Retired educator honored as Morrilton Citizen of the Year

By Tammy Keith Published November 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Judy Calhoun, 69, of Morrilton, a retired teacher and counselor, has been named Citizen of the Year and will be honored at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce’s 86th annual banquet and awards ceremony at the Sacred Heart Gymnasium.

Judy Calhoun said she’s surprised every time she gets an honor — and she’s been surprised a lot in her life.

The latest in the 69-year-old’s long list of accolades is Morrilton Citizen of the Year.

“I’m proud of all of them,” she said.

Calhoun said that when Cody Hill of the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce told her she was selected, “I asked if he was joking, and he said, ‘No.’ There are so many people in Morrilton who could be Citizen of the Year.”

She’ll be honored Monday, along with other award winners, at the chamber banquet.

The retired teacher and counselor’s successes have come despite her difficult childhood.

Her mother, Nina Gene, a third-grade teacher, died at age 37. Calhoun said she believes her mother’s liver and heart problems developed from her having polio as a child.

“She died when I was 7,” Calhoun said.

Before she died, Calhoun’s mother did two things. She divorced her father — unheard of in those days — and she made sure there was money set aside for Calhoun to go to college.

Calhoun was born in Morrilton, but her father traveled as a welder, and she rarely saw him. After her mother died, Calhoun moved in with relatives, but her father wanted custody of her — and the custody case went all the way to the Arkansas Supreme Court. She lived with her father and stepmother in Little Rock for about a year, then lived in Atkins with a great-aunt and -uncle until she was a teenager.

When she was 14, she moved back to Morrilton to live with her aunt and uncle, Betty and Ben Looney, and that was home to her.

After Calhoun graduated from Morrilton High School, she went to Arkansas State Teachers College, now the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

“I wanted to teach, like my mother,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun pushed herself by going every minute she could, including summers.

The money her forward-thinking mother set aside was “exactly enough if I went three years,” she said, so Calhoun earned her bachelor’s degree in that time.

Her first job was teaching in Little Rock.

“Oh, I loved it. I found my calling; I certainly did,” she said. “Mrs. Frances LeMay was my principal; I’ll never forget her. She gave me the gifted-and-talented bunch. Why you’d give a beginning teacher gifted and talented, I don’t know,” Calhoun said, laughing.

“I stayed late every day. One little boy, Michael Stevens, he’d get up every day and read the encyclopedia.”

A perk was that she got to teach with one of her mentors, Ruth Payne.

Payne had been Calhoun’s third-grade teacher.

“It was wonderful seeing Mrs. Payne again,” Calhoun said.

“She was sort of my counselor because there were no counselors back then. It was a really hard time for me. … Mother had just died. She was a wonderful listener.”

After teaching a year, Calhoun married when she was barely 22, and her husband, Hall, was 27.

Her next job was teaching Head Start because it was $1,000 for six weeks, “and that was a lot of money for a schoolteacher,” she said.

Calhoun and her husband, a farmer, moved to Morrilton and built a home in which they still live.

Her career wasn’t stagnant — next she taught fifth grade in Morrilton.

“I enjoyed it. I had some good kids, but I had a classroom full of discipline problems,” she said.

The teacher whose place she took was a strong disciplinarian, so the principal often put the difficult children in that class.

Calhoun’s first daughter, Lynn Elizabeth, was born in 1970, and Calhoun quit work just before that. In 1972, on Calhoun’s birthday, July 18, her second daughter, Eva Leeann, was born.

For 13 years, Calhoun was the ultimate stay-at-home mom, leading Girl Scouts, spending countless hours working in the parent-teacher association and doing church work.

“We had a big time,” she said.

In 1982, she decided it was time to go back to work, and she taught sixth grade as a reading specialist in Menifee after it consolidated with Morrilton and Plumerville.

“I missed my classroom, though, but I loved my job,” she said

Later, the fifth and sixth grades were moved to Morrilton.

