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'I teach because I love the kids'

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

It was strictly business in Corona Harper's classroom.

She sat between two students, watching them copy letters from a newspaper. When one puzzled over the capital "A," Harper sternly pointed to the letter and insisted he try again. When the other finished his work correctly, she gave a nod of approval and quick, "That's right."

Recess is the time for play, Harper tells other teachers. Lunch is the time for talking.

And so it went in Tuesday's intensive learning disability resource class at Jefferson Elementary in Cape Girardeau, where Harper was a substitute working with only two students at a time for 20-minute intervals all day.

Her methods may seem a little old school to some. That's because they are.

At 90, she is quite possibly the oldest person still teaching in Missouri. Every year, she says it will be her last. But every summer, she gets the call asking her to substitute once again.

And so, every fall, she climbs into her big silver sedan, and there she is.

"I teach because I love the kids," Harper said. "I just keep hanging on. I don't seem to want to quit."

That's why she is still teaching after 61 years. She will celebrate her 91st birthday Tuesday.

When Missouri teachers turn 65, they can apply for one-year additions to their teaching certificates each year until their 70th birthdays. If they choose to teach after 70, they can only do so as substitute teachers.

"It's rare that teachers would want to continue teaching after they turn 70," said Bob Iglehart, Missouri State Teacher Association director of membership. "But it is not unheard of."

When Harper turned 65 in 1975, she decided she didn't want to mess with recertification, so she put her name on the substitute teaching list. She hasn't taken it off since.

Iglehart said the oldest substitute teacher he has known was Mildred Lever, who substitute taught in Rolla until she was well into her 80s.

"I think it's great if you're physically and mentally able to do it at that age," Iglehart said. "They say if you hang around young people, you will stay young."

Informal adoptions

Harper has been hanging around young people for as long as she can remember.

She and her late husband, R.W. Harper, never had children. Harper said she considers the school kids to be hers because she loves them as much as any mother would.

Harper attended Southeast Missouri State University in 1928 seeking her bachelor's degree in education and went on to Southern Illinois University to obtain her master's in education.

After finishing that degree, she came home and started her teaching career in a little two-room schoolhouse in Scott County, Mo.

But Harper wasn't finished with being a student yet. For several years during the summer when Harper was not teaching school, she traveled all across the country attending schools like Columbia University in New York to gain additional teaching credits.

"I had a good time in New York," Harper said. "The school was like a castle, and I learned so much."

After a few years teaching in Scott County, Harper went on to teach fifth grade for 21 years at the Lorimer School in Cape Girardeau before finishing her career teaching fourth grade at Franklin Elementary.

"I witnessed a lot of progress in history," Harper said, noting that the airplane was invented only seven years before she was born. "I traveled all over and have been to almost every state in the union except Alaska and Hawaii."

In addition to her travel stories, Harper shares her love of baseball with students.

"I'm crazy about the Cardinals," she said. So crazy, in fact, that she went to St. Louis to go to Busch Stadium on May 12, 1966, for the first game in the new stadium, returned home at about 3 a.m. and went to school a few hours later.

For years, Harper played baseball at recess and after school with the children. She was the pitcher and umpire.

Since she began substituting, Harper has made an impression on children and teachers in the schools where she works, other educators say.

"She is a fantastic woman," Linda Alberson, learning disability resource teacher at Jefferson Elementary, said. "The kids are astounded by her age, but they are impressed that she is still coming back."

Sixth-grader Dustin Welker remembers the first time he met Harper last year.

He thought she was just another older woman coming to teach his class for the day. When he found out she was 89, he wondered if she would be able to help him learn at all -- and he soon found out she could.

"She's pretty neat," he said. "She teaches me tricks that help me learn math easier."

Harper said this could very well be her last year substitute teaching, although she admits she says that every year. "They just keep calling me back."

Jefferson Elementary principal Mark Cook said the whole school will sing "Happy Birthday" to Harper and give her a cake on Tuesday.

hkronmueller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 128


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