As long as anyone can remember, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Padget could be counted on to weave a little literary magic for children at Forest Lake Elementary School.
For her, stories represented a window to new worlds and the bright-eyed children sitting cross-legged on the floor around her were fellow travelers on exciting adventures.
“The library was the coolest place at the school,” recalled Andrew Todd, a 1980s-era Forest Lake graduate whose 8-year-old son Sam now goes there.
So it was fitting that as Padget prepares to retire from Richland 2 schools after 38 years – 24 as Forest Lake’s media specialist – the district wove a cool and magical surprise for her.
When the curtains opened Friday on Forest Lake’s annual school musical, “Seussical Jr.” and Padgett placed the signature red and white hat in the middle of the stage to launch the show, she was suddenly swept to a front row seat for a ceremony in her honor.
State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, presented her with a state Senate proclamation, Richland 2 school board member James Manning read a letter from Vice President Joe Biden, and her three grown children, Anna, Adam and Emily, arrived to celebrate the occasion.
And Padget, who had insisted on a quiet exit, wiped away tears.
“She told us absolutely no celebration, but we don’t have to listen, do we?” said Forest Lake’s music teacher and musical director Angela Powers, who read her own Dr. Seuss-style poem in Padget’s honor. Friday’s performance was dedicated to Padget.
Principal Kappy Steck planned the celebration, saying she could not bear to let Padget walk out the door in June without acknowledging the role she has played in the lives of two generations of children at Forest Lake and other Richland 2 schools.
“I think she is the heart and soul of Forest Lake,” Steck said. Steck first met her when they were both teachers at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School. She figured out quickly that Padget had a gift for appreciating and loving children as individuals even as she worked on ways to enhance their reading comprehension and instill a love of books.
“She has said so many wise things through the years,” Steck said. “I have worked so closely with her since 1984 and she is the same visionary, putting things together, looking ahead two and three years down the road because she knows we are preparing kids.”
Today, school libraries aren’t just for checking out books as Todd found out when he took a tour of his alma mater before the family made the decision to enroll his son. Now, the Forest Lake media center is equipped with smartboards and innovative tools for long-distance learning, not to mention comfy chairs for reading.
“I went in there and they were talking to an astronaut,” Todd marveled.
Padget, rather than resisting the changes wrought by the Internet and other modern technologies, has embraced them and earned professional accolades in the process. She could have retired last year but stayed around to oversee a total renovation of Forest Lake’s media center, transforming it into a light and airy space that can house multiple activities, Steck said.
The school’s morning television show, Forest Lake Today, airs from a room just off the library and each morning Padget is there to serve as the chief adult producer with her long-time media assistant, Diane Bruce.
Along the way, she persuaded about 100 community members to become mentors to Forest Lake children, reading to them at least once a week.
Her good life has not been without tragedy. She suffered the loss of her 2-year-old son Robert in a drowning accident in 1990, a blow that reverberated through the school’s close faculty and staff. But his memory is also preserved in her work.
The school’s education foundation and PTO established the Robert Padget Loving Library 10 years ago to purchase Caldecott and Newbery Medal books for the library. Each has a book plate inscribed with his name. Friday, leaders of the school’s PTO and education foundation announced a $1,000 donation to the Loving Library, a gesture that ignited a fresh flood of tears from Padget.
Steck said there have been plenty of times when she and others have gone to Padget for advice, seeking her counsel when things seemed tough.
Once, Steck recalled, she was feeling particularly blue about a thorny issue. Padget, in her gentle, upbeat way suggested Steck pick herself up and get on with life.
“She told me 97 percent of what’s in this building is awesome,” Steck said.
A little of that awesomeness will exit in June, but Steck hopes Padget will return to Forest Lake in some capacity, as volunteer and mentor.