February 14, 2013

Friends, admirers celebrate Arlington educator's 100 birthday

One hundred candles and 100 balloons brighten a party for the Arlington educator.

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ARLINGTON -- Grace Atherton sat in a regal chair of honor Thursday at Town Village Arlington as a packed house of well-wishers helped the longtime educator celebrate her 100th Valentine's Day -- which was also her birthday.

A mayoral designation made it Grace Atherton Day in Arlington, and other honored guests including School Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos and school board member Gloria Pena.

Out in the parking lot, 100 balloons were released by students from her namesake Atherton Elementary School, and everyone got a piece of the cake with 100 candles.

"We were planning a big party at school," said Stephanie Hawthorne, Atherton's principal for the past nine years, "but Mrs. Atherton decided she was a little tired for that, so we brought the party here."

Hawthorne brought 15 students from the Atherton All-Star Choir, who sang Happy Birthday and Can You Feel A Brand-New Day.

"This is the second time I've seen her," said Cierra Williams, an 11-year-old fifth grader. "We sang to her at Christmastime."

Third-grader Yousef Ali, 8, said he'd seen one other 100-year-old -- "my grandfather on my mother's side."

Hawthorne said Grace Atherton is well-known and well-loved around the east Arlington school.

"When I announced that it was her 100th birthday," she said, "a cheer went up around the whole school."

It's been a case of mutual admiration.

"She used to come to our school and read, and she still comes to tell stories," Hawthorne said. "She'd come in costume, and when I was new there, I looked up with a start and see a Pilgrim walking through the parking lot."

"I still love to tell stories," said Atherton, who writes most of the stories and remains an active member of the National Storytelling League.

"I've had to memorize my stories, and I think that's what's kept me sharp."

Grace Adams Atherton was born in Sulphur Springs, the 10th of 11 children, and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from East Texas State Teachers School, now Texas A&M University-Commerce.

"As a child, I lived next door to a doctor," she recalled. "He was really my inspiration. He used to say, 'Grace, you can do anything you want to.'"

She married Bob Atherton in 1939 and had two children during their early years in Murphy, and the family moved to Arlington in 1952.

Bob Atherton was a career principal. Grace Atherton taught at Maxie Speer Elementary School and became certified to work with children with learning disabilities.

She designed a curriculum for a school for special education and handicapped students, and she became the first principal of the school, which is now Veda Knox Elementary. Afterward, Atherton became a consultant in the central administration office, training teachers to work with learning-disabled students.

After their retirement, Atherton Elementary School was named after the couple when it opened in 1977. Bob Atherton died in 1979; his wife stayed active in painting and community work.

"A lot of her fellow teachers live here with her," said Robbi Cleveland of Town Village, where Atherton has lived for 11 years. "We definitely call her 'Amazing Grace.'"

Ann Pitstick started teaching in Arlington in 1956 and taught at Berry, Swift and Duff elementaries.

"I'd see Gracie at teachers' meetings, and then she was here when I moved here about five months ago," Pitstick said. "Gracie has always been an inspiration."

Pitstick's own children attended South Davis Elementary when Bob Atherton was principal there.

Other friends from First United Methodist Church in Arlington were at the party, including Helen Ricketts.

"She was the first person I met when we moved here in '57," Ricketts said. "We have always loved them."

Atherton's gentle wit never failed throughout the afternoon.

"You've held up really well," Pitstick teased as the party wound down.

Atherton laughed and answered, "I'm glad you're here to testify to that!"

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @startelegram

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