By Stephen Smoot
Approximately 60 traveled to the South Fork Ruritan building at Oak Flat to honor the best in Pendleton County public education.
Attendees congregated during a spectacular early summer late afternoon, filing into the hall to find their seats. J. D. Wilkins, Pendleton County Board of Education president, joked that “it’s always the back of the room that causes the problem,” as the festive crowd filed in.
Wilkins then addressed the attendees in toto, playing on the theme of “an opportunity to celebrate generosity.” Wilkins pointed out that “a lot of people were generous with their years” and demonstrated “generosity and enthusiasm in sharing their passion.”
He then added examples, including “generosity with students, shaping and changing lives.”
Pendleton Community Bank received praise from Wilkins for sponsoring the food. He also asked for generous thanks for those with the Ruritan club who prepared and served it.
Dayne Davis stood to speak on behalf of Pendleton Community Bank. He shared that the bank and its people “take our community very seriously.” Davis added that “it truly takes a community to raise these kids and we appreciate everything you all do.”
Wilkins then offered the pre-dinner prayer, including “we thank You for the opportunity to celebrate.”
Guests were invited to partake in a supper that included homemade Salisbury steak and gravy, fluffy rolls, and green beans. Dinner ended with cherry cobbler and a biscuit-style top.
As dinner ended, Wilkins stood to say, “It’s a good sign of fellowship that it’s as loud as it is. Normally it gets real quiet.”
Then came the departmental awards, starting with the service personnel and teacher of the year at Brandywine Elementary. Principal Ryan Lambert introduced Denise Neil, saying, “She brings a positive attitude to our building.” He then added that “I remember the first day that she came to Brandywine. She said, ‘Whatever you need, let me know.’”
Lambert named 16-year-veteran Erin Eye as BES teacher of the year. He shared that she “led the charge” on reading education during COVID. He described her as a teacher with exacting standards whose students still love her because they understand her toughness comes from caring.
Next, outgoing principal Barbara Whitecotton rose to honor Franklin Elementary School’s service personnel and teacher of the year. In reference to Wilkins’ mentioning “generosity of years,” Whitecotton joked that “I have given more years than some of these people are old.”
She first honored Jeralyn Swigunski, calling the school’s cook “the mom of the kitchen,” then warned the board jokingly, “She is one in a million. Don’t you all take her and move her anywhere else!”
Whitecotton spoke next about the teacher of the year, Breanna Griffin. She related that Griffin, who hails from Oklahoma and, along with her husband had previously traveled the country, has a CDL license. Charles Hedrick, superintendent, wryly commented that “she would work if we need a bus driver.”
Whitecotton described Griffin as “very dependable,” and “did an outstanding job instructing these kids.” She then looked at Hedrick with a smile and said, “No, you cannot have her as a bus driver.”
Lisa Roberson, after her first year as principal of North Fork Elementary, introduced Amanda Morgan as her service personnel of the year winner. Roberson explained “she will do anything and everything we ask of her,” and also works part of the time at the high school.
“The kids absolutely love her,” Roberson shared.
Next Roberson introduced the NFES teacher of the year, Leslie Bowers. Her second grade was “a very tiny class this year, which enabled her to pitch in to help the third grade as well” in helping to get students caught up from COVID related learning deficits. “She is someone I relied on a lot this year,” Roberson explained.
Carrie Nesselrodt, vice principal of Pendleton Middle/High School, then stepped to the podium to introduce their service personnel and teacher of the year. She introduced Linda Mallow as service person of the year, sharing that she is “the first person that you see when you walk in the door and the last person you see when you walk out,” and is “the most knowledgeable person in the school,” especially in terms of knowing the community and its families.
Courtney Kimble, teacher of the year “is our math interventionist.” Nesselrodt added that “anytime I have a question, she has the answer,” especially in terms of individual education planning for students with special needs, “her accommodations are seamless.”
After individual school awards came countywide accolades for personnel and faculty. Nicole Hevener honored the maintenance and transportation personnel of the year, Chuck Miller. She said that he could not attend, “but is probably fixing something, somewhere.” Hevener explained that the county “really appreciates him” because “he makes sure the buses keep rolling.”
Hedrick then stood to introduce the central office personnel of the year, Brooke Dahmer. He first stated that one of his favorite duties comes “when we get to recognize excellence in our employees,” then noted with satisfaction that many honorees also attended Pendleton County schools.
“Brooke is extremely professional,” he said, then added that “she is very pleasant and nice to be around.” Hedrick then said “you can’t train that. You just hire nice people.”
The superintendent then presented the county teacher and service personnel of the year, which was Bowers and Mallow, respectively. In addition to accolades shared before, Hedrick said of Bowers that “she knows how to improve academic achievement and how to improve student lives.”
Of Mallow, he stated that she impressed him because “she is so nice and polite and, believe me, the high school office is not the nicest place to work.”
Six retirees received appreciation for their years of service. Lambert opened by sharing his experience with Kimberly Keplinger, saying that “she has made a career of setting the tone with students,” while “shaping kids into students and prepping them for the real world.”
He then introduced Dolly Rexrode, who served for exactly three decades with the school system. Although retiring as an early childhood classroom assistant teacher, she will still coordinate the West Virginia Guidepost to Graduation program. Rexrode “genuinely cares for kids” and models “an old school work ethic that kids don’t have anymore.”
Whitecotton then discussed Kathy Smith, who worked with the school system for two years before retiring, saying that she was on vacation in the islands and could not attend the dinner. She said that she knew Smith as a child and praised her for doing “an excellent job.”
Dave Eason introduced the last three retirees. Karen Propst gave almost four decades of service to the county and students. Eason remembered that “kids who couldn’t get excited about any other class were thrilled to be in hers.”
Next, he honored Johnny Murphy’s 27 years of service. He said of Murphy that he was “there every game, every practice.” Eason added that “he worked as hard as anyone in the building, fought through limitations, and worked hard.”
Finally, Eason introduced Mallow who is retiring after 27 years. He said of her that “I couldn’t have done this job without her.” Eason up to last year served as both dean of students and athletic director. He then said, “There were several students that she saved.”
The “night of celebration,” as Wilkins described it in his closing remarks, ended with Brandywine Elementary School earning the county attendance cup with a mark of 93.821 percent. All schools in the county enjoyed attendance of more than 92 percent.