Irene Glover takes a moment while packing up her classroom May 29 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. She taught third graders for 44 years at Crawford Elementary until her retirement May 23. (Barbara Pile)
Irene Glover began May 23 just as she had begun every other day at Crawford Elementary School on Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, for the past 44 years.
She stood at the door of her third-grade classroom and greeted each student as they came in.
More than 50 years before, Glover’s favorite teacher, Mrs. Brand, invited her pupils into their one-room schoolhouse in Alabama much the same way.
“I always wanted to be just like Mrs. Brand,” Glover said. “I thought she was the most beautiful person in the world.”
She began teaching military children at Eielson in 1969, while her husband was stationed there. Joe Glover, who worked in transportation and served in the Vietnam War, retired as a technical sergeant in 1972. He went back to work for the Air Force as a civilian.
Glover could have retired from teaching in 1989, but she wasn’t ready — and wouldn’t be for 24 more years.
This January, in the midst of a particularly harsh winter, she decided it was time. Many mornings, the few miles she traveled to school were covered in ice, sending her car sliding even while traveling at 10 mph. “It’s dangerous. I decided I’ve done this for so long, I’m just about at the end of doing this.”
Glover wanted to keep her departure quiet.
“I asked the school district not to publicize it,” she said.
In fact, it was her husband who encouraged her to speak to a reporter about her more than four decades as an educator. In that cold, remote part of the country, Glover “touched the lives of hundreds of families,” said Crawford principal Barbara Pile.
Pile called Glover’s teaching style firm and no-nonsense. But her care for her students was undeniable.
She stayed in third grade for 44 years, asking only once for a change when one of her three children reached that grade. She wanted to avoid any potential awkwardness with the other teachers. But the principal at the time denied the request, and when she was approached to change grades in the years afterward, she always declined.
“Third grade is my favorite,” she said. “They are pretty self-sufficient, but they are not too grown yet.”
During winter, temperatures would routinely fall to minus 20 degrees, which Glover guarded against with goose-down coats and furs. She remembers the coldest day she ever worked: the thermometer said minus 53.
Her workdays were long; she often stayed at school until 6 or 7 p.m. because, she said, that’s how long it took to get the job done.
“It may not sound like it’s true,” she said, but “there was only one day when I said, ‘I’m not looking forward to today.’ ” That had to do with the administration at the time, who told Glover she ought to spend more time with the other teachers.
She didn’t agree with that.
“I love teaching. I love being in the classroom with the kids. Every day, I had something important I wanted to do,” she said. “In some respects, if you stay with a class for nine months, they become your children.”
Glover stayed so long at Crawford that she taught the children of some of her students. She joked with them that she didn’t plan to stay long enough to teach a third generation.
Her fondest memories are also her saddest: children with difficult home lives who clung to her on the last day of school, crying because they didn’t want to leave the security and love Mrs. Glover offered day after day. She tears up when she thinks of them. She said she hopes their lives turned out better than they expected.
The teacher collected hundreds of photographs and sweet, scribbled sentiments over the years, stashing them in envelopes and boxes for a time when she could return to them.
Now, she expects, she will have the time.
“It would be nice if you could just kind of go on forever,” Glover said. “But you can’t.”
For three years, Glover has been in a long-distance marriage. Her husband moved east in 2010. They marked 50 years of marriage in May — apart. He works as a minister and splits his time between North Carolina and South Carolina. Soon, she will join him full time. She plans to visit the only three U.S. states she hasn’t been to: Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. Beyond that, she has thought little of retirement.
Glover didn’t tell her students she wouldn’t be back in her classroom next year.
She spent the last day of school as she always did, leaving them with a final exercise she hoped would inspire them.
Glover handed out paper circles she calls golden coins and instructed the students to write one nice thing about each of their classmates.
She asked them if they wanted her to go to the fourth grade with them. “They said, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ I laughed and said ‘I don’t think I can do that.’ ”
At the end of the day, she stood at the door of her classroom and wished her students well for the last time.