September 22, 1997
Margaret Conway, otherwise known as Grandma Margaret, is all smiles during kindergarten class at Lincoln Park School. She worked as a teacher and as a principal for a total of 43 years, andÂ has been a school volunteer for 17 years. Her belief in children has influenced others to volunteer their time at school. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)
17 YEARS OF DEVOTION
‘GRANDMA MARGARET,’ 81, IS LINCOLN PARK SCHOOL’S MOST RELIABLE VOLUNTEER
By Mary Thompson, News-Tribune staff writer
Every weekday at precisely 7 a.m., Grandma Margaret Conway picks up her cane, bids farewell to her toy poodle, Tuffy, and heads toward Duluth’s Lincoln Park School.
She moves gingerly down the sidewalk, standing barely 5 feet tall, careful of her arthritic knee. Lincoln Park Principal Ed Marsman swears a strong wind could blow her away.
If that’s true, then Grandma Margaret’s daily arrival is something of a miracle.
A miracle would be fitting for this white-haired, 81-year-old kindergarten volunteer. In 17 years at Lincoln Park, she’s missed exactly three-quarters of a day.
“I see a need. It’s nice I can still do something,” she says. Somehow, Conway believes that explains why she does what few people will do. She has given more than 3,000 days of her life, without any thought of material reward, just because it’s best to love children.
Hundreds of people take time to volunteer in local public schools. Each one is special, but none more so than Grandma Margaret.
She was born Patricia Margaret Conway. Family and close friends call her Pat, but in the world of Lincoln Park elementary school she is simply Grandma Margaret.
Most teachers don’t even know her last name.
Grandma Margaret reads to Kellie Alaspa in the kindergarten class at Lincoln Park School. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)
‘Now you try’
This year, Grandma Margaret will spend the school year helping kindergarten teacher Donna Busick prepare 23 5-year-olds for first grade.
Donna Busick is teaching 5-year-olds to write their names. Most children trace nice, short names like “Ann” or “Robbie” with fat crayons. But one boy struggles against the immensity of his eight-letter name. He is the smallest child in Busick’s class.
The beautiful dark-eyed boy traces and then retraces the first letter.
Grandma Margaret, moving quietly past knee-high tables of children, stops behind the boy, leans over, and covers his small hand with hers. Together, they trace the letters of his name in fat green crayon.
“Now you try.”
Her voice is almost a whisper, but the child hears.
The long-named little boy wobbles his crayon across the page. He tires just before the end, and Grandma Margaret’s hand falls lightly over his to trace the last two letters.
“Very nice,” she says, leaning a little closer so he can hear. Then, as quietly, she moves on.
Children call from each knee-high table.
She turns and lays her hand on the girl’s shoulder, admiring her newly penned name.
“Look, Grandma. My drawing.”
Grandma Margaret turns again, this time to a family portrait scrawled on white paper. She moves this way all morning, smiling, moving her delicate hands from one child’s shoulder to another child’s head.
“Very nice. That’s very good,” she says over and over. She means it every time.
She comes back to the littlest boy, once again lost in his long name, who is scribbling fat lines instead of tracing his name. Grandma Margaret doesn’t chastise. She simply leans over, again, and takes his hand. They finish together.
“Good job,” she says.
Grandma Margaret fusses over the kindergarten children during lunch break at Lincoln Park School. (Charles Curtis / News-Tribune)
‘Kindness and gentleness’
Donna Busick is grateful for Grandma Margaret. “She teaches kindness and gentleness. She teaches them manners. She’s a blessing to have here,” Busick said.
Grandma Margaret knows teachers can use an extra set of hands. She was in education for 43 years — first as a teacher, later as a principal at St. Anthony Parochial School in St. Paul. She never married, devoting her life to children in parochial schools. She spent many years teaching choir to young students. Music, like teaching, was a passion.
“I was told I had a true voice,” Grandma Margaret said.
She lost her voice a few years ago when a rare virus paralyzed her vocal cords. For one day, she could barely hear and couldn’t speak. She came to school anyway, but the teachers sent her home. It was the only day she missed in 17 years.
Now, this woman with a master’s degree in special education is content to shepherd children through crowded hallways and prepare lunch tables. She lays out 23 plastic spoons, 23 paper napkins and 23 cartons of milk each day.
These are things the children will pick up in the lunch line as they get older, then set out themselves, though never as carefully as when Grandma Margaret did it for them.
“It’s hard for them to pick up everything at first. It’s a lot to remember,” she said.
Some things have changed over the years. An arthritic knee forces Grandma Margaret to the elevator more often than the stairs. She worries about the two-block walk this winter.
Not that rough weather could stop her. Last winter, after an ice storm glazed her six front steps, Grandma Margaret broke down a cardboard box, placed it on top of the small hill on her front yard, and slid to the sidewalk along the street.
The children would notice if snow or illness kept Grandma Margaret from school. But she would notice it most — like this summer, when her arthritic knee kept her from summer school for the first time in 17 years.
“I missed the kids. I was lonely,” she said.
Grandma Margaret’s gifts are not just for children. She works her magic with adults, too.
Florence Taylor has grandmothered Lincoln Park kindergartners for nine years. It’s her reason for living, now that she’s widowed.
She got the position through Grandma Margaret, who didn’t want Taylor sitting alone in her Gary-New Duluth trailer home.
“If it wasn’t for Margaret, I wouldn’t be here. I’d give my life to her,” Taylor said.
It’s quiet time
Recess is over. Time for snacks. The children bounce in their little blue chairs. One blond-haired boy, wild from play, hoots out loud.
Margaret turns from the tray of peanut butter crackers she’s arranging and softly lays her small hand on his head.
He gazes up at Grandma Margaret and knows it’s quiet time.
Margaret Conway, “Grandma Margaret,” died in Duluth in September 2003 at age 87.
Monday’s News Tribune has an article and photos looking back at the long history of Duluth’s Lincoln Park School, which is closing at the end of this school year.