Nearly five decades ago a nervous Dana Ables walked into a first-grade classroom at Millsap Elementary School.
Man had yet to set foot on the moon. The Dallas Cowboys had not won their first Super Bowl. Lyndon B. Johnson was leaving the White House and Richard Nixon was on his way in - and Watergate was still several years away.
"There have been so many changes from black boards to green boards, then white boards, and now to smart boards with document cameras," Ables said. "However, the biggest change is the expectation for the students. I am amazed at what first-grade students can do now compared to what we expected them do 47 years ago.
She said they did not have “kinder,” and that many students had never held a pencil, cut with scissors or had crayons.
“Others had gone to private 'kinder' and had these experiences,” she said. “My challenge was to quickly let each child know they were special and have that 'I think I can' attitude. My classroom works like a little community. Each person shares their talents and makes all successful."
That philosophy was a cornerstone of Ables' career, which recently came to an end as she retired from Millsap ISD with the end of the 2014-15 school year. It was the only school district in which she ever worked - and she spent all 47 years teaching first grade.
"I never wanted to teach anything else," she said. "There is just something about first graders that make my heart smile.”
She said it was hard to pinpoint her favorite part of teaching. Each year, each class and each child is a new experience.
“Each year they are 'my' children and I cherish each accomplishment they make,” she said. “I think the challenge is to make sure each day is a great day to learn something new.”
She said if she had to pick one moment that would be my “favorite,” it would be to see their little faces light up when they realize they can read. It’s a look everyone should get to witness.
Ables grew up and attended school in Lingleville. She graduated in three years from Tarleton State University with a teaching degree, something she knew she was going to do since she was a kid herself.
"When I was in school myself, school was not a very fun place. Learning was forced and not all were successful with traditional methods," she said. "I decided my senior year in high school that I could make a difference for kids. It became my mission to find fun ways for kids to learn and for everyone to feel successful and be proud of themselves.”
She said as for first grade, that was where her principal put her - her first year with 32 smiling faces.
“I fell in love and never wanted to do anything else,” she added. “I wanted their first experience in school to be positive and there is no greater joy than teaching someone to read. The world is theirs once this happens."
And ever since she's been in Millsap, never giving a thought to going anywhere else or doing something else, though opportunities presented themselves over the years.
"Never! I have a passion for teaching. I believe all children can learn. I am willing to wait for each child’s growth and make each day a happy learning day," Ables said.
"Teach at Millsap and you will understand. Millsap becomes your second family. One of my former principal's assembly chant was 'We are Millsap!'”
Throughout her career, Ables' motto each year was "I get to go to school today, not I have to go."
Millsap Superintendent David Belding said Ables was like a mother with her students.
"When the time is right, she turns them loose to fly on their own," he said, his phrasing showing a hint of wishing she were not retiring, common around the school district.
"She uses a great deal of nurturing and positive reinforcement to ensure all the students know they are loved and accepted. Her energy is infectious as she is up and moving about the room to give all the children the attention he/she may need."
Belding added that though teachers are generally selfless people, and give a great deal of themselves to help future generations, for a person to commit 47 years of her life to mold and shape 6 and 7-year-olds is wonderful beyond words.
Ables still recalls her first day on the job.
"I was so nervous and so excited all at the same time," she said. "The lunchroom ladies called me Sunshine when I came in. I was so happy to be there. I was all smiles. Who knew that would be the beginning of such a wonderful future?"
And though she's never taught any of her own children or grandchildren - biological that is - she considers all of her students her kids.
"Each year I thank their parents for sharing their children with me," Ables said. "I have taught three generations is some cases. There is no greater compliment than for my former students to want their children in my classroom."
And Ables has been complimented a LOT over her career. Many of her students have gone on to careers as teachers, CPAs, health care professionals, business owners, entertainers, and more.
"All of my students are successful in their own way. Success is measured by the individual goals," she said. "I am proud of all of my kids and hope that each have chosen a path that brings them joy."
