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Happy retirement, Irene

Irene Otte retired Wednesday after working for 51 years in the cafeteria of the school where I teach.

I’ve been teaching at the same school for the past 25 years, which I thought was quite a bit.

I guess not.

Irene began her career at the school in 1973 when I was just two years old.

It’s hard to believe.

We celebrated Irene yesterday as she left work for the last time by lining the school’s driveway and cheering her on as she drove away. It was a lovely tribute. It was also all she would accept to honor her service to our school and students.

Irene was exceptionally kind to me over the years. Elysha and I met at Wolcott School and were engaged and married when we were still teaching together. When Irene learned that Elysha and I were dating, she was so happy for me and urged me to “Hold onto that one if you can.”

I’m still taking Irene’s advice today.

When she learned we were engaged, she was thrilled for both of us. When Elysha was pregnant with Clara and left Wolcott School to spend a decade at home, Irene often asked about Elysha, Clara, and eventually Charlie, and she was always happy to hear that things were going so well.

But what I’ll remember most about Irene is this:

Early in my career, and at least for a decade, I would eat school lunch from time to time. Eventually, when my doctor discovered that my cholesterol was borderline, I switched to eating oatmeal almost every day, dropping my cholesterol by 40 points and bringing it back down to ideal levels. But before the switch, I went through the lunch line just like the kids would, often alongside the children.

Hot dogs – one of my favorite foods – were a particular favorite.

Once Irene learned how much I loved hot dogs, she would call my classroom in the morning to alert me whenever hot dogs were on the menu. “It’s hot dog day, Mr. Dicks,” she would say, not so the cafeteria could sell an extra hot dog (or two) but because she knew how to make me happy.

When you work in a place where your colleagues are looking out for you, simply trying to make your days a little better, you know you’ve found a special place to spend your days.

Irene helped to make that true for me for the last 25 years.