The next summer, 1990, the assistant superintendent asked Calhoun to become a counselor.

“I told him no because I was working with our preacher’s wife, and she’s just a fantastic person, and we were teaching kids to read,” Calhoun said.

She turned down the superintendent’s offer twice.

“The third time, the superintendent called. He said, “Mrs. Calhoun, you know that small print that says you’ll go where we need you? We need you,’” she recalled. How could she say no?

And for 20 years, she was an elementary-school counselor, mostly at Reynolds Elementary School and Morrilton Elementary. She tested students. She encouraged them.

Calhoun formed divorce groups and friendship groups.

“We had career week, and that was a big deal,” she said.

“You’ve got to plant that seed. Research says kids decide to go to college in second grade.”

In 2006, Calhoun could have retired. Morrilton Elementary School, which had been North Side, was remodeled and opened for second- and third-graders.

“I went with my principal, Sharon Wilson, who I just love. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just get this new experience going and see how it goes.’ I just really, really enjoyed it, working with her and working with all the secretaries and children. We had a big time.”

Calhoun retired in 2010 because of her knees, she said.

It still makes Calhoun cry to think about retiring from the career she loved for 32 1/2 years.

She affected a lot of students’ lives.

Calhoun recalled that she and her husband had a plumbing problem one time that involved digging a ditch from the road one-eighth mile to their house.

She drove down the driveway and stopped.

“This young man was on this huge piece of equipment. I hollered because I wanted to know how long the water would be off,” she said.

He asked if she was Mrs. Calhoun and told her his name.

“He said, ‘Do you remember when I was in your fifth grade in the ’60s? Do you remember telling me if I didn’t learn to read, I was going to dig ditches?’ In other words, you’ve got to get an education,” Calhoun said. “He said, ‘Well, I just wanted you to know I turned out OK.’”

Calhoun laughed telling the story. Yes, he was digging a ditch.

“But now, that ditch cost us $2,000,” she said.

Calhoun has never stopped trying to make a difference. She still works as a substitute counselor and enjoys listening to the children read to her in the afternoons.

She joined the Conway County Literacy Council and is secretary of its board.

“I’m a lousy secretary, but I do my best,” she said.

She tutors adults to help them learn to read, or read better.

“They seem to appreciate it, and the family appreciates it,” she said. “It’s a big need in this county, and in every county, I’m sure.

“I just love it,” she said. “I seem to have a knack for it, so it’s that don’t-hide-your light-under-a-bushel business. You need to use your talents. As long as you’re not dead, you need to keep going.”

She’s also involved in First Presbyterian Church in Morrilton, where she co-teaches fourth- through sixth-grade Sunday school with a friend.

Not only that, she’s serves on the church’s session, which is like a board, and is chairwoman of the Community Outreach Committee.

“I’m a choir member and have been for a long, long, long, long time,” she said.

She’s the moderator of the Presbyterian Women and is leader of the church’s women’s circle.

Add to her packed schedule being a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Delta Kappa Gamma, for which she is a past president. She is also a member of Church Women United, the Arkansas Education Association and the National Education Association.

Her most recent involvement is with the Literary Coterie, to which her aunt Betty belongs.

It won’t be surprising, then, to know that Calhoun has stacks of honors.

She was the Morrilton Jaycettes Woman of the Year in 1981, Conway County School District Teacher of the Year in 2002 and Central Region Arkansas School Counselor of the Year in 2006.

She’s a lifetime member of Presbyterian Women, a lifetime member of the PTA and a member of the Ouachita Girl Scout Council Hall of Fame.

Life is good, she said.

She reconciled with her father before he died in 1990.

“I wanted him to know his grandchildren,” she said. “He was a nice person.”

Her mother’s last wish was that she get an education, and Calhoun gets emotional to think about making her mother proud.

“If I ever did anything in my life of any value, it’s because of the Lord,” she said. “I could not have done it without my husband and my family. They’ve been very, very supportive.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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