Retired Champaign teachers: 'It's like a family reunion'

Retired Champaign teachers: 'It's like a family reunion'

URBANA — The retired teachers had gathered in Betty Rowell's backyard, pointing, exclaiming and hugging each other as a new one walked in.

But the man of the hour Friday afternoon was Jim Casey.

Rowell, a retired Unit 4 educator, had invited teachers and staffers from the now-shuttered Columbia and former Ben Franklin elementary schools to her home for the first real reunion the group had ever had. Nearly 20 people who'd taught in the '70s or '80s milled about her backyard, striking up conversations with each other as if it hadn't been years — or decades — since they'd met in person.

And if you asked any of them what brought them out, at some point, the conversation turned to Casey, a longtime Unit 4 educator and former Columbia principal.

"I thought after all this time, as I'm losing friends in the community, I don't want to celebrate them when they won't know about it," Rowell said. "I think it's imperative that he be recognized as the leader he is in this community."

Casey spent 22 years as a principal in the district: first at Columbia in 1972, then at Ben Franklin, before moving back to Columbia in 1989, where he stayed until his 1994 retirement. Prior to that, he worked his way through the ranks of various grade-level teaching and administrator work.

Most of the educators present Friday could trace their careers to him in some way, be it at the start or his encouragement to keep going. But it was partially that constant movement between schools that united them: Even now, the experience was fresh on the minds of those who'd lived it — including Casey.

"I'm the guy that they moved from Columbia to Franklin back to Columbia," he said. "To move us there and then move us back, it was like a game of musical chairs."

That Unit 4 is reopening the Columbia Center as a temporary school while Dr. Howard is built anew is irony not lost on former special education teacher Pat Brown.

"You'd think they're going through it for the first time," she said. "When we were there, there were no crossing lights at Randolph. That was a mess. The time crossing the streets was less than it is now. Can you imagine that? But we survived."

But no one in the group was bitter. It had been a bonding experience for them — the group of self-described "career educators" and "lifelong learners" who'd found fulfillment in their work and a friend or mentor in Casey. That they were moved seemingly at a whim came second to their students and family they'd created amongst each other.

"One thing we used to do was a social hour every Friday," Bette Holmes said. "It was always in somebody's house. Every Friday we'd do it, and I think it kept us close."

They cooked their own food, drank and had fun with each other, she said. Richard Adkins called it "sharing resources."

"We loved each other," he said. "I actually became a teacher myself because of the influence of these women."

• • • •

Casey played a part in Adkins' education, as well. In the late 1970s, Adkins was a custodian at Columbia. He worked during the day, which conflicted with his desire to take classes at Parkland.

It was Casey who gave him the go-ahead to leave work for classes, anyway.

"In the afternoons I would leave the school, go to Parkland, then go back to the school and finish my hours," Adkins said. "That was a real blessing. It helped me graduate."

And not just graduate.

"When I graduated from Parkland," he said, "I got married the same day. It was a victory day, that's for sure."

Adkins majored in criminology and law enforcement and spent 25 years as a Champaign police officer. But even after decades, he still couldn't escape schools entirely.

"I was a D.A.R.E. officer, too, in the district for almost 20 years," he said. "I actually became a teacher myself because of the influence of these women — after I retired from the police department, I became a teacher. And I worked with this group for several years, about five years. I taught fourth grade at Westview Elementary. Then I did long-term subbing after that."

Anita Andrews, another retired special education teacher, remembered when buildings didn't have air conditioning — except for the main office.

"Back then, they told us in the '80s that computers had to have air conditioning and that's why the office did," she said. "But I remember those first computers they bought for us — I had a blueberry iMac — and we started saying, 'Well, we have computers now, shouldn't we get air conditioning, too?' And they'd say, 'Oh no, no, no.'"

Pat Brown remembers what it was like to have dedicated rooms for other staffers. Those in special education at the time, she and Andrews explained, were relegated to spaces under stairwells or in hallways and didn't have their own rooms in a building.

"I have COPD from all the asbestos they used to use when building," Brown said.

• • • •

Back then, teachers gave so much, as Brown put it, she ended up having more money in retirement than she was used to.

"I always used to feed kids, too," she said. "So did Anita. They'd get breakfast at school, but then they'd be hungry later. I think that cost about a $100 a week. If you ever needed food, you could come to me."

She had so many things, she said, that when she moved buildings, she had to rent a U-Haul to take them all with her.

"I paid for it myself," she said. "I was an accumulator and I provided mostly my own materials. Special ed was always the orphan. On our own. Anita and I always, rather than have a kid run back to get a pencil or something, we'd already have pencils there. Since I've retired, I've gotten more money because I'm not spending it all."

Those on hand Friday didn't have to speak to share memories. In the shade, photos and yearbooks from each of the schools were laid out — mostly in disarray from the constant picking up and putting down.

A Ben Franklin staff photo showed teachers in the large, shapeless skirts and big hair of the late '80s. A nearby album showed photos of the educators, bright smiles across their faces in classrooms that no longer exist or have been changed entirely.

"History has been made by Columbia Elementary School and Ben Franklin Elementary School without even being a part of the district now," Rowell said. "But we cannot forget the past."

Friday afternoon was a reunion — technically, a teacher's reunion — but Casey didn't see it only in that light.

"We tried to create a family atmosphere in our school, and I think that's quite evident today," he said. "It's like a family reunion.

"I've been retired 24 years and some of these people, I haven't seen since. We kept in contact — birthdays, Father's Day, sending clippings about what's happening in Unit 4 today. But it's really been interesting to me. We had some sad stories, but we had many success stories."

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