First-grade teacher, student remain friends 62 years later

Mary Sowell (left) and her former first-grade student Lisa Henderson got together Thursday for lunch in Paducah. They have maintained a friendship that lasted 62 years after they first met in Sowell's first-grade class at Lone Oak Elementary School. Henderson credits Sowell and other teachers with inspiring her to become a teacher as well.

DAVID B. SNOW | The Sun

Back in the day, first grade was often a student's first experience in a classroom, the first time to be away from home for an extended time and have to obey someone new. Students often learned how to read, write, do math and so many more important things in first grade.

Lisa Henderson got more out of her first-grade year than reading, writing and 'rithmetic. She found a lifelong friend in her teacher, Mary Sowell, and was inspired to become a teacher herself by her experiences in first grade. The two former teachers often get together for lunches, like they did Thursday when The Sun caught up with them.

Henderson was in Sowell's first-grade class at Lone Oak Elementary School during the 1956-57 school year and was a classmate of Sowell's oldest daughter, Elaine.

"I think I had 40 (students) in that first-grade class," Sowell said. "Of course, now, that's almost against the law."

The number of students in area schools burgeoned after the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant was built in 1952 and prospective workers brought their families to McCracken County.

Sowell, 95, had a 37-year career as a teacher in schools in Paducah, McCracken County and Massac County, Illinois, before retiring in 1994.

"When I got out of college in '46, I started in the city of Paducah," she said. "I taught at Hanifan and Longfellow schools in the city of Paducah. Then, I married and had children and ended up at Lone Oak. But, I ended up the last 28 years in Massac County."

Henderson was a special education teacher at Paducah Middle School for 25 years and retired in 2001. She has worked as a substitute teacher and in homebound instruction with McCracken County schools for the last 14 years.

"I went into education because of teachers like Mrs. Sowell," she said. "They make an impression on your life and they made a difference in your life, and I've been in education all my life, also. Students have always been very special to me."

Several of those first-grade memories are still fresh in their minds.

"I loved the rhythm band; I remember that," Henderson said. "I remember our reader -- the reading book, 'Dick and Jane.' I loved that. I loved to read.

"I learned to read in first grade. I don't think there was that much emphasis (then) on learning to read before you went to school."

Sowell said she wanted to get copies of those readers for her great-granddaughters.

"The reason I liked the Scott Foresman 'Dick and Jane' primers is because it was family-oriented and not too many (readers) at that time were family-oriented," she said.

Sowell said that she and Henderson kept in touch for so long because Henderson's parents kept in touch with Sowell and they all went to the same church.

"We feel blessed to know each other," Henderson said. "It's just been a blessing to me. She is such an amazing lady."

Sowell said: "God has blessed me through friendships. I am so happy that he has kept me inspired to stay in touch."

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