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Retired educators remain close, decades after leaving the classroom

Beth Wise (from left), Charlene Pruitt and Gwen Sweitzer chats as a group of retired teachers, called the Bethesda Cardinals, from one elementary school in Gwinnett County meet for their annual luncheon at the Cottages/Payne-Corley House in Duluth.The group continues to bond together, and serve the school, years after they’ve quit teaching. Some are in their 90s. Photo by Phil Skinner
Beth Wise (from left), Charlene Pruitt and Gwen Sweitzer chats as a group of retired teachers, called the Bethesda Cardinals, from one elementary school in Gwinnett County meet for their annual luncheon at the Cottages/Payne-Corley House in Duluth.The group continues to bond together, and serve the school, years after they’ve quit teaching. Some are in their 90s. Photo by Phil Skinner

Retired educators from Bethesda Elementary have been sharing milestones and friendships long after their professional connection to the Gwinnett County school ended.

The Bethesda Retired Cardinals and Friends, which takes the name of the school’s former mascot, is more than a retired teachers group. Close relationships that began in the classroom have continued through the years, some as long as 50 years. The group includes second-generation educators, mothers and daughters, and sisters who taught together. Some retirees even attended school at Bethesda, then returned there to teach. They all maintain love and connection to the school.

Faye Osteen, leader of the Retired Cardinals, said, as a beginning teacher in 1968, she was welcomed into the Bethesda community right from the start. Most of her co-workers led similar lives: married with young children. They bonded as friends, and the older teachers and staff were so supportive it became like a close-knit family. As the school grew and new teachers came in, they too were drawn into the fellowship, explained the 74-year-old Osteen, who taught elementary school students for 41 years.

During the group’s recent annual Christmas luncheon, Alice McLaurin, who taught physical education for 20 years at Bethesda, reconnected with former art teacher Judy Noller and former music teacher Charlene Pruitt. She explained the camaraderie she had with her fellow teachers.

“We’re sisters,” she said. “We all raised our kids together, and on some level, we’re family. We all love children and loved the work that we did.”

Like many of the other Bethesda staff, McLaurin didn’t finish her teaching career at that school. In a fast-growing suburban area, teachers can be as mobile as the students they teach.

However, it didn’t matter where these educators moved; their connection to Bethesda remained, Osteen said.

“The camaraderie, the friendship, and the caring and loving didn’t always seem to be at the other schools like it was at Bethesda,” she said.

Mary Dell Weldon-Robert, who taught at several different schools throughout her career, believes Bethesda is unique in having a retired teachers’ group so connected and credits Osteen with keeping everyone together.

“Faye keeps this one bubbling and going,” Weldon-Robert said, who taught at Bethesda in the 1970s.

Osteen said she’s often referred to as “the glue” of the group. She organizes the yearly Christmas luncheons, outings to various attractions, and service and mentoring opportunities at the school. She pulls together photos to create albums, sends newsletters and emails, keeping everyone informed on who’s in the hospital or who’s passed away.

McLaurin said members always respond with a prayer for those who are sick, sympathy cards, and even birthday cards for extended family. She said her mother received cards from them when she turned 100.

“It’s highly unusual to have a group like this, but it’s highly unusual to have a person like Faye,” McLaurin said. “She’s an amazing woman. She has open arms and a big heart.”

Principal Katrina Larmond said the group’s involvement “runs deep” at Bethesda, one of the oldest and largest Gwinnett County elementary schools.

The retired educators regularly volunteer to work and host events and plan surprises for the staff. Members donate children’s books for the media center in memory of colleagues who’ve passed away.

Judy Gazda, a former paraprofessional at the elementary school, still volunteers one day a week in the media center. She said a group like this is very unusual, even in the teaching profession. She credits Osteen for keeping them together.

Iris Harris, a former first-grade teacher, agreed. “Faye is really good about holding on to us,” she said.

During the annual Christmas luncheon, Linda and Bill Buckalew drove in from Newnan, as they do every year because Linda taught at Bethesda for 14 years. And even though they’ve moved around a lot, the Bethesda folks are still “like family,” they said. Instead of drifting apart through the years, as co-workers often do, the bonds have become stronger.

Osteen explains it this way: “It’s a bunch of caring educators who became a strong family unit. It’s unreal, and it’s hard to explain, but it’s just a feeling you got when you were in that school.”

WHAT INSPIRES THE BETHESDA RETIRED CARDINALS AND FRIENDS?

Faye Osteen: "They've seen me through a lot of tragedies. They're like a family. My family is all down in south Georgia, and I would say they are the family that's replaced my real family."

Judy Gazda: "This is family. It's very unusual to have something like this. The way Faye gets us all together, if somebody has a hangnail we'd all know about it."

Carolyn Beaty: "This group is special to me because they've been my friends for so long." Beaty said her family donated the land for Bethesda Elementary School. She attended school there in the original building built in 1905, then taught in the current building for her entire career, beginning in 1974. Her three children also attended Bethesda Elementary.

HELP US INSPIRE ATLANTA

We recognize a big part of our journalistic mission is to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings and to hold our public officials accountable.

But we also understand the importance of celebrating our region’s moments, milestones and people. That’s exactly what we hope to accomplish with Inspire Atlanta.

Each week, Inspire Atlanta will profile a person that makes metro Atlanta a better place in which to live.

Of course, we can't do this alone: We need your help in finding extraordinary people and identifying inspiring stories across our region. We learned about Bethesda Retired Cardinals and Friends from Faye Osteen.

Know someone who inspires you or makes metro Atlanta a better place for others?

Email us at inspireatlanta@ajc.com.