The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 22, 2020 1:00 am

Senior portrait

Women share joy of reading

Retired teachers continue to focus on education

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

The library at Emmanuel-St. Michael Lutheran School is a perfect backdrop for a story about reading.

Although, this isn't so much about reading as it is about four women who share their love of reading to students.

Sally Birkey, 79, Linda Williams, 74, Shirley Kern, 85, and JoAnn Wudy, 72, sit at a table surrounded by bookshelves filled with hundreds of books. There's nearly 130 years of teaching experience between them. They are all retired, but they all returned to school with a desire to help children read better.

Now, instead of a classroom, they spend their time in the library working with children as part of the school's accelerated reading program.

The program was started years ago, initiated by a mom who wanted to do something more to help her child read better, Birkey says.

It is an accountability program that has children choose a book and take a quiz based on what they have read. The child's progress is then tracked. The more books they read, the more points they get.

The women point to Birkey as building the program, along with Williams. However, “A good program needs a good library,” Birkey says, along with good books, which is the job of Kern who picks all the books in the library. Wudy takes care of checking out and returning of the books.

“I think you can learn so much from books,” Williams says. She says they are trying to make a difference in the life of a child. “I like that part of teaching,” she says.

Birkey and Williams are sisters. Birkey taught at Emmanuel-St. Michael before retiring. Williams, also a former teacher, moved from Ohio to Fort Wayne to be near her sisters after her husband became ill.

The three sisters live on the same cul-de-sac. Williams adds that she lives just 25 steps from Birkey.

“I always wished I could teach with my sister, never dreaming it would happen,” Williams says.

Birkey says all three sisters love to read and passed that love on to their own children.

Birkey, who has four children and seven grandchildren, reads to her grandchildren. And Williams read to her own kids when they were growing up, even when they were in high school, she says. She would read poetry – her favorite – during breakfast before they left for school, “whether they liked it or not,” she says laughing.

Now they are working to grow a love of reading among the students in fourth through eighth grades at the Union Street campus. A second campus on Getz Road houses preschool through third grade.

Birkey and Williams take the program so serious that they meet with the 230 students weekly to discuss their progress. 

The sisters also read books and take the quizzes alongside the students.

Birkey shows her progress file, which includes the names of the books she has read and her stickers for meeting her goals. The children also get stickers for meeting goals.

Birkey says there were so many failed quizzes when the program started but that has improved greatly over the years. In addition, participation is up. Points that have been accumulated by students range anywhere from 15 to 500. However, there have been some exceptions, such as one child who a few years ago reached 1,545 points. But that record was beat by another child who reached 1,560 points.

But the participation doesn't stop with the students. The school staff, which spans from the secretary all the way to the gym teacher, also take part in reading the books, helping to set an example for the students, Birkey says.

There are three different reading themes in the program. The previous was Reading Rock 'n' Roll. In February it was Snow Better Time to Read. During this part, the children are allowed to bring their sleeping bags and pillows and spend the afternoon stretched out on the gym floor reading a book.

Birkey says it's so quiet as all the children are engaged in reading. 

“There is some magic with a gym that's full,” Williams says. “(You) glance around and every head is in a book. It's magical.”

When asked how many kids books, they have read, Williams says, “Many, many, many.”

“I just love kids books,” Birkey says.

There are 8,000 to 9,000 books in the school library to choose from.

As the person in charge of selecting the books, Kern says she hasn't read every book in the library, but she has read quite a number of them. 

At that the ladies laugh as Wudy takes a random book off the shelf, pulls out the card inside and points to the name written on it – “Shirley Kern.” Kern smiles. She says she writes her name on every card of the books that she reads.

Kern also retired from teaching at Emmanuel-St. Michael. She says she retired one day and returned the very next day to begin working in the library. This is her second career.

Wudy, who taught 25 years, has grandsons who attend the school. She enjoys getting to see them on a regular basis and watching them read.

All of the women didn't offer a timeline of how long they will continue working in the library. They admitted it was nice to just be in charge of books and not have to worry about meetings, conferences or bulletin boards.

“For me, this is the dessert of teaching,” Williams says.

“Yes!” Birkey says. “(I) just get to be with the kids and have a small impact. That's our payoff.”

Senior portrait

This once-a-month feature profiles northeast Indiana residents who are age 65 and older. If you would like to submit a senior for possible publication, email Terri Richardson at

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