If the United States military hadn’t ordered Dorthea Eaton to stay home while her husband shipped out to South Korea in 1977, she wouldn’t have been eating cake and pudding with the after-nap crowd at Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery last Wednesday afternoon.
“The only reason I’m here is because they told me I couldn’t go with my husband,” Eaton told a room full of three- and four- and five-year-olds and their moms and teachers, all of whom had gathered around a few mite-sized tables and chairs to celebrate her 25th anniversary at the daycare school. “And I’m still here,” Eaton said with a grin.
Founded back in 1912, the Oak Park & River Forest Day Nursery does not relinquish its teachers easily. According to Executive Director Catherine Hart?#34;herself a 16-year veteran?#34;staff members regularly log a couple of decades between its brightly papered walls. This fall, one teacher will round the corner on her 28th anniversary, and an 88-year-old grandmother is right now putting in her 15th, Hart said.
“People come here and they stay,” she said.
That’s just what happened to Eaton, known to a couple generations of local youngsters as “Miss Dotty.” After her husband headed overseas, Eaton got bored at home with her three-year-old son. Really bored.
“There’s only so much housework you can do,” she said. So she went back to school for a master’s degree in early childcare. When the time came for her practicum, Eaton came to the Day Nursery, which now looks after some 73 children daily.
“And then two weeks before my graduation, the director called and offered me a job. Just like that,” said Eaton, who by that time had another baby, a daughter.
In the quarter-century since then, she’s been teaching two- and three-year-olds to learn to read and tie their shoes and share their toys and chew with their mouths closed. She’s settled squabbles and kissed away scrapes and explained the difference between a circle and a square.
“Every year it’s something different,” Eaton said. “Every year you have to find a new workshop or a new book or a new way of doing something. There are cooperative families and families that are hard to reach. Families that come back to visit.”
One little boy’s parents, who’d moved back to South America with their son after a couple years in Oak Park at the day nursery, dropped in on Eaton during a visit to the States.
“They said, we couldn’t visit so close to the neighborhood and not come by,” Eaton recalled. “They were visiting Philadelphia?#34;Philadelphia! They said their son keeps his class picture from here on his dresser at home.”
Old students come by too, or they send Eaton letters and grown-up pictures. She keeps all of them in scrapbooks.
“Whenever they come back to visit, I always take a photo,” Eaton said. “It doesn’t matter how old they are.”
“The kids just love Miss Dotty,” Hart said. “She’s very dedicated to the children, and they can tell it. When I know she’s around, I don’t worry about what’s happening with the children.”
Day nursery Board Chair Nancy Guarino agreed.
“She’s great,” Guarino said. “She’s instrumental to our approach for the whole family, and she’s a mentor to new teachers coming in.”
Children, Eaton said, have consumed her whole life. The mother of a 30-year-old and a 26-year-old, she’s been the road mom for Maywood’s police cadet drill team for 10 years. She helps out at her church’s nursery and works with the youth group, and she’s helped raise countless nieces and nephews and cousins.
“Basically, I just followed my kids around,” Eaton said. “I wanted to know where they were, who they were with all the time. So, like the kids, I was just going to school. … I tried working in different areas with adults, and me and adults?#34;we just don’t make it.”
In part, Eaton confessed, she likes that children have a little more room for redemption. Tell them how they should behave, and they’ll listen. Perhaps they’ll even learn.
“If you can just get them started on the right foot,” Eaton said. “When you talk about a place to begin, this is a place for children to begin. It’s so important. When I was a little girl, I had a teacher who followed our class from third grade to fifth grade, until the school told her, ‘You cannot teach sixth grade.’ That really affected me. I guess I thought being a teacher must be the best thing in the world.”