When Grace Atherton arrived at her namesake school for her 103rd birthday celebration on Valentine’s Day, she came to party — spry, dressed in a flash of red, pink and black, and ready for hand-holding and hugs from students whose parents weren’t even born when she became the Arlington school district’s first female principal.
It would be her last time to visit the campus that has carried the name Atherton Elementary School — in both her and her husband Robert W. Atherton’s honor — since it opened in 1977.
Mrs. Atherton died Monday, and the news was hardest on the school that had celebrated her living legacy.
“We just loved on her,” Nidia Zaravar, the school’s first-year principal, recalled about the February party, in which teachers and students pushed Atherton in her wheelchair on a tour through crowded halls, leading her entourage of scores of students and teachers.
The 31 student members of the Atherton All-Star Singers serenaded her in the library, students gave her handmade birthday cards and, of course, she was presented with a cake.
“She’s a little firecracker,” Zaravar said. “She was beaming. She loved wearing red and wearing jaunty little red hats — just beautiful. And she gave all the students candy canes. They loved that.”
Grace Adams Atherton was born on Feb. 14, 1913, in Arbala, a town about 70 miles northeast of downtown Dallas, and was raised on a farm, the 10th of 11 children, according to the family obituary. She attended Wesley Methodist College in Greenville, where she met her future husband. Mrs. Atherton went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees at East Texas State College, now Texas A&M University at Commerce.
Her husband, whom she married in 1939, was a career principal, starting at Murphy Elementary School in the town of Murphy, now served by the Plano and Wylie school districts. When he was drafted into World War II, she stepped in as principal.
The Athertons moved to Arlington in 1952 and went to work for the Arlington school district. He was appointed to the helm of South Davis Elementary when it opened in 1953. She taught at Speer Elementary School and became certified to work with special-needs students.
She drafted a curriculum for a school to serve students with learning and physical disabilities, and she became principal of the school, which now is named Knox Elementary School. District officials said they believe that she believe that she was the district’s first female principal.
The couple retired from the district in the early 1970s. He died in 1979, two years after Atherton Elementary opened.
Among Mrs. Atherton’s milestones during 25 years in education and nearly 65 years overall in community involvement in Arlington: president of the Arlington State Teachers Association, first elected president of the Eta Upsilon chapter of the Delta Kappa Gamma, nominee for Arlington’s Woman of the Year for 1968, 50-Year Lifetime Member of the Eastern Star, active member of First United Methodist Church for more than 55 years and recipient of the Cooper Award from the Arlington’s Woman’s Club in 2008.
Her 100th birthday party on Valentine’s Day in 2013 was a grand affair. Atherton students and other well-wishers crowded a public area of her retirement community to celebrate with her, and in the parking lot, students released 100 balloons. The mayor declared it Grace Atherton Day in Arlington.
She said telling a good yarn — she was still an active member of the National Storytelling League at the time — was key to the clarity that graced her longevity, she told the Star-Telegram during her centennial party.
“I still love to tell stories,” she said, adding that she writes most of them. “I’ve had to memorize my stories, and I think that’s what’s kept me sharp.”
Survivors include a son, Craig Atherton of Weatherford; a daughter, Linda Goyne of Dallas; grandchildren Angela Stock, Amy Atherton, Ann Decker and Matthew Goyne; and great-grandchildren Jacob and Lauren Stock; Alex Pitman; Avery, Caleb and Aliya Decker; and Grace Goyne.
This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Memorial service: 3 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church of Arlington, 313 N. Center St.
Visitation: 5 to 7 p.m. today at the church parlor