhigh, 35 years; Alta McElrath, 35 years; Betty Thurman, 35 years; Becky Jones, 34 years; Jean McDermott, 34 years; Laura Bailey, 33 years; Martha Brumbeloe, 33 years; Donna Bentley, 30 years; Phyllis Bickford, 30 years; Gloria Boy, 30 years; Becky Roach, 30 years; Cynthia Duke, 27 years; Lynn Garland, 26.75 years; Cynthia Dennis, 25 years; Joyce Findley, 25 years; Danny Mitchum, 25 years; Kimberly Harriss, 24 years; Marc Doyle, 23.5 years; Karen Russell, 23 years; Kim Sacra, 23 years; Venita Bruton, 22 years; Joyce Hufstetler, 15 years; Linda Beatty, 14 years; Pankaj Daiya, 14 years; Allyson Dulaney, 14 years; Teresa Kayser, 13 years; Roger Maier, 11 years; and David Baker, 10 years.