Mary Butler scrolled through her texts and tapped on her current favorite, laughing again as she read the message sent by the parent of a 9-year-old student.

The mom wanted Butler to know that her son had been bragging to his big brother that he has “the best teacher” this year. Because Butler has been at it so long, the boy reasoned, she must know more than any other teacher.

“They all know how old I am,” Butler said, smiling. “I get different comments about that, depending.”

One student didn’t think he could count that high.

Another just said, “Holy cow.”

Butler is 81. She started teaching at the Ohio State School for the Blind in 1959 and remains on the job more than 60 years later — long enough, a colleague observed, to have retired twice.

“She’s most humble about it,” said Emily Russell, a speech language pathologist at the school. “And wonderful to work with.”

Butler doesn’t care to make a fuss about her extraordinary tenure. She’d rather talk about the North Side school and how it still feels like a family, full of love and laughter and determination to help every child succeed.

“I just think we really are a very special place,” she said.

The Clintonville resident allows that she has a fairly rare perspective on the evolution of education for blind and visually impaired students, having begun her career before classrooms were equipped with computers and other kinds of adaptive technology. There also were no early intervention programs and services to give the youngest blind kids a boost.

Butler once taught 16 students at a time, with no aides in the room. Today, teachers at the School for the Blind have no more than eight at a time, and there’s often help from assistants. Math lessons don’t turn on an abacus.

“Sometimes it seems like decades ago; sometimes it seems like last week,” said Butler, who is teaching third grade this year. “The changes took place gradually.”

The job itself, however, came upon her suddenly. Butler didn’t know a single blind person and was working as a lifeguard at Ohio State University when she met a professor with a project teaching blind children to swim.

In the process, she also began talking to a physical education teacher from the School for the Blind who told her about a job opening. At the time, no special training was required, and teachers were in demand to help with a soaring student population.

“I thought, ’Oh, that would be interesting and fun to do for a year,‴ Butler recalled.

The superintendent didn’t think she was ready for the older students, so he placed her with the youngest. Butler was young and energetic, but she still ran herself ragged keeping tabs on a bustling roomful of young children who were either blind or couldn’t see well, and who were not yet accustomed to school.

“Those first years, I kept saying to myself, ‘There’s got to be an easier way to make a living,’” she said.

Yet she realized she relished the challenge and, even more, the progress that the children made. Having a hand in their growth still feels wonderful.

Butler beamed as 10-year-old Desha Willis read aloud last week, the child’s face and thick glasses all but touching the paper so that she could make out the print. She nailed every word and breezed through the comprehension questions.

“You got it,” Butler said.

“I do got it!” Desha exclaimed.

Asked how she knew how to read Braille, Butler said she didn’t at first. She spent the entire summer before that first school year teaching herself so she could teach kids.

Elizabeth Sammons, a member of the school’s alumni organization, remembered Butler’s style as kind, consistent and effective.

“The foundation that I got in Braille, partly through Mrs. Butler, set up my foundation for success,” said Sammons, now retired from the state agency Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities. “What she taught very, very young blind children was giving them literacy.”

First-year Principal Michelle Wagner, who also attended the school as a child, said Butler’s dedication and work ethic are nothing short of amazing.

Butler understands that people inevitably ask when she plans to retire, but she has no particular plan. “I take it one year at a time,” she said.

Her (retired) husband, children and grandchildren remain supportive. Her daughter, a special-education teacher at a different school, teases her mom about quitting so that she can come and work as an aide in her classroom.

Butler is grateful she hasn’t had to make too many concessions to age. She takes a pass on scrunching down in the little-kid chairs, and while she can still bend to tie shoes, “I’d rather they put their feet up.”

Most things work out just fine. She especially cherishes the time students get in the school’s swimming pool.

“These kids, all day, have to be on guard. Your cane is only so much protection,” she said. “In the water, they can be free. Our pool is a very vital part of the program.”

Now and then, some students seem to ponder their teacher’s age and what it could mean. They tell her they hope she lives a long time. Butler smiles, or hugs them, or cracks a joke as she advises them not to worry.

“It’s all OK,” she said. “I’ve already lived a very, very good life.”

 

rprice@dispatch.com

@RitaPrice