By Patrick Winderl
This June, after 39 years of dedicated service, Alma Seidel will bid farewell to the familiar halls of St. Jude Thaddeus School in Havre and embark on a new adventure - a well-earned retirement.
For Seidel, the final bell on the last day of class this year will not only signal the onset of summer, but the culmination of a lifelong career marked with success and fond memories. For four decades she has walked the halls and taught in the classrooms of St. Jude, and watched two generations of students grow up.
During her tenure, Seidel became legendary for her strict adherence to the rules and her personal investment in her students, said St. Jude principal Therese Cowdery.
"She's a great teacher. One thing that is really great is that no matter who you are, or how many years later you come back to visit, she remembers you," Cowdery said. "She keeps track of her kids."
Seidel, who recently celebrated her 70th birthday, said she loves teaching, but that it is time to move on.
"I love what I'm doing. I'd keep on forever, but my (teaching) certificate has run out, and I've had no urge to go back to college - not because I don't think I could do it. It's just time for some young blood," she said. "I think I've done my deed."
When school ends on June 3, Seidel will begin to pack up her belongings in the office she has used for 39 years. She will carefully box up the hand-drawn cards and the pictures of her students, the red pens and the grade books, the coffee mugs and cartoons clippings, making way for a new face in an old place.
"I can't thank the parents enough for allowing me the opportunity to work with their children. It truly is an honor to have had that opportunity. I hope that I have had a small influence on their lives," Seidel said this week.
During her career, Seidel has taught English, literature, religion, math and U.S. history classes, and also advised the St. Jude student body council. On Friday, the teacher was honored for her dedication to teaching and presented with awards from two veterans organizations and the National Catholic Education Association during a special ceremony at St. Jude. The ceremony included a surprise tribute from the critics who count the most - her students.
To begin the assembly, students from the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade classes performed a medley of patriotic songs. The 12-member band and 40-person choir belted out mainstays like "America the Beautiful" to the obvious delight of Seidel.
The gesture was symbolic of the morning ritual Seidel requires of her sixth-grade homeroom class.
"Each day we start with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, and then the sixth-graders are asked to sing a patriotic song," Seidel said. "I'm not the world's greatest singer, but I want them to know that it's important. They did such a nice job. I was very pleased."
Seidel is well-known for her unwavering patriotism, Cowdery said.
"She wants to make sure her students are civic-minded. During the elections last year, she was encouraging kids to go with their parents to vote. She wanted them to understand the electoral process," said Cowdery, who taught with Seidel at St. Jude before becoming the school's principal.
"My mother died at 96, and started voting at 21," Seidel said. "She never missed an election. If we were sitting around the house and the national anthem came on the radio, we had to stand up because it was our country's song. Patriotism is very important to me, so that's why we sing every morning."
When the performance was over, the teachers for kindergarten and first grade shared a "Top 11" list they had compiled from suggestions by their students about how Seidel should spend her retirement.
In addition to suggesting that she spend her time coloring and opening a lemonade stand, the young students also recommended that she have a baby, find another job or move to North Dakota.
Once the crowd had stopped laughing, a boy and a girl from each of the first- and second-grade classes walked over to where Seidel sat in the front row and presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
Perhaps in anticipation of her retirement, the third-grade class gave her a cooking apron adorned with painted handprints - symbolic of "the helping hand" she lent to third-grade students. Seidel promptly put on the apron, which she wore for the remainder of the ceremony.
The fourth- and fifth-grade classes chose to honor Seidel with poems, while the sixth-grade class nominated her for "Rose of the Day," a program sponsored by a local radio station.
A description of Seidel written by the sixth-graders said "she has put up with kids for many years," "always knows what she is talking about" and is "strict but fair."
The seventh-grade class chose a slightly edgier way to honor their teacher. They dressed up like an inner-city gangstas and rapped a melody extolling her virtues.
The eighth-grade students opted to address Seidel individually. One by one, they took the microphone and thanked her in front of the audience.
The tributes ranged from the touching - "The kids who never had you for a teacher are really going to miss out," - to the humorous - "I only had you for one year, but you put up with me."
At the conclusion of Friday's ceremony, Seidel was presented with awards from the VFW and American Legion Auxiliary, as well as a basket filled with more than 100 cards from St. Jude alumni. Next, Sister Jean Dawson of Billings presented her with a plaque from the National Catholic Education Association, thanking Seidel for her 39 years of loyal service.
The educator accepted the award to thunderous applause and a standing ovation from several hundred people, including a number of former St. Jude students and members of Seidel's family, some of whom traveled across the country to attend. In her typical humble fashion, Seidel removed the focus from herself and thanked her students and colleagues for the opportunity to teach at St. Jude.
"The wages are not the highest, but the rewards I have received - there's absolutely no comparison to dollars," she told the audience. "I enjoyed today immensely. Thank for your thoughts and poems. You're great. I love you."
Friday's tribute was only one of several events planned for Seidel last weekend. She attended a retirement potluck in her honor and a birthday party at the Eagles Club on Saturday night.
"It was quite a weekend," Seidel said. "You don't recover from that in one day."
Throughout the weekend, she was bombarded by well-wishers, Seidel said.
"If I knew how much fun (retiring) was going to be, I would have done it a long time ago," she joked.
Although she claims to be ready for retirement, Seidel acknowledges that it will be difficult to give up teaching after 40 years.
Seidel was a school teacher in Box Elder for one year before marrying in 1955. After a decade-long hiatus to raise a family, she returned to teaching in 1965, this time at St. Jude.
"I will miss the kids, miss being involved in their lives," said Seidel, who is teaching sixth, seventh- and eighth-graders this year.
"I really do love working with them. They're great kids. It's a fun age," she said.
For Seidel, 40 years of teaching was not only about imparting knowledge, it was about learning as well.
"Patience," she said. "My students taught me patience. You say, 'Get out your books,' and sometimes it's five minutes before they do it. The other thing you learn is love for kids. I tell them, 'I don't always love what you do, but I always love you.'"
Seidel said she will also miss her involvement as the adviser of the student council, teaching students about their civic duty.
"They campaign. They give speeches. We have a primary election. The students canvass. The president conducts the assemblies. They learn how to follow parliamentary procedure - making a motion, keeping minutes," she said. "They learn to get up in front of people and overcome shyness. There's been some really exciting things."
Seidel, who is actively involved with local 4-H groups and serves on the Great Northern Fair board, said she will have plenty to do to keep busy during retirement.
"I'm going to do some fun things," she said. "I will keep busy. I'll follow the grandchildren. I have seven total. Three of them live in town. I want to do a little quilting and painting and a little bit of nothing once I get the house cleaned up."