While many stories have focused on the impact COVID-19 has had on students graduating from high school and college, there is the flip-side of education: the teachers and staff.
And for every group of students who is moving on to a new stage of life, there is a group of educators who is saying goodbye to the career they’ve known and hello to retirement.
And while COVID-19 has canceled many spring rites of passage, the perseverance of human beings continues to prevail. Whether it be virtual proms or graduation parades, schools and communities have come up with alternative ways to honor graduates. And on Monday, Great Plains Technology Center sent seven of its faculty and staff off into retirement with love that simply could not be captured in a run-of-the-mill retirement party.
To honor their retiring educators, the vocational school held a “retirement cruise” featuring the retiring staff members at individual tables scattered around the parking lot outside of Building 800 while faculty, friends and family slowly drove along and stopped to thank and congratulate them on their accomplishments. While nobody was quite sure just how many people to expect, few could have predicted the dozens upon dozens of vehicles that lined up to say goodbye to beloved staff members.
“It’s unique. We’ve never done anything like this,” retiring welding instructor Allen Bellamy said. “Hopefully we’re the first and last to do this.”
Allen and his wife Sherrie have combined for more than 70 years as educators, each getting hired at Great Plains in the late 1980s. Allen said everyone told him he would know when the time was right to walk away. This spring, it just felt right. It also felt right for Sherrie, who was most recently the activities coordinator but had also taught business and computer courses at Great Plains.
They’d always wanted to retire at the same time. They’d also always wanted to move back to Stillwater, where they both had attended college and had previously lived for a few years. So they decided now was as good a time as any.
They both agreed they would miss the people the most, miss dealing with students on a daily basis. With each passing car, it became clear that the feeling from coworkers was mutual.
“How will we go on without the Bellamys at Great Plains?,” one passer-by inquired from their vehicle.
Val and Kirk Mullenix were the other husband-wife couple retiring from GPTC and had perhaps the biggest cheering section, especially when it came to family members. Siblings, in-laws, children and grandchildren honked horns, waved witty signs and even presented them with matching leis. Val, the learning center coordinator, said the two plan on spending their retirement with their seven grandchildren, though she said she hopes to tutor in her spare time.
“I especially want to to tutor kids who can’t normally afford tutoring because I was that kid growing up,” Val said. “We have loved every moment with our students. I’ve never had a bad job in education.”
Kirk, the campus director, said he didn’t expect the number of people who showed up and the amount of support and love shown by the community.
“It’s surprising,” Kirk said. “I’m just a person who likes being around students and teachers.”
But to those whose lives and careers the educators touched, they meant so much more. It’s why Great Plains network instructor Nicholas Alexander was in line in his car on Monday. Alexander became aware of the tech center when he visited on a second-grade field trip. There, it was Allen Bellamy who talked to the students about what the tech center offered and what possibilities it could open.
“To me, he is Great Plains, or at least my most vivid first memory of it,” Alexander said. “We each got a metal plate and he showed us how to engrave our initials into it. I still have it, and meant to bring it with me.”
Not all of the retirees were at Great Plains as long as the Bellamys or Mullenixes, but each made an impact in their time there. Donnie Bain worked in economic development and helped with bid matching during his 12 years there. This was actually his second retirement after retiring in 2008 after 27 years in the postal service.
Tina Dickson served as the school nurse and medical building librarian during her 15 years at the campus. Patty Nolen only taught at Great Plains for four years, but holds GPTC in high regard, having attended there for high school, taking nursing assistant courses before becoming an instructor in the subject.
Each of them made their own unique footprint and brought different qualities to their jobs. However, each agreed that they’ll enjoy retirement, but miss seeing the same people every day.
“The support and the people, that’s what I’ll miss,” Nolen said. “There wasn’t ever a time I said, ‘I don’t understand this one thing,’ that someone didn’t immediately help me.”