Her own career accolades include having won several Teacher of the Year awards, along with the Jack Harvey Award, presented by Weatherford College for exemplary teachers. She was also recently presented a resolution at the Texas state capital for her years of service, which she called "truly an experience like no other."
Of course, the ever-humble Ables added, "I do not base my success on awards given to me, but the success of my students."
Millsap Elementary Principal Cathy Bradshaw has known Ables for two decades. They were fellow teachers before Bradshaw became principal, and Ables taught Bradshaw's daughter.
Bradshaw said watching Ables do her magic in the classroom was something to see.
"She makes every moment count as a learning experience in some way from the lunchroom to the playground to the classroom,” Bradshaw said. “Watching her enthusiasm in the classroom spread to her students is very motivating.”
Bradshaw said she is like an actress drawing the audience into her performance, and has even been known to use props and costumes. Although she is a master at making students learn, they often do not realize they are actually working.
In fact, Ables room is decorated with frogs, which is also her acronym for "Fully Rely On God." Her students would regularly bring her frog memorabilia.
"They call me the Frog Lady," Able said.
Among the changes she's seen throughout the decades are parents, which she said changes with each generation.
"I have seen a shift in the styles of raising children. Some changes are good and some old ways are good," she said. "It’s like everything else, it’s a process that each family needs to figure out what works best for them."
She and her late husband (he passed away in 2003) had a daughter, Jana. He was a basketball coach, but Dana said his main job in life was their precious daughter.
"He loved to watch her compete in basketball, volleyball and track. He was with her every step of the way," Ables said. "He was so supportive of my passion for teaching. He never complained about me staying late at school or working on projects on the weekend."
Jana is now married to Justin Vinson. Dana has three grandchildren.
"I am blessed to be their Nana Dana," she said.
Each opening day for 47 years has brought its own renewed excitement, Ables said. Each fall she'd say hello to her "new kids" and each summer she'd sadly say goodbye, knowing their lives had been changed, giving each a personal note of encouragement. Perhaps she even laid the foundation for some to follow in her footsteps as several have also gone into the teaching field - some even right beside her at Millsap.
"I know of several of her former students, my daughter included, that are now teachers and impacting lives of their own," Bradshaw said. "Her dedication and passion for learning will continue in those she has inspired."
And now, as she has seen her final opening day and closing day as a teacher, she prepares to enter a new phase of her life. Her "buddy" of more than 10 years, Mike Adkins, surprised her with an engagement ring recently. They haven't set a date, but she said the two will marry soon.
"I know this will take priority. I plan to be more active in my church and have more time to spend with family and friends," she said. "I plan to volunteer at school.”
She said it will be different next fall for sure, but God has given her peace that it is time to begin her next adventure in this life.
Then she recalled something her daughter said to her as a first-grader, sitting on her bed looking at books and excited about beginning school.
"She yelled, 'Mrs. Rothrock said some of us would be readers and I am going to be one of them!'" Ables said.
"Well, as my friends retired they were so happy but I still wanted to teach. I was afraid I would have to retire someday and not be happy about it… but now 'I am going to be one of them.'"
Belding said that while folks in Millsap are excited for Ables to begin the next chapter of her life, things at Millsap elementary will not be the same without her there every day.
"She has made a positive impact on generations of young Bulldogs. Through her efforts, she has made the lives of all the children she taught better," he said. "I am proud to know her and call her a friend."
Belding said Ables always showed the enthusiasm of a beginning teacher. Bradshaw said she would immediately build the confidence of each new teacher by greeting them with a "What can I learn from you?" attitude.
So what is Ables advice for young teachers starting their career?
"Consider each day a gift, know that each day you GET (not HAVE) to go to school is a blessing," she said.
"In the words of my former principal, Brenda Fortenberry, 'Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.' Make each day a great day for kids, and know that you are making a difference in their lives."