“It was such a nice thing for them to do for me,” says Mary Ann Gagnon
by Carrie Steinweg
LANSING, Ill. (July 11, 2020) – The shift to e-learning in March of this year brought an abrupt end to schools full of students and staffs. It also meant a quiet career end for those who planned to retire at the end of the 2019-20 school year. In a normal year a retirement might have been met with lots of sentimental goodbyes and hugs from co-workers and students, cake and gifts and possibly a social gathering where the retiree was celebrated for a long career. But the 2020 retirees have mostly marched off into the sunset with little ado.
However, for Mary Ann Gagnon, who just retired as the health aide at Memorial Junior High School for the past 13 years, co-workers arranged a little surprise to make sure she knew how much she was loved and appreciated.
When Sonia Barbosa, a secretary in the school office, texted to see if Gagnon would be home one afternoon, Gagnon’s first thought was that she should bake a cake since she’d have company. Then she got a call to come outside where she saw signs that had been placed in her yard and was greeted by a parade of cars. “I didn’t know they were coming. I had my slippers on. I went out and saw them coming by. It was a long line,” said Gagnon. “It was very sweet. At the end of the year there’s usually a retirement party for the district and they recognize each person, but this was almost more personal. Teachers came by, and some had their kids with them. It was such a nice thing for them to do for me.”
From a clinic to a school
Gagnon lived in Chicago during childhood and her family relocated to Calumet City when she was a teen. In the 1970s she attended Moraine Valley Community College where she earned her Associate’s Degree in Nursing. She met her husband, Alan, when they were both in the wedding party at his brother’s wedding. “I never knew him. My girlfriend was marrying his brother and we met at the wedding and have been together ever since then,” she said. That was 44 years ago. The couple moved to Lansing after they got married and have been Lansing residents for over four decades.
For 30 years, Gagnon was a nurse at the Pronger-Smith Medical Clinic in Blue Island. She said she got to the point where she was tired of the commute and had heard about an opening at the school. “When I started there were only about 400 students, and now it’s around 1,000. It grew and grew,” she said. “But I really love the kids. The paperwork, not so much, but I loved the kids. They make up my best memories. And I loved working with the teachers and staff. They are really like a family.”
A typical day at Memorial
Gagnon’s day would start around 7:00am. Even though school didn’t start until 8:15, she said she got there early when kids were there for early sports practices in case they needed her. Her job entailed keeping records of vaccines and medical information, administering medications, checking on kids with chronic conditions like diabetes, taking temperatures, bandaging scrapes, teaching CPR to staff, and sometimes just lending an ear or providing a respite for a kid having a rough day.
“Maybe 10 percent of the kids who came to the office were actually sick. I knew a lot of the parents, and we worked together to keep the kids in school and keep them doing what they needed to do,” she said. “I got on a first-name basis with a lot of parents, and we had a good routine going considering the amount of students in the school.” Memorial Junior High School serves students in grades six through eight.
The position sometimes required her to help out at other school buildings in the district when they needed extra hands and to be at registration and do preschool screenings for incoming kindergarteners. “That was really fun. Some of those kids were so smart, they seemed like they were ready to move right on to college,” she said.
After the school was reconstructed a few years back, Gagnon said that it translated into more walking through the building as part of the job. And after more than a decade there and hitting the age of 65, she decided it was time to finally retire.
While she has had to put off a planned Disney trip with her family due to the pandemic, she hopes to be able to reschedule it for next year. She’s enjoying time with her three grandsons while she spends a lot of time at home amid the new world of COVID-19. She and her husband have a daughter and a son.
Her son, she explained, was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma at age 24. After undergoing chemotherapy he has been cancer-free for 16 years. His wife suffered a brain aneurism for which she had brain surgery and survived and fully recovered. “They’ve had some rough times,” Gagnon said.
Her daughter works as a Certified Nurse Assistant (“She won a CNA of the Year Award from the hospital she works at,” her mom said proudly), and her son-in-law as a physical therapy assistant working with COVID-19 patients. While they are at work, Gagnon babysits their children, ages 4 and 6. “We try to keep them a bit after work until their parents can go home and shower since they work in the medical field. We have a pool and they love to go swimming in it,” she said.
Although she will miss seeing the students, she looks forward to quiet days ahead and is thankful for those who made the drive down her street to congratulate her on her retirement. “It was just so nice. I’m not very good at taking all that love. I give it, but it’s hard to take. It was super nice and a beautiful day,” she said.