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‘Grandma Gene’ ends decades of serving kids

Sun., June 7, 2009

“Grandma Gene” Gorley may have set an endurance record with her 43 years on the playgrounds of several Central Valley elementary schools, but she’s certainly going out with style.

On a recent day at McDonald Elementary the 83-year-old widow sashayed into the office to begin her lunchtime shift with the spunk of someone several decades younger. She seems determined to do everything with a touch of class – and attitude.

Gorley, who will turn 84 in September, began working for the school district in 1966 as her oldest daughter left for college and her youngest son was in elementary school. She first worked at University Elementary, then moved to Keystone Elementary when it opened in 1970. She was still there when the school closed in 2003, having worked an hour a day for 33 years. She’s been at McDonald ever since and has added morning and afternoon bus duty to her schedule.

“It really fills my day,” she said. “I’ve just kept doing it. I’m kind of a creature of habit.”

It’s her health that’s giving her the final push to leave the job she loves.

“My eyes are getting so bad I can’t read,” she said. “I’ve got a few little health problems. I’m not saying it’s because of my age.”

Gorley delights in making outrageous comments, joking that she can’t see which student she’s kicking because of her eyesight. But the students and staff see right through her.

“Gene has a huge heart for kids,” said Principal Kevin Longworth. “She’s like a salty old fisherman, cranky and cantankerous but with a big heart. She’s barking at them one minute and giving them tissues and hugs the next. They know that she loves them.

“When you’re Gene’s age, you’ve earned the right to act by your own rules.”

It’s the kids that Gorley will miss the most and it’s probably the kids who will bring her back for occasional visits.

“Oh, these kids,” she said. “They’re crying and I’m crying. I have so much fun with this bunch. This is going to be the hardest thing in my life. I will come back a lot.”

Gorley said her son is worried about what she’ll do with her time when she retires at the end of the school year. Gorley confesses she has no idea. “That’s just it,” she said. “I don’t know. I’m not much of a sitter.”

The school will host a special farewell open house for Grandma Gene at 4 p.m. Thursday, and Longworth expects good attendance. “She’s influenced thousands of kids,” he said. “I think you’ll see hundreds of people.”

Nina Culver

Fallen hero honored

It was the middle of the night, but Zellma Gordon awoke crying. Standing at the foot of her bed was a wraith. It was her son, Jerry, bleeding from head wounds.

He didn’t say a word. He saluted her, then faded away.

Later that day, April 15, 1969, Marine Corps officers delivered the news to Zellma Gordon and her husband, Bob, at the Conoco station they owned in Hayden Lake.

Their son, Marine Pfc. Robert “Jerry” Gordon, 19, had been killed by a land mine while serving as an assistant machine gunner on a search-and-clear operation with K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment, 1st Marine Division in Quang Nam Province, Vietnam.

His family was told he died of multiple head injuries.

The battleground on which Gordon lost his life was hotly contested, so it took some time to recover his remains, but they finally arrived in Hayden late that month, and the hometown boy was laid to rest with full military honors in Coeur d’Alene Memorial Gardens.

Two years later the city erected a plaque on a flagpole next to City Hall to honor Gordon, who was the only Hayden resident to die in the Vietnam War. It was soon vandalized.

But 40 years later, this Memorial Day , the city of Hayden and more than 200 area residents honored Gordon and his family with a permanent bronze memorial affixed to a native stone in front of the newly refurbished City Hall.

Among those on hand were Kootenai County deputies, a contingent of Young Marines (youngsters who aspire to join the corps), a Civil Air Patrol honor guard and a squad of Marine Corps League members, most Vietnam veterans in their 60s. They were about the age Gordon would be now had he lived.

Gordon, the third of five children, grew up on a 10-acre farm in north Hayden. A graduate of Hayden Elementary and Coeur d’Alene High School, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in August 1968, when the country was hotly engaged in Southeast Asia. Gordon’s father is deceased, but present at the ceremony in addition to his mother were sisters Barbara Churilla, of Columbia, S.C., and Helen Nelson, of Hayden, and brother Terry Gordon, of Hayden. Another sister, Caroline Sampert, of Hayden, was in Alaska on a previously planned trip.

Zellma Gordon spoke for all the family: “It’s a very special day honoring a wonderful son. We’ll always remember the kindness of our Hayden neighbors.”

Carl Gidlund


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