Through tears and hugs from students and teachers, an emotional Ellen Rhodes shared a painful chapter in her childhood.
While she was growing up during the Depression in a small farming town in Randolph County, Rhodes’ mother, grandmother and uncle died of pneumonia within the span of a month.
On Friday, 18 Chestnut Grove Elementary students gave Rhodes a surprise birthday party fit for a queen.
“Y’all gonna make me cry,” she said. “Nobody ever done all of this for me.”
Rhodes, who turned 87, has been a foster grandparent at the school since she moved to Decatur in 2003 to live with her daughter.
“Her smile, her touch and her stories have helped so many students through some tough times,” teacher Bridget Crayton said.
After yelling “Happy birthday!,” the students saw a side of the woman they call “Miss Ellen” they had never seen and learned a little about her childhood.
For a brief moment, the woman who has given so much received a little in return.
“She’s awesome, and there is no way we can repay her for what she has done,” parent Missy Fulks said.
For Rhodes, that’s OK.
“I don’t do this for money,” she said. “I do this for them. I love all the students.”
There was barely a dry eye in the room when Rhodes told the class, “I grew up without a mother and didn’t have birthdays.”
She was born the second of four children to Harry C. and Myra Dale Rhodes. She described her youth as “devastating.”
Her father, she said, was a “good man” who worked the family’s 1,000-acre farm and took care of the family finances.
Birthdays and holidays, however, were “another working day,” Rhodes said. “I never had Santa Claus after mother died.”
Education remained important in the family and Rhodes, with her siblings, walked a dusty road one mile to school.
The school allowed her to skip seventh grade, and she graduated high school at 17.
Rhodes met her future husband at a party when she was 18 and married him a year later. They were married 55 years when he died in 2000.
She said Fletcher Rhodes is the best man “I ever met.
“And if I can’t have him back, I don’t want another man.”
The couple had three daughters. Ellen Rhodes said the only time the children ever saw their father mad was when they complained about food at the kitchen table.
Fletcher Rhodes was a World War II and Korean War veteran. He didn’t talk much about his service, but his widow said it was difficult.
“He would tell them if you had to live in a foxhole, you would eat anything,” Ellen Rhodes said.
Three years after her husband died, doctors diagnosed her with a heart condition and gave her a year to live.
“I started making funeral arrangements,” she joked.
Ellen Rhodes moved from Anniston to Decatur to live with her daughter in 2003.
Her daughter, who was a substitute teacher at Cedar Ridge Middle, suggested that she become a foster grandparent with the school system.
“I didn’t know what a foster grandparent was, and when they gave me directions to here, I got lost,” Ellen Rhodes said.
She was an immediate hit in the school.
She tutors students in whatever subject they need help and refuses to use a calculator. She still drives and tries to have lunch with a different student each day.
“They all love to eat lunch with her,” Fulks said.
Rhodes said she’s not the most educated of mentors, but she lives by a saying she heard many years ago.
“If you help one child, your life has been worthwhile,” she said.
Before she could make it to the back of Crayton’s classroom, where there was food, cake and a huge birthday card, Rhodes got a hug from every student.
She cried tears of joy, and removing her glasses, told the students: “I love you, every one of you.”
“They know that, because she makes them feel that every day,” Crayton said. “She’s like a grandmother to all of them.”
Deangelo McDaniel can be reached at 256-340-2469 or email@example.com.
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