A birthday surprise

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An exuberant bunch of first-graders joined forces recently to wish their teacher a happy birthday.

This wouldn’t be particularly surprising behavior … except that they were all in their 60s and the birthday they were celebrating was their teacher’s 90th.

Much to her delight, Lucille Fowler found a bundle of birthday greetings in her mailbox in January at her home in Wenatchee, Washington. Former student and lifetime resident of Kalispell, Donna Smith, was able to get ahold of several of her classmates from her first-grade Class of 1951-1952 at Elrod Elementary School and asked them to “shower” their former teacher — at that time she was known as Miss Maier — with birthday cards.

Janet McElvane, Lucille’s daughter, wrote the Inter Lake to share her mother’s recently rekindled relationship with some of her students. She explained that Smith had been a volunteer at the Museum at Central School back in 2004 when she ran across a donation envelope with a return address for Wally Fowler. She knew that he and Miss Maier had gotten married while living in Kalispell and, after writing the couple who were living in Wenatchee, a new friendship developed.

Lucille Maier taught four years at Elrod from 1951 to 1955. She met her future husband and Kalispell native Wally Fowler at Trinity Lutheran Church. Their first date, she and her roommate and fellow teacher Mickey Taus were set to go out with Wally and his best friend Glen Yarde, though Lucille was to go out with Glen and Wally with Mickey. The foursome ended up marrying each other’s dates within a few months of one another in 1955.

“Donna’s sense of community and the way she stays in touch with people amazes me,” McElvane said during a recent telephone conversation.

Through the years the Fowlers have stayed in touch with Smith. Seven years ago while they were visiting the Flathead, Smith planned a surprise luncheon for Lucille, reuniting her with a group of girls from that same class.

When McElvane called her mother Jan. 22 on her 90th birthday, Lucille asked her daughter how she could have possibly organized such a birthday surprise. McElvane admitted “Boy, I wish I could take credit for this, but Donna was really the star of the show.”

Lucille and Wally chuckled as they related that when the first two cards came ahead of her birthday with return addresses from two men, Wally wondered who was writing love letters to his wife. More cards soon followed and Lucille’s former students shared how Miss Maier gave them a strong start to their education, many going on to earn advanced degrees, and at least one child was inspired by her to become a teacher. Each card was opened with tender tears of joy.

One recalled how Miss Maier made her feel welcome that first day of first grade, but since she didn’t know how to read by the end of the day and her mother had promised she would be able to, she did not intend to go back.

Another, from Julie, retold the story of how Miss Maier took her gently aside to advise her that it wasn’t nice to chase boys on the playground. As it turns out, Julie lives just a few miles away from Lucille in Washington and a lunch date is in the works.

As a matter of perspective on how time really does fly, when asked how old her first-graders are now, Lucille replied, “They’re all on Social Security!”

As for seeing her parents’ story in print, McElvane said, “I am blessed to be the intermediary, hear life expressed in stories and laughter … and see my parents preparing for the fun. Thank you for this domino joy to me too!”

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