RIVERTON — When family, friends and Riverton Elementary students welcomed Linda Warwood to a surprise assembly in her honor Friday, her first reaction was the same as it's been for the past 50 years: to make sure her class was taken care of.
Warwood appeared stunned as she paraded her class into the room of cheering students, live bagpipe music and camera flashes. She paused for only one hug as she made sure the 5- and 6-year-olds in her care were accounted for and seated in orderly rows.
With tears in her eyes, she then took her seat in the balloon-decked chair brought in to be her throne and was presented a scepter, a homemade sash and a stuffed raccoon representing the school's mascot. Second-grade teacher Raegan Fay brought another round of applause as she declared the day "Miss Warwood Day."
Warwood has been teaching at Riverton Elementary for more than 50 years — and all that time she only wanted to be with the first graders.
When she reached retirement age, she just kept on teaching.
Since she had insisted she didn't want a retirement party, school administrators and her four siblings decided the only way to recognize her accomplishments was to surprise her, whether she liked it or not.
They decorated the room with homemade banners and photos of Warwood's former students, along with a large basket to present her with some of her favorite treats: Dr. Pepper and chocolate.
"They got me," she said, blushing. "This is a total surprise."
In five decades of teaching, Warwood has never veered away from first grade, never wanting to leave the classroom for an administrative position. As the community has changed, so have the students, she said.
"When I first started here, this was a farming community. The children were a little more farm-oriented, and now they're a little more computer-oriented," she said. "In some ways they're much smarter coming into school, and in other ways they need to be a little more work-ethic oriented."
Tracy Draper, who was one of those first farm-oriented students, said his former teacher had high expectations in emphasizing math and reading education.
"She was strict, but she was kind in being strict," he said. "She was always compassionate with the students."
Draper still lives near Riverton Elementary, and his son was among Warwood's many pupils. He was confident that his son would be cared for and taught well when he entered her class.
"I think some of the values have been lost in education, and she still holds true to all those values," he said. "The actual learning — the reading people have talked about, and mathematics — I think we've lost some of that. People have become too electronics-oriented."
Warwood said she remembers learning to read when she was in first grade, and deciding she wanted to teach. She chose first grade because of how much the students learn as they are starting school.
"You can see the change," she said. "There's a big increase of awareness and knowledge in first grade. They come in and they know this much, but by the end of first grade you can just see the light in their eyes and how much they've learned over the year."
Warwood alumni of all ages, ranging from current students to a Ph.D.-touting author, reminisced about the dedicated teacher via video presentation, thanking her for emphasizing reading. Among their favorite books were "The Magic School Bus" and "The Boxcar Children."
Warwood's siblings, along with her nieces and nephews, were on hand for the occasion. A nephew, Brad Warwood, observed his 11-year-old brother Kade sitting with Aunt Linda, leaning his head on her shoulder and holding her hand throughout the presentation.
"She never had any children of her own, so she was very close to all of us," he said.
Gary Warwood, Linda Warwood's younger brother, thanked her for being their family's teacher and helping him learn, starting when they were children.
"She has been a teacher her whole life," he said.
As the room cleared out, the beloved teacher offered a word of advice to those thinking of entering the profession.
"Know before you make that step, because you really have to love it," she said. "You can't do this if you don't love it."
Linda Warwood celebrated her 72nd birthday Wednesday, but her family insists their active sister is just turning 39 again. She has no plans to retire, saying when she's ready to leave, she'll just sneak away and catch a plane to Australia in order to avoid a party.