DIXON – For the better part of 33 years, Carol Richardson has been putting together puzzle pieces.
Richardson has been a special education teacher to students with a variety of behavioral disorders and disabilities for two decades at Nachusa Lutheran Home and another decade rotating between Dixon schools.
Each student, Richardson said, carries his or her own set of challenges; her job is to figure out how to put the pieces together, to help them succeed and feel proud of themselves and their accomplishments.
"It's quite challenging," said Richardson, who retires at the end of this school year. "I enjoyed working with the people, the teachers and the kids."
Dedication and work ethic are the first words colleagues use when describing her.
Alice Shafer, who taught beside her for the past 4 years, said Richardson arrives to school at 6 a.m. every day from her Ashton home, regardless of the weather, and is one of the last to leave.
"She was dedicated to her students," said Michael Grady, Dixon High School principal.
"You can count the number of times she's used sick days on your two hands," school social worker Shayne Prange said. "She's always here."
That consistency is key when dealing with special needs students, Prange said.
"At Nachusa, she taught kids that were severely abused, neglected and taken away from their homes," Prange said. "It was always a challenge at Nachusa, just to get students to settle into the environment.
"She had dedication. She was very structured. She was fair. And she was always willing to try anything to help her students."
Richardson graduated with a degree in home economics education. She was hired as a teaching assistant at Nachusa Lutheran Home and decided almost immediately she wanted to continue teaching special education there.
The reward came when any one of her students started to realize what he could accomplish through education.
"They made teaching interesting, especially when you saw the light go on for them," Richardson said.
She cherished when her students would come back to the school and visit.
"Many of them came from Chicago, southern Illinois and central Illinois, and it meant a lot for them to come back," Richardson said. "You start to realize the impact you had in their life."
When the Dixon school district pulled out of the Nachusa school, Richardson moved to Dixon High teaching the day program. She spent some time teaching at Jefferson, Washington and Reagan schools, too.
Prange said Richardson developed a wealth of knowledge the whole district utilized when putting together their own puzzle pieces in the classroom.
"She had the most patience with behavioral and disruptive students that I've ever witnessed," Shafer said. "Maybe that was due to her expertise gained from her many years of teaching at Nachusa."
Shafer said she's also is going to miss the camaraderie Richardson brought to the district.
"Carol Richardson always had humorous stories to share from her past when one of her cohorts felt they had suffered through one of the worst days of their teaching career," Shafer said. "She made going to the lounge for lunch an anticipated event, because you always knew Carol would arrive there with a twinkle in her eye and something fun to share."
Richardson said she doesn't have any specific plans for retirement, just to visit her children in Dixon, St. Louis and Portland, Ore., and also to spend a lot of time with her granddaughter.
"I'm going to miss the kids," Richardson said. "I'll miss the people I work with. They're a great bunch of people. I'm going to miss all the new teachers and sharing ideas with them."
Richardson will retire without any doubt she was appreciated. Over the years, some of her students wrote her letters.
"After working with a kid for 3 years, sometimes you would have a doubt, and then they'd write you a letter," Richardson said. "'Thank you for all the help.' The fact they wrote the letter makes you feel like you did make a difference."
Richardson still has every one of those letters— her completed puzzles.
Others retiring from area schools include:
– Chadwick-Milledgeville School District
Linda Kness, district secretary, 36.5 years
Deb Morgan, elementary Title I teacher, 27 years
Sue Williams, high school special education teacher, 30 years
– Dixon School District
Peggy Covert, elementary physical education teacher, 17 years
Vickie Glessner, fifth-grade teacher, 22 years
Peggy Higby, special education teacher assistant, 31.5 years
Janis Matha, secretary, 14.5 years
Mary Philbrick, elementary teacher assistant, 14.5
A. Catherine Ratts, middle-school special education teacher, 14 years
James Rodriguez, custodian, 9.5 years
Jill Stoker, kindergarten teacher, 23 years
Walter Wagner, custodian, 9.5 years
Janice Wiemken, middle-school teacher assistant, 9 years
– Erie School District
Deb Carpenter, district bookkeeper, 25 years
Gina Epperly, third-grade teacher, 35 years
Pam Klendworth, school nurse, 14 years
Linda Roberts, fifth-grade teacher, 24 years
– Morrison School District
Cheryl Geiger, fourth-grade teacher, 22.5 years
Libby Glazier-Timmons, sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher, 29 years
Deb Hauptman, first-grade teacher, 25 years
Melissa Nyboer, sixth- and seventh-grade reading teacher, 22.5 years
Cynthia Perrizo, elementary music teacher, 15 years
Mary Simmons, high school home economics teacher, 33 years
– Montmorency School
John Rosenberry, superintendent, 7 years
Marian Rosengren, first-grade teacher, 21 years
– Nelson School
Peggy Sandoval, physical education teacher, 27 years
– Newman Central Catholic High School
Diana Wade, math teacher, 36 years
– Oregon School District
John Geeves, special education teacher, 21.5 years
Joanne Pennock, junior high social studies teacher, 19 years
– Prophetstown-Lyndon-Tampico School District
Denise Cady, elementary Title I teacher, 16 years
Jan Halpin, pre-kindergarten teacher, 10 years
– Rock Falls Elementary School District
Marian Ulferts, fourth-grade teacher, 1 year (previously a teacher at Riverdale Elementary School, 36 years)
– Rock Falls High School
Jane Eichman, superintendent, 7 years (previously the superintendent at East Coloma School, 3 years)
– Sterling School District
Mary Nelmes, elementary music teacher, 34 years
Nancy Trainor, seventh-grade science teacher, 33 years
Sally Zuithoff, teacher assistant, 25 years