At 97, she's still going strong as a school volunteer


Irma Elliott, 97, a reading volunteer with the Alachua County Public School system, works with students at Duval Elementary School Wednesday, September 4, 2013.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 10:29 p.m.

Irma Elliott found her life's calling at 68 years old, when she retired from a lifetime of secretarial work and started volunteering at elementary schools.

"I said I wasn't going to quit work until I found something interesting to do," she said recently.

Now, at 97 years old, Elliott has enjoyed nearly 30 years in a second career, the one she was born to do: teaching.

For the past several years, Elliott has volunteered full time at Duval Elementary in east Gainesville.

Elliott was born Aug. 17, 1916, on a farm in Slater, Iowa, and lived within a 20-mile radius of her birthplace for 83 years.

She graduated from high school in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

But in the midst of the depression, teachers were not in high demand. So she took the work she could get, which was mainly housework and typing.

As a home typist, Elliott earned $4 or $5 a week addressing envelopes for companies. It was hard work, she said.

She married her husband, Orval Elliott, in 1940, and their only child, Barb, came a few years later.

Elliott spent 14 years in home typing and another 24 as a secretary for the Hach Company, which grew from 30 employees to 600-700 during her time there.

When she was in her 60s and nearing retirement, Elliott became very ill after a surgery, and doctors fought through the night to save her.

Lying in her bed the next morning, already starting to bounce back, she thought, "I must be here for a purpose," she said.

A couple of days later, a neighbor who was a school volunteer coordinator came over for tea.

You belong in a school after you retire, she told Elliott.

The neighbor knew just the place. There was a kindergarten teacher who desperately needed a classroom aide.

"It sounded like a big job," Elliott said, but she decided to do it. She quit her job on a Friday and started volunteering at the school on Monday.

The first two weeks, she helped out only in the morning.

However, semi-retirement didn't suit her, and she asked to volunteer full time.

Since then, Elliott has volunteered in one elementary school classroom or another all day, every day. Last year was the first time she took a sick day since she started volunteering.

Elliott helps teachers in all subjects, but her favorite is reading.

"I get goosebumps when they say, 'Now I understand,' 'Oh, this is fun,' 'I like to read,' " she said of her students. "That's the best satisfaction I get."

In 1999, Elliott, by then a widow, followed her daughter Barb to Gainesville.

Although she stopped driving when she moved to Florida, Elliott started volunteering in schools right away with the help of some friends who got her there.

She worked at P.K. Yonge, Talbot and Finley elementary schools, and now is at Duval Elementary.

Her 90th birthday came and went, then her 95th, and her 97th last month. She doesn't hear as well as she used to, but she hasn't slowed down much.

"There was always someone that needed help," Elliott said.

At Duval, everyone knows her.

"I'm just thankful that she's working in my classroom," said Brunilda Lopez, whose third-grade classroom has been Elliott's home base for about five years. "She's my right hand, seriously."

Lopez and Elliott work together as a team in the class. Elliott goes over the students' homework each week to see where individual children are struggling so she and Lopez can give more attention to that area.

Elliott is strict, Lopez said, so the children are sometimes surprised at first.

After a few weeks, though, "They love being at her table," Lopez said. "Some of them even complain if I don't send them there."

In Lopez's class on Wednesday, it was business as usual. During reading time, the third-graders broke into small groups to practice their skills, and three of them went to Elliott's table.

"Good morning, Mrs. Elliott," they say, then hold up their index fingers — which Elliott has taught them to use to follow along in the book while another student reads.

As she asked one of the boys to read a story aloud, all three students' fingers landed on the page and followed along.

"You're doing a good job of following," she told Breyana Thomas, 9, when she finished reading the story.

Elliott asks the students to relate the stories to their own lives, and sometimes interjects stories of when she was a child.

When she talks, her students never take their eyes off her face or their fingers off the page.

"I like when she helps me understand the words that I don't know," said Jeremiah Walker, 9. "She tells me when I miss the punctuation."

It's only two weeks into the school year, but already the children were slow to leave Elliott's reading station.

Lopez said Elliott's former reading students come back to visit her year after year.

She'll keep teaching, too, Elliot said. "As long as I'm able."

There's a quote by American writer Jesse Stuart that sums it up pretty well, she said.

Someone framed it for her once: "I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students," it reads. "Good teaching is forever, and the teacher is immortal."

Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or erin.jester@gainesville.com.

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