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Retired teacher has dedicated her life to taking care of children

SOUTH POINT -

Even though Irene Stewart has no biological children, she cared for many more than the average parent.

"I just took care of everyone else's," she said.

Stewart, 93, retired from the South Point Local School District 36 years ago after 35 years of service. She would have worked longer, but her late husband Stanley was sick and needed her at home. Now, not only her nieces and nephews but also the former students that followed in her footsteps still flock to Stewart for advice, a listening ear or a hug.

Stewart said she originally thought about a nursing degree when finishing high school, but was given the opportunity to attend Marshall College (now Marshall University). After finishing, she stuck with teaching because of her love of children.

"I loved the children, and I was fortunate enough to have a job in a district that was kind to me," she said.

She began as an elementary school teacher, teaching at schools such as the old Solida Elementary School and was principal of Burlington Elementary School when she retired.

Wanda Thornburg, one of Stewart's nieces, was in the fifth grade when she transferred from the old Buffalo School to Solida while Stewart was teaching. Thornburg said she was behind the students at Solida in math.

"My first grade was a D in math, and it broke my heart," Thornburg said. "I came home crying to my father saying, 'She gave me a D!'"

"He said, 'Young lady, if she gave you a D, you deserve it, and I don't want to hear about it. You'll have to work harder.'"

"That was the last D I ever got," she said.

Other stories Stewart has about teaching her nieces and nephews include one about a nephew who would not get off the bus until

she talked him into it and another nephew who didn't want to have his shot done at school.

Despite having a family member supervise her and other relatives at school, Thornburg said Stewart did not let them get away with anything.

Stewart also said she has tried to make students understand why they need an education.

"Today, high school is not enough. You have to go to college and specialize in something."

Now, Stewart is a member of the Lawrence County Retired Teacher's Association, of which she said she is the only charter member left. Some of the members are students she once had in class.

"It feels good when someone comes up to you and says, 'She was my teacher when I went to school.'"

Also, she still offers support to several generations of her family, more than 30 of which attended a surprise birthday party Tuesday at her house. Many rearranged work schedules to come.

"She's always there for us," said another niece, Mary Maynard. "If we have a problem, she's always there to listen."

Her 16-year-old great-niece Amber Layman said she has too many happy memories of Stewart for one particular one to stand out in her mind. However, she does remember several Sundays in which they would go to church together and eat ice cream and talk afterward.

"She's the sweetest lady you've ever met," said her great-nephew Steven Layman, 20, of South Point. "My brother and I cut grass for her, and she's always got a washrag or a Coke for us."

"She's like a grandmother to me," Steven's brother Bubby Layman, 27, said.