PRINCETON — The year was 1958 ... What happened during that time 56 years ago?
• The Hula Hoop was introduced to the world.
• Popular films were “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Gigi.”
• Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra sent women swooning.
• TV-watchers tuned into the new “Candid Camera” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
• And ... Eleanor Walker began her 56-year career in education.
As Principal Eleanor Walker packed up her teaching and administrative tools in her office at Jefferson Elementary School in Princeton, the memories came back to her as a long list of precious moments she will hold close to her heart. Some things like old mimeograph papers made her remember how far the educational world had come in the past 56 years, while tokens of love from students tugged at her heartstrings.
Walker began her career in education in 1958 at Lincoln Grade School in Princeton as a second-grade teacher. She worked in that capacity for 26 years, after which she became a principal at the school who also taught a classroom of students. She held the title of principal at Lincoln for 10 years before moving to Jefferson Elementary School, where she was the principal for 20 more years. On Monday, at this month’s Princeton Elementary School Board meeting, Walker announced her retirement — a bittersweet decision that has created a myriad of emotions, thoughts and reflections, as she looks back on a career that spanned more than five decades.
“It’s hard to do,” she said from her office this week. “I hate to leave all the people I work with — the staff, the administrators and the school. Of course, I will miss the children.”
Aaahhh, the children ... In Walker’s career, she has taught, been in contact with, and has been entrusted with the welfare of thousands of area children.
“Those children were always the bright spot in the day. They would come in with a nice smile or a hug; you just can’t pass that up,” she said.
Walker spoke a bit about the changes in education she’s seen in her 56-year career. Topping her list is technology.
“It’s amazing how much technology has changed for us and for the children, so you are constantly learning new things,” Walker said. “There are just a lot of new things out there for boys and girls.
“I’ve also watched values changes,” she said. “The basic needs of children are always there, but it’s a much faster world for them — good or bad. Family time has also changed.”
Another major change Walker spoke about are the necessary security measures that need to be taken in schools these days. She, of course, remembers a place in time when locked doors, visitor badges and heightened security measures were never part of the educational equation.
“Safety for the kids is so much more out there than every before,” she said. “Sometimes you feel unwelcoming because you have the doors locked ... It’s alarming.”
In general, Walker said she is really pleased with the teachers who work tirelessly to offer a sound education to students.
“(The teachers) are learning all the time ways to help kids; they really are interested in helping children. It is such a challenge anymore when you go into the classroom in the fall. Everything changes, and you have to be ready to do it,” she said.
Walker was always the type of teacher/administrator who believe in children being exposed to the arts. A proponent of the art and music programs at her schools, she has wonderful memories of exposing students to different cultures. She remembered a time when foreign teachers came and worked with the staff in Princeton. Despite financial constraints, she always wanted her students to have exposure to the arts and different places/cultures.
“We’ve had hard times in our district, and we’ve had really good times. But we’ve always tried to keep the children first,” she said.
So after 56 years and more changes than she can count, would she encourage young adults to follow in her footsteps and go into education?
“Yes, I would encourage them. I knows it’s a challenge, and you have to have compassion for children,” she said thoughtfully. “You have to help them change and get ready for life. We have to get them ready, and if your passion is working with young people, they you should do it.”
So now what? Even though Walker decided to lay down her chalk and take off her administrative hat, she said she will always remain involved with children. She has always had a passion for children’s literature, so something in that direction might be on her horizon. She may also be seen lending a hand in the district, when the next school year rolls around ... To put it in a nutshell, she said, “Anything I can do with children will be good. I hope to still be involved.”
Aside from that, Walker will be able to spend some time with her horse and ducks on the farm, as well as other interests and passions.
“You can ride a bicycle all your life and never use all the gears; well, I think there are some gears out there I haven’t used,” she said, smiling.
But perhaps the biggest question as Walker reflects on a career that has touched so many should be this: If she had to do it all again, would she? She didn’t hesitate with her answer.
“I would absolutely do it all over again. I have been so fortunate,” Walker said.
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Words of wisdom for Walker
"Many people will speak of Eleanor's impact on the lives of students over the years ... her ability to meet children where they are and know just how to help each reach his or her potential. But I had the unique privilege of sharing a second-grade classroom with Eleanor for four years (she was part-time principal at Lincoln and taught second grade in the a.m., principal in the p.m.). During those years, I had the opportunity of learning from a master teacher as I watched Eleanor's poised and warm manner — her memory of the details of the children's lives — her sharing of her love of quality children's literature as well as her knowledge of nature (we incubated ducklings from her farm) — and her gentleness with troubled children. Eleanor set the bar high for me and all of the Lincoln staff, and I am so much the better for having Eleanor as my mentor and my dear friend.
Ann Spitler, retired PES teacher
"First of all, nothing has to be said, as the entire community knows about Eleanor's commitment to Princeton Elementary. Eleanor truly loves our district and community, and she demonstrated it every day. Eleanor is what we want PES to stand for because she cares deeply about every child. She believes in kids and always worked hard for their benefit. I have never known a more selfless person because with Eleanor everyone else comes first. I admire her commitment to others. She has impacted many PES students, staff and yours truly in a very positive way. For that, we will be forever grateful!"
Tim Smith, PES superintendent
"I have nothing but positives to say about Eleanor. Mrs. Walker had a long and successful career because she always put her children and her staff first. Also, she was very supportive of new trends that she believed would be of benefit to the children. Eleanor did not support new concepts that she did not feel would be in their best interests. Over the years, she has been extremely generous in her time and her money, not only to the Princeton Elementary School District but also to districts such as Bureau Valley. I wish her the very best in her retirement. The Princeton community holds a debt of gratitude to her."
Jim Whitmore, former PES superintendent
"I admire and respect Mrs. Walker for so many things, but there are three qualities that I appreciate the most about her. First, she lead with such class, grace, dignity and integrity in our district ... always with a kind heart and yet, so professional. Secondly, she was such an advocate for children and ALWAYS made decisions with the children's best interest at heart — first and foremost. Finally, Mrs. Walker continued to learn and be a student of education even while sorting her files to leave and enjoy retirement! She modeled for her staff how to stay current on best practices in education by continuing to learn and confirm with research to make sure that what we were doing was best for children's education. Mrs. Walker will be missed, but she has touched so many lives in her 56 years ... and the positive impact she has made will continue to affect this community for years to come."
Jill Cardosi, PES teacher