Former cheerleader reconnects with former gym teacher 50 years later

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 18, 2013 

Thanks to Susan Price of Fripp Island for sharing the story of a special reunion.

THAT 'EXTRA SPECIAL' DAY

By Susan Woodard Price

Every day that I wake up I know that I am blessed. I live a beautiful life on a very beautiful Fripp Island with a loving husband and a family in Georgia striving to be all they can be ... five beautiful grandchildren doing well in school and playing sports.

We think, of course, they all will achieve grand possibilities. With our loving friends with whom we share such fun times, what more can we as adults, parents, grandparents, friends want out of life?

But every once in a while you wake up and know that today is going to be a little more special than the other days.

That happened to me this past fall ... and then again today, Jan. 26.

To set the day up for you, you have to know the background.

I came from a divorced family in the 1960s ... not really an acceptable way of life then. It was the time to sign up for the tryouts for cheerleader for Spaugh Junior High School in Charlotte. I thought, "I really cannot do this ... no one will accept me because of my background."

But then, a very young physical education teacher, just graduated from Winthrop College, a Miss Gwen Thacker, called me into her office and asked me why I had not signed up to try out. I told her my feelings about my "family situation" and that day she changed my life. She looked at me and asked me why I felt so different. I told her I felt I didn't deserve to be a cheerleader. In the '60s it was a very special honor to achieve the position of a cheerleader for your school.

I know in today's world it doesn't happen very often, but this teacher changed my life. She said to me that every student deserved the same, no matter what their circumstance was, and that was the defining moment in my life.

I did try out. And, yes, I did make the cheerleader squad and was then voted to be the head cheerleader. Only those ladies of the 1960s would know and understand what this meant to such a young girl.

So, because of those days, I felt the positive energy to achieve whatever I wanted.

Miss Thacker moved from Spaugh Junior High in 1963 and we -- all her students -- lost touch with her.

Fast forward to August 2012. I received an email from a friend saying she had found a Miss Gwen Thacker online and that she had married in 1963 after she left Spaugh Junior High. Her married name and address were also on the Internet, and on Aug. 23, 2012, I wrote her a letter to let her know how she had changed my life.

Four days later she called me at my home; it was such an amazing event. We talked about our past and present lives, and we spoke of the other students she had influenced through her years of teaching. It was a wonderful conversation.

On Sept. 15 while driving back to Fripp Island from a visit to Charlotte, I decided I wanted to make a surprise visit to see Miss Thacker, now Mrs. Binnicker, in Norway, S.C. As my husband Allan and I drove up a welcoming driveway, there was an unexplainable thrill of seeing this lady, after 50 years, come to answer my knock on her door. Just as it was 50 years ago, I hugged the woman I had such admiration for.

She had not changed. She was still beautiful for her 79 years, and still the same Southern lady we knew in the early '60s. Allan and I visited with her and her husband, Bill, for two hours in a home that would make anyone feel welcome.

I learned that she had left Spaugh in 1963 to move back to Norway, her hometown, to marry her childhood sweetheart Bill Binnicker. He worked the family dairy farm after graduating from Clemson, and she began teaching in Orangeburg schools. They raised three boys. One is now a banker, and two are educators. We looked at family photos and the well-worn Spaugh annuals that she had kept all the years. It was an amazing afternoon.

When I returned home I began emailing all my friends with chom I had grown up to let them know about my visit. We have such a bond -- our class of 1965 still has five-year reunions, but there also is a yearly reunion at Ocean Drive every October for anyone who graduated in the '60s.

From such a widespread list in my contact file, I was able to share what I had experienced with so many of her former students. I asked them all to get in touch with this wonderful lady, and they have.

She has been receiving cards, letters and photos every day. She told me she feels like a "rock star" from all the attention. Her mailman could not keep up with the Thanksgiving and Christmas cards she was receiving. Every letter, as she has shared with me, contained such heartfelt love and admiration for this woman, and how she had been an influence in their lives. But she keeps saying that we all have been a true blessing coming to her. She is now a Sunday school teacher and shares all our love for her with those she now teaches.

So now, the explaination of the "extra special day." I wanted my friends that have been corresponding with her to visit with her also. So on Jan. 26, 15 "golden girls" met Miss Thacker for lunch in a small, quaint restaurant, the Chestnut Grill, in Orangeburg. For 14 of the ladies, it was the first time to see this beloved woman in 50 years. What a thrill as I watched each one spend time with her, talking about their lives, their families, and the memories of her being their teacher. We spoke of PE classes, of winning championships on all our sports teams, of how things were "different" in those days.

Surprising her with gifts from our hearts -- mostly books because she is such an avid reader -- photo after photo was taken ... all with smiles from her heart.

But another surprise was coming her way. Orangeburg's newspaper, The Times and Democrat, came to interview her and take pictures. She was shocked beyond belief. Everyone in her town knew she had been a teacher in North Carolina, but really didn't know what she had done for so many students before moving back to her hometown.

The article was published the next day, and I am sure her Sunday school class has discussed it in depth.

THE GIFTS

But there was one more surprise. This one was from her. As I had called her to let her know that we were planning this lunch together, she had made a plan herself. As we all finished lunch, she got up to speak -- thanking us for what we have done for her and how much love she had for us all.

Then she passed out little gift bags to all 15 of us. She said there were five items in the bag and we were to take out the first one -- a small piece of candy. She explained that sometimes you take a small bite of the sweetness or maybe sometimes you would take all the sweetness at one time. She said the bites were just like us -- some a small bit of sweetness, some all sweetness. We didn't dare ask who was which.

The second gift was a small scented candle. That was because we all "smelled good" back then. You have to understand in the '60s -- after PE class EVERYONE was required to take a shower before returning to our next class. That was an experience that, unless you were there, you would not understand.

The third gift was two small bird salt and pepper shakers. As we sat and waited for this explanation she just smiled. She said we all were the "salt of this earth," but there were also some who were very "peppery." She would not know from day to day which student was going to be full of "pepper."

The fourth gift was a small flashlight because we had "lighted up her life."

And then the fifth. She had 15 small marble stones with the 50th reunion of Spaugh Junior High School engraved on them. She had, in turn, touched our hearts -- just as she did 50 years ago.

The day was coming to an end and no one wanted to leave. Teary goodbyes were said, promises of more letters, more visits, more phone calls were made -- all of which I know will be kept -- as well as the promise of another reunion to be scheduled soon for other former students who were not able to make this one.

As I drove the two hours back to my very blessed life on Fripp Island, I knew this day for sure was one of those "golden moments" that I will keep tucked away in my heart forever.

Miss Thacker, for sure, is my "extra special day."

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