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103-year-old teacher reflects on education

Date: 
Thursday, June 15, 2017

BOONE – Caroline Owen first started teaching when Franklin D. Roosevelt first took office. Yes, that was 1932. And yes, Mrs. Owen is doing fine, thank you very much.

The 103-year-old personifies the passionate educator, even though it's been nearly 40 years since her retirement.

“It is so important to be patient with the children,” Mrs. Owen said. “Children don’t need punishment. They need to be cared for.”

Caroline OwenShe believes that today. And she believed that 85 years ago when she first walked into that one-room schoolhouse in Calhoun County, a place where she would teach for the next four years.

Her day would start by putting a hunk of coal into the stove to ensure the room would be warm by the time her 13-or-so students showed up for class at 9 a.m. There was no electricity, no running water. The bathroom? The two-holers behind the schoolhouse.

“We would start the day by having an opening exercise,” Mrs. Owen said. “We would read a little story to open the day before we began studies. We would have math, reading, language. And on Fridays, we would have my special creative writing lesson. That’s when I would bring in magazines, and have the children look for beautiful pictures they liked. Then, they would write a story about the picture.”

Juggling multiple grades – the students were anywhere from kindergarten to the eighth grade – and different lessons didn’t rattle Mrs. Owen. She thrived on it.

“I didn’t plan it, I just did it,” she said. “I liked it so well. I can’t do everything naturally, but I could teach naturally.”

At dinner time – supper was in the evening – the students and Mrs. Owen would eat from their lunch pails. Lunch usually consisted of a sandwich, perhaps bread and butter, or even peanut butter.

“And there was always fruit in the pail,” she said.

At day’s end – school ended at 4 p.m. – Mrs. Owen cleaned the room before heading home.

Though she went on to teach at other schools, ending her career at Lake City teaching special education, that wooden one-room school house – she calls it a country school – in rural Calhoun County holds close to Mrs. Owen’s heart. 

“It was always comfortable,” she said. “I was always happy to go in.”

Some of the favorite memories included the Christmas programs the students put on for parents and making practical crafts, such as a boot scraper made of pop cans and an old box.

“I loved being in charge of my own school,” she said.

Though she started teaching after just one year of college – before four-year degrees were required – she learned pedagogy along the way from differentiating instruction to building relationships, both with the student and the parents.

“Parents are terrifically important for children,” Mrs. Owen said. “They give them the security, a base, something to stand on.”

Children from happy homes were good students. She learned later at another school the reverse could be true, as well.

“The parents were not as caring at that school,” she said. “And you could see that through their children, who were not as motivated to learn.”

And it was parents at that first school who put her on a deserved pedestal – it was a golden time for educators who were considered pillars of society and treated as such.

“The parents were very much in favor of my teaching,” she said. “They were wonderful to me.”

As the years passed, Mrs. Owen continued her education, including a stint at the University of Iowa when then-legend education researcher Maude McBroom taught there.

“She was brilliant,” Mrs. Owen said. “She taught me that kids who can’t read could very well be dyslexic. I have never forgotten that.”

During those early years of education, Mrs. Owen remembers well when a student was assigned to special education – something she disagreed with and who she suspected had dyslexia.

“He was very intelligent,” she said. “That put a label on that little boy, an identity mark that lasts forever.”

Years later, however, her path again crossed that of the little boy, now a man.

“He wasn’t getting along very well in life,” she said. “But I told him, ‘you shouldn’t have been in special education.’ His face just brightened up and, you know? He became successful!”

Mrs. Owen’s love of education rubbed off onto all three of her daughters, all who became teachers (her three sons did not). And five of her 14 grandchildren are teachers. She also has great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and, yes, a couple great-great-great grandchildren.

Caroline Owen poses with her granddaughterIt’s quite a journey for a woman who, starting at the age of 5, also attended a one-room school, driving a horse and buggy to and fro. Today, she lives in a care facility near family, including granddaughter Angela Lange, who also is a teacher.

“I think it is so unbelievable that I’m 103,” Mrs. Owen said. “There have been a lot of trials, but it’s been a full life.”

Though nearly blind and suffering some hearing loss, Mrs. Owen’s mind is crystal clear. She stresses the importance of thinking positive, and loves to laugh.

At the end of the interview, Mrs. Owen posed with her granddaughter for a photo.

“You just took a 103-year-old picture,” she quipped at the photographer, eyes sparkling.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on June 29, 2017 at 8:32am.