Let’s Cook: Mrs. Hepper and Flight 106
How do you feel about celebrating another birthday? It is often a time of reflection recalling our accomplishments, wish lists, and at times uncompleted tasks. I have been blessed to have friends and several family members and who have lived well into their 90s and some even beyond 100. These folks generally have a couple of things in common. They continue to be engaged in life and their conduct allows us to know that they appreciate you being part of their lives.
Recently my first grade teacher, Mrs. Judith Hepper, who taught at the Underwood Public School, celebrated her 106th birthday on September 4. Wow! That would mean that she has realized 15 presidents of the United States from Taft to Trump. She has seen the pencil become the computer in the classroom and watched as Thurston Howell and Lovey and the others were rescued from Gilligan’s Island. Along with these noteworthy life changes, she has remained in the hearts of former students as an educator who loved students, teaching, music, and life.
Judith Sandberg was originally from Lignite, North Dakota and graduated from Minot State in 1932 as a teacher. She taught first grade in Underwood. When I stepped into her classroom in the fall of 1966, she greeted me like a First Class passenger aboard a Boeing 747. Her friendly but purposeful direction soon set aside my coming to school turbulence. It might be difficult for some of you to believe, but at one time I was a rather shy, red-headed boy not quite ready for the take-off of first grade.
Her classroom was cozy and inviting with an upright piano in the corner that she could play glowingly, a mini library nestled on blonde bookcases, southern exposed windows sporting red geraniums, and the all-important restroom in the very back of the room. Our times away from this cocoon were recess, lunch and a bit of gym time. We were, in a sense, a mini country plentiful with creative minds, active feet and a wise leader; Mrs. Hepper could handle rascals.
I realized early on that she had a work ethic that simply did not quit. In addition to reading, arithmetic music and coloring, she took the time to remember our birthdays. But not just by mentioning them in class; she creatively sketched on the chalkboard birthday cakes with distinctive colored chalk and then asked what design you would like on your cake. She created colorful flowers, cowboy hats and boots, trucks, and fish. My cake was personalized with fuchsia colored pots and pans. No student was left orphaned on his or her birthday, and she let us choose the colored chalk on our special day.
Mrs. Hepper noticed that I frequently checked out the book, “I Want to be a Baker.” When she wrote the Mother’s Day program, which we presented for our mothers, I played the part of the baker. Do you know how that made me feel? Her understanding and encouragement of my interest in baking helped guide me to a lifelong appetite. Many years later, she scattered her mini library and that book came to my hands. It remains in my bookcase today as an inspiration.
Mrs. Hepper taught us that being polite was important and that using “please and thank you” were important. She taught us to respect the work of others; that is why we never walked across the gym floor, but only on the outer edge thus creating less work for the school janitor. She reminded us to take our snow boots off at the upper entrance and not to track snow all the way down the stairs. She encouraged us to read, and best of all she would read to us with a tapestry of voices some ancient, some sad and even some spooky. She would tell us to “slow down enough to do a good job” and that we should try to understand the way other people feel. Because, after all, not everyone in the class wanted to play basketball.
“Teachers are like candles which consume themselves to brighten the lives of others.” This treasure from an unknown author certainly reflects Mrs. Hepper. When she was in her 90s, she came up behind me at the Medora Musical and covered my eyes and said “guess who still remembers you?” Did that moment brighten my life? This was the perfect example of how she appreciated her students and took an interest in their lives with her warm and gracious manner. This attentiveness allowed her to witness a chorus of former students now drawing on the chalkboard of life their own birthday cakes and so much more.
I am blessed that she was my teacher, and I know many other students feel that same way. Mrs. Hepper shaped the minds of countless children and their futures over her many years of teaching. She encouraged students when the way was bumpy or rough and that giving up was worthless baggage. Her imposing teaching career with the purple and white Comets of Underwood has given many a student a noble take off and allowed them to soar. She has been blessed with years of engaged living which has allowed her to see numerous students touch down to retirement and a less overbooked lifestyle.
Happy Birthday, Mrs. Hepper, and enjoy flight 106.
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