50 Is A Magic Number?

This week began with a joyful celebration and today continues with bittersweet news. The joy?  On Sunday, Andy Turner celebrated 50 years of working as custodian at The First Presbyterian Church of Verona.  And on Tuesday came the news that beloved first grade teacher Marilyn Varallo would be retiring after nearly 50 years of dedication to the Verona Public School system.

On the surface these two people couldn't seem more different.  Andy is a tall African American man and Ms Varallo is a petite fair woman.  However, in the decades that I have known both, amazingly they both have seemingly not aged.  But more importantly, in all these years, both have gone far beyond their "titles."  They are institutions in the town of Verona.  That's not the only thing they have in common, they are both dedicated to all the children who cross their path and they have both touched and enriched the lives of countless grown ups as well as children.

For me, there has been no time that Andy Turner has not been part of my life.  He's been a part of the church for as long as I've been there.  He's that constant reassuring presence. If you are looking for the soul of the church, you have to look no further than the kitchen and Andy's comforting face.  He is the one to turn to whenever there is a question.  He knows more church and town history than anyone else I can think of.  For the most part he grew up in Verona attending The Grove Street School (before it became F.N. Brown) and The Bloomfield Avenue Middle School before moving to Montclair. Because his family lived on Pine Street during most of this time the church grounds were a playground (although one not approved by the ministers of the time).  He can tell the story of how he and some friends were playing football on the lawn and somehow that football ended up going through a stained glass window (not, as he is quick to point out, the current window).  Andy  might not have been the one who threw the ball that broke the window, but he did go home, took fifty cents out of his savings (figuring that amount would cover his percentage of the damage/cost) and bravely handed it over to the Reverend Walter Moore; a man he would many years later work for.  I can't think of a better example of the spirit of Andy Turner than that very tale.

Many in town may not know Andy from the church, but as the go to guy when you need a lift to the airport.  He's more personable (and reasonable) than any car service you'll ever find.  He drove my husband and I to the airport for our honeymoon, but more importantly, he was the one who picked us up, not at the airport, but at Penn Station in Newark, in September of 2011, when the train was the only way we could get home.  I cannot tell you how relieved I was to see his face after a 24+ hour train ride.

Ms Varallo was my first grade teacher back in the 1970s.  To my young eyes she was the most beautiful woman I had ever met.  She remains so to this day because not only is she beautiful on the outside, but she is beautiful on the inside.  She taught with patience and love.  I still remember her classroom and learning the vowels and the vowel sounds. In my mind's eye I can see her standing in front of the blackboard going over A E I O U (and sometimes Y).

Back then the class still had Dick and Jane books.  They were not what we were taught to read with, but I can remember that there were about 15 of them and once a student had read all of them in his or her spare time, you were awarded a gold star with the number 15 on it.  I was disappointed not the be the first one to complete the task, but was so proud when I finally got mine.  As a matter of fact, I think I still have that sticker somewhere in a box of mementos.  It was her encouragement that has stayed with me for all these years and helped make me the devoted reader that I am today.

Two years ago I heard the rumor that Ms Varallo was going to retire.  I was devastated.  My son was in kindergarten at the time and I wanted him to have Ms Varallo.  I knew that her nurturing style was exactly what he needed.  So when I saw her in the school hallway one morning, I stopped her and said that I realized that she probably didn't remember me, but she said my face was familiar and when I told her my name, she lit up and gave me a hug.  I told her how much I wanted her to have my son who would be entering first grade that next year and I'll never forget how she said, "I would love to have your son."  Just the way she said it warmed my heart because it wasn't just words, it was honest and heartfelt.

She did have my son last year.  And just like all those years before with me, she nurtured him and instilled in him a sense of pride and love of reading.  I know that she has a laid a solid foundation for my son to continue to grow on.

Ms Varallo is retiring; Andy Turner continues to work at the First Presbyterian Church, but on a part time basis.  They both have dedicated their lives to enriching others.  And they have certainly enriched mine and my family's.  For that I will be eternally grateful.


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