Arlington school district volunteer tutor receives statewide honor

Posted Monday, Sep. 23, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Five days a week, 78-year-old Tom Andress goes to high school.

The Arlington resident has shown up at Venture High School at 8:30 a.m. for the past 22 years to volunteer his time with teenagers struggling with math. What started off as something to do to suppress boredom after retirement evolved into helping countless students find the confidence to succeed in a difficult subject.

“Most kids who don’t get math, it’s because something happened back in elementary [school] where they missed a step along the way,” he said. “If I can sit with them every day for as long as it takes, they can get it.”

For his dedication to helping students, Andress was honored Friday by the State Board of Education as a Hero for Children.

Only he wasn’t in Austin to hear about it. Though Andress is one of only 17 volunteers in the state to receive the award, he didn’t attend the ceremony because he didn’t want to miss a full day of school.

Andress rotates between the high school’s six math classes and keeps an eye out for those who look stumped or like they’ve given up. He recalls a student he helped a few years ago who had failed geometry twice.

The student told him there was no point, that he was going to fail again. Andress spent the next two weeks working one-on-one with him until the student didn’t need him.

Time went by and Andress didn’t see the student anymore. Then one day an English teacher approached him about an assignment students were given to write about their favorite teacher. The student had written about Andress.

“At the end of the paper he said, ‘Mr. Andress is the nicest man I have ever known,’” Andress said holding back tears. “For me to be that to him, I felt he didn’t have anyone else, and that’s why I do this.”

‘They appreciate that’

It was 1991, and Andress had to retire from his military defense job because of company downsizing. Equipped with an electrical engineering degree from Mississippi State, he knew he wanted to do something, just not what.

As a Kiwanis Club member, he attended a meeting where a woman spoke about Venture High School and how teachers work with pregnant students and teen mothers. The woman asked if anyone wanted to volunteer, tutor or simply stop by and talk about their jobs. Andress was interested.

On his first day, a Wednesday, he sat in the library and helped students who came in. The second Wednesday, one of his students didn’t show up, so Andress wandered into a math classroom to look for students who were stuck or had given up.

After Andress had spent time with one young man, the student asked whether he was coming back the next day. So he started coming in three days a week, and then five.

“Sometimes kids will look at teachers and think, ‘They get paid to do this,’ and then there’s this old guy who comes along and enjoys helping them,” he said. “And I hope that builds up the kids’ feelings about themselves. I do it because I enjoy it. Besides, my wife won’t let me hang around the house.”

Principal Beverley McReynolds is pretty happy about that.

This academic year is McReynolds’ second at the school, but it didn’t take long for her to notice Andress’ commitment. From her office across the hall from the school’s front entry, she began to notice the tall retired man signing in each morning.

“Kids all over the country want to know people care about them,” she said. “It sets a really high bar to see someone who is not being paid use his free time to come in and help. They appreciate that.”

Though Andress said he’s appreciative of this award and others he’s received, it doesn’t influence him.

“I think, ‘That’s nice,’ but that’s not why I do this,” he said. “I would do it if they never gave me anything.”

Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792 Twitter:@MonicaNagyFWST

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