Elementary reading room in Charleston dedicated to former principal

Sunday, June 7, 2009

CHARLESTON -- Shane Stewart, a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper, remembers many mornings where he returned home from his 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift, only to find his wife, Becky, reading a book.

"She'd be reading and have to get up at 6:30 a.m. to go to work (as principal of Hearnes Elementary in Charleston, Mo.)," Stewart recalled. "Becky loved to read. Ninety percent of her time was reading."

Stewart also said he couldn't remember a day his wife didn't read to their two children, Madelynn, 8; and Jake, 6.

"It's contagious because the kids love to read, too," Stewart said.

So it seems only fitting the new reading room at Hearnes Elementary in Charleston has been named in Becky Stewart's honor.

On Sunday, teachers, students, parents and other community members will gather at 2 p.m. to dedicate the Becky Stewart Reading Room located in "D pod" of the elementary school. Stewart, who served as principal there for nearly 10 years, died unexpectedly Oct. 20, 2008. She was 36.

"Her emphasis was always reading -- she loved reading herself. She thought that reading was the most important thing a child could learn. That was just her philosophy," Charleston R-1 Superintendent Kevin Miller said.

Miller recalled about three or four years ago when Stewart came to him about expanding Hearnes Elementary's library and developing a reading room. "She wanted to create an inviting place for the kids to just relax and read a book during library time as well as store Reading First program materials and for teachers to enjoy, too," Miller said.

When Stewart first approached Miller, the school didn't have the space, but two years ago, a maintenance project began to connect a reading room to the library.

"We had room for some of the older library computers and leveled reading materials (for the Reading First program) in there. We had begun to build some shelving and racks to hold those reading materials, and we were beginning to put those things together at the end of last year," Miller recalled.

After Stewart's death, the family designated the library at Hearnes Elementary as the location for memorials.

"She wanted the room finished, and we decided we would finish it this year, and that's what we've done," said Suellen Fenton, school counselor and member of the reading room committee.

The district's maintenance department built a piece of cabinetry to house reading materials, and keeping with an educational theme, area rugs, bean bags and other child-size furniture accent the room.

Miller said many individuals have donated time, money and talent to fixing up the room to create a pleasant place for students to read.

"It was all Becky's dream. It was her vision. We felt like we could use the memorial donations in a way that would benefit the school and recognize her contribution and vision as well," Miller said.

Several of Stewart's "touches" can be found throughout the room. For example, her favorite children's book, "The Kissing Hand" by Audrey Penn is the focus of the room. The story tells about a little raccoon's first day of school and how his mother eases his fears by kissing the palms of hands as a way to let him know she's always with him. Stewart's children made their handprints on the wall and are located near a portrait of Stewart.

Stewart's favorite poem, which she had hanging in her office, also hangs on the wall as well as a plaque given by the Board of Education indicating Stewart's service to the children. Titles of some of Stewart's favorite books have been placed in the room, and words that are titles of books with coordinating graphics are featured on the room's walls.

Stewart admitted he's even tried to read more since his wife's death.

"She was the happiest, most positive person I ever knew, and Becky understood even the simplest things. As intelligent as she was, she realized how important it was to know every kid's name. And she knew all 600-plus kids' names in the school -- and she knew their backgrounds," Stewart said.

It was the small things his wife did that made the biggest differences in others' lives, Stewart said.

Once when they were shopping, Becky saw people she knew and started yelling hello, Stewart said. "I said, 'We re fixing to pass them in 30 seconds. Why not wait until we pass them to say hi?' She said: 'Because I'm happy to see them, and I want them to know I'm happy to see them.' And she meant that."

Stewart said his children have a comfort at Hearnes Elementary, where they would see their mother daily.

"There are so many memories of Becky there, and this (room) is one more thing to attach them to that school," Stewart said.

Fenton said at the end of the school year one of the students who had just looked at the room said: "It has a spirit about it."

"And that's how we feel," Fenton said. "It is the essence of Becky. It's playful for children but somber in its message about who she was."

The completed reading room is a culmination of the year, Fenton added.

"It makes you sad when you walk in there, and at the same time, you're like: "Ah... ah... yeah. This is perfect," Fenton said.

As for how Stewart would feel about the finished product, those who know her think she'd be pleased.

"She'd love it," Fenton said. "She'd do a little dance."

leonnah@ standard-democrat.com

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