Preschool celebrates 50 years in Walla Walla

Betty's Preschool starts its sixth decade of preparing children for a life of learning.

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Betty Lodmell greets every child as they arrive at her preschool. Here she welcomes young Kaelem Matson as her staff, Julie Gerola (sitting) and Lorie Gillin, help prepare for another day.

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Betty Lodmell started her preschool in 1962 and moved it to its current location on Fulton Street in Walla Walla.

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Betty Lodmell's preschool is one for the ages -- three generations worth, in fact.

Celebrating the Walla Walla school's golden anniversary this year, she's enrolled second generation students and this fall is looking forward to teaching a grandchild of a former student she once had in her classroom.

Yet some things don't change, such as her objective to help children -- she shuns the word "kids" -- get on solid ground in a social and educational milieu before they enter kindergarten and the realm of elementary schools.

With 50 years of operating Betty's Preschool, first at 934 Frazier Drive and now at 219 Fulton St., Lodmell has a long view of early child education.

Before opening her school in 1962, she spent three years teaching first grade in Salem, Ore., and a year teaching kindergarten at Walla Walla's Green Park Elementary School.

"When I taught kindergarten there weren't any preschools" because few mothers were working outside the home, she said. And educational group activities were not as common then as they are now.

But the things children need to learn have remained pretty standard, she added, though now there is more play time built into the structure of her classes.

By the end of the school year, she said, "We want them to have gained confidence, self assurance, listen and follow directions. There's a huge difference between September and May. We draw a person every month. We save those and put them into a book for mom on Mother's Day. From these drawings we can really see the growth."

When she started her school in her former home on Frazier Drive, her sons were turning 3 and 4. "I needed to go back to work but having children was the joy of my life and I didn't want someone else to raise them," she said.

"I always thought I wanted my own school. I always thought I wanted to be my own boss," she added. "Now there are programs and books, but not then."

Her preschool was the ideal way to implement her dream of teaching children at a very young age and not be away from her children, either. Parents knew her from her one year at Green Park, and the stage was set.

"I had an open house, and by the end of the day I had not one but two classes," she said. "... And the families just kept coming. People are more knowledgeable about it now. The child definitely has an advantage going into the school system."

Now she has three classes that run two days a week -- Monday and Wednesday mornings, Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and Tuesday and Thursday afternoons -- with a fourth day possible on Fridays. Classes average about 16 students. They have to be 4 years old by Aug. 31 to enroll.

Experience and enthusiasm carried her through the years.

"I had no paper cutter or cupboards -- it definitely was low budget but I had lots of ideas and a little bit of creativity," she said.

"I always had lots of energy, work was not a chore for me. I did everything myself. I never went to bed; Johnny Carson and I were friends."

Now she has one full time teaching assistant and one part time.

In 1967, when she bought the Fulton Street house she moved the preschool from her former home in one weekend.

"I felt my life shouldn't interfere with my classes," she said. "Of course, we had lots of things to move."

But the new site was ideal, with a separate basement entry into a room that was destined to be the preschool.

The classroom is colorful, fresh and welcoming. Inviting yellow labels say "Do Touch" on tables where children can look for items to use when they are done with a lesson. Everything is color coded, such as red and blue on bins to help children find what they need and put things back where they belong.

There is structure, but things also get rearranged periodically.

"The room is ever changing," Lodmell said. "The floor toy areas change twice a year." The class focuses on a season or holidays and other festive occasions -- spring, colorful hot air balloons, summer, the beauty of fall.

Her preschool follows the conventional school year, with summers off.

However that's when Lodmell, who doesn't speak of retiring, draws up more lesson plans for next year.

It's all a continuation of a destiny she realized for herself when she was about as young as her current students are now.

"I knew I was going to college, I knew when I was 5," she said. "When I was in kindergarten I knew that was what I wanted to do. The Oregon State PTA scholarship, I was blessed to have that ... God gave me the drive to fulfill my dream."

Her parents provided the inspiration.

"My mother was so creative, she could make a game out of a rock. She learned about teaching although she wasn't a trained teacher," Lodmell said. "We never missed a rainbow or a sunset. If we could, we'd go look at it, learning from everyday life."

A childhood doctor helped keep her on her path.

"I was a sickly child; I loved school and I hated missing it," she said. "Concerns about me living happened three or four times. Our doctor wrote me a letter saying, 'Do something important and good with your life.'"

And on May 12, the 50th anniversary party for Betty's Preschool, she, husband Dean and their children celebrated doing just what the doctor ordered.

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