Loose Ends: The Lunchroom Lady

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You would think after 40 years of teaching, a retired teacher would have the good sense to stay out of the schools. All the germs and unruly children, you know. One of my all-time favorite fellow teachers, Claire R. Burke didn’t think much of the traditional retirement plan. She moved back here to her hometown 12 years ago, and voluntarily signed up to supervise the lunchroom.
Her sweet nature and her unabashed love for the little ones led her to enlist in the elementary mentor program as well, and she worked with her young SOS partner weekly. Claire possessed not only that love of children, but the ability to be flexible and yet consistent. She was able to maintain a firm hand, while offering her charges a listening ear. Sweet is the word that came to mind time and again to describe her. It seemed only fitting that her fight with terminal cancer didn’t end until five days after her 88th birthday on Valentine’s Day.
Claire didn’t like to talk about herself. She would ask me what I thought of things that were happening around town or with the school, but never would she offer an opinion based on her own experiences in the classroom. While she loved reading articles and columns about the good old days, she looked to the future rather than staying back in her memories of the past.
Doling out praise for the newspaper articles she liked, as well as a suggestion or two for future pieces, she never neglected to let me know that she was reading my articles regularly. “Keep doing those Looking Back columns, I just love them!” she said before adding, “Each one reminds me of the way things were back then.” No rosy glow for Claire though, she didn’t abide remembrances that were overly sentimental or sickening-sweet. Yet she also asked that I keep her posted on how some of the changes in the White River Valley had affected the old traditions, as she thought it was good to blend both the old and the new to gain an understanding of the kind of life one continued to find in this small town.
Her sister, Nettie Fae Modlin, recently reminded me that Claire was not pleased when she’d get her weekly paper and search for my regular column, only to discover I had skipped another week. I told her that somehow Claire always let me know when this happened and asked that I be sure and write a column for the next week. She didn’t quite believe me when I would tell her that most of the time, the Herald Times had too much news and couldn’t find the space for the column.
While Claire had to give up volunteering in the schools when her doctors — as she described it, “corralled me at home” as her illness progressed — she continued to keep up with the community happenings. She continued to find space in her heart for the children she remembered from the lunchroom and for those she mentored.
Claire Burke will be missed, especially in the school community.