Gwenn “Earles” Vallery began her teaching career in a rural, one-room schoolhouse. She wanted to end her teaching career in one too.
“I felt like I still had something to give to the children,” says Vallery, 88, of her last teaching assignment in Alzada, Montana.
She was 80.
“I like adventures,” Vallery explains.
At 88, the 2017 Eminent Homemaker has had quite a few – most motivated by her passion to educate and belief in lifelong learning.
Vallery was 19 when the opportunity to leave her hometown of Mitchell, South Dakota and teach led her to a remote, mountain logging community in Northern California. For two years she taught all eight grades in a one-room school.
“The first day of school the boys came (into the school yard) riding their bikes with their shoes in the baskets of their bikes. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” recalls Vallery. “They did put their shoes on before coming into the school.”
She had earned her teaching certificate in one year and was young when she began teaching the first time, but Vallery said it went well. “I had the kids’ respect and even though I was young, they looked up to me,” she says of the experience, which launched her teaching career.
Her career spanned 40-plus years. Many of those years were spent teaching in the Newell School District. Vallery also spent a year teaching on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and has helped many GED students achieve their dreams.
“I love working with children and seeing the light bulb go on when they finally get something they have been struggling with,” Vallery explains.
Vallery moved to the western South Dakota ranching community when she married Thornton in 1950 (now deceased). Thornton was a fourth-generation Butte County farmer/rancher. Even though Vallery grew up in town, ranch life agreed with her. She continues to reside on the ranch today where her son, Randy, and daughter-in-law, Rhonda, grow crops, raise cattle and operate a hunting preserve.
Vallery met Thornton while she was pursuing her teaching certificate at Dakota Wesleyan University. She left California to marry him.
A people-person from the beginning, Vallery became involved in the Nisland community. Upon the urging of the County Extension Agent, she helped start Tot-n-Twenty Extension Club.
“We were all in our 20s and there were a lot of tots,” Vallery says. “Extension night was the girls’ night out and our guys took care of the kids.”
Sixty years later, the club continues to meet monthly and enter projects in the Butte/Lawrence County Fair.
Extension Club introduced Vallery to 4-H. When her children were young she started the Eager Beaver 4-H Club and became an active volunteer at the Butte/Lawrence County Fair. In 2016, SDSU Extension recognized Vallery for her years of service with the Spirit of Community and Family Extension Leaders award.
Vallery took a brief break from teaching to raise her three children: Rick, Randy and Rene. A life-long student, she completed her bachelor’s and Master’s in Elementary Education by taking summer-school classes through Black Hills State University. She is also a Master Gardener.
“It took perseverance,” she says. “There was an incident when my older sister said, ‘Just quit.’ I said, ‘No. Daddy told us, if we start a job we finish it.’”
Even in retirement, Vallery is not one to sit idle. She has traveled to 49 of the 50 states. Through involvement with Butte County Historical Society, she helped preserve the historic one-room Hillside Schoolhouse and move it to Belle Fourche where it serves as a museum.
Today, she enjoys teaching her 3-year-old, great-granddaughter, Kimber.
“I still feel like I have something to give. I tell people, ‘There better be a little red schoolhouse in Heaven, because I’m not through teaching yet.’”