Retirement eludes educator with 50 years at TPS
BY ANDREA EGER World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2013
2/17/13 at 4:41 AM
In five decades with Tulsa Public Schools, Willene Samilton has endured segregation and helped students overcome every kind of personal adversity, including teen pregnancy, academic deficiency and discipline problems.
None of that fazes her.
What makes her shake her head when she discusses her long career in public education is also what keeps her working.
"It is so different today," said Samilton, 73, who serves as parent facilitator at Edison Preparatory School. "If I was a child who had to face some of these circumstances our students have to, I would not be able to stand up to it. It's just overwhelming."
The longest-serving active employee in TPS has tried to retire several times since the 1980s. But she believes she was called to be an educator, and every time she thinks she's through, her telephone rings.
"Mrs. Samilton, we need you," she says, laughing as she recalls those requests from various principals. "Last year, I was going to work just the one year. I keep telling my principal, 'Now, this is it for me.' He just says, 'All right, all right,' and tunes me out."
The most recent of those calls came in summer 2011. Nimitz Middle School, where she had worked for nearly five years as parent facilitator, was shuttered as part of a districtwide consolidation plan.
Someone she worked with there recommended her to Edison's then-interim principal, Christine Conley.
"I knew Mrs. Samilton as the counselor at Will Rogers High School during my very first year of teaching, in '93-'94," said Conley, now assistant principal at Edison. "I said 'We need to get her on the phone!'
"She has such a heart for kids and has dealt with every type of kid there is to deal with. She's been a teacher, a counselor, a dean. She's done it all."
'A beautiful soul'
Samilton said she was shocked to find so many students at Edison in need of support.
"I thought that we didn't have any poverty at Edison, but poverty exists here. They really do need me, and being here really has made a difference in my life," she said.
Samilton uses her vast network of community contacts to bridge the gap for about 250 Edison students and their parents. That includes coordinating a school uniform closet with social worker Valerie Isaacs - even when that means dipping into their own pockets to keep students in polo shirts.
"You see kids coming through here all day long," Isaacs said, pointing to the hallway that connects her office to Samilton's next door. "They call her Mama, they call her Grandma. Sometimes it's just to say hello, but she knows all of their names and what's going on with them, and they all know they can come to her."
That morning, Isaacs had gone to round up an absent student who, it turned out, hadn't come to school because he didn't have a uniform shirt. He wound up in Samilton's office in just an undershirt. Mid-afternoon, one student stopped by to give Samilton a piece of chocolate cake and a hug.
She had no sooner taken her last bite of cake when a girl she has been working with to help escape an abusive home stopped by with something more pressing.
"She has a beautiful soul - she has helped me so much," said the student, a junior whose father died two years ago and whose mother has been absent for six years. "Ms. Samilton has encouraged me and told me I don't deserve to go through what I am. I think of her just like my grandma. In a stern way, she tells me, 'You can do this. You have to pursue this until you get what you need.' "
Samilton marvels at the fact that so many Edison students work to support themselves and their families. She is most troubled by how many students grapple with serious social ills in their home lives - and she's no stranger to the work, having served at-risk youths and teen moms in a TPS-sponsored program for several years in the 1960s.
From the time Samilton was a sophomore at Booker T. Washington High School, she knew she wanted to work in the education field.
The youngest of seven children, she followed an older sister to Tennessee A&I College, now known as Tennessee State University. It was the middle of the civil rights movement, and Samilton participated in sit-ins.
When she returned home to Tulsa to be near her mother, her only option was to work in segregated schools. Her first job was at Anderson Junior High School, beginning in 1963.
When asked about the challenges of that era, Samilton shrugs them off, explaining that her attitude was influenced early on by a white woman her mother paid $1 per week for piano lessons in their home.
"Mrs. Leon was her name. She always told me, 'Just do what you are supposed to do. You are so fortunate to have a mother who is going to make sure you're somebody,' and she would give me hugs and tell me, 'You are going to be somebody,' " she said. "When I participated in sit-ins in the South, my mind was set at that time that I was going to always treat everyone the same."
'Always go forward'
Samilton smiles as she recalls that every one of her mother's seven children earned a college degree.
She went on to earn her master's early in her career, teaching school during the day and carpooling an hour each way with a dozen or so other teachers to Northeastern State University several nights a week.
Asked about the highlights of her 50 years working with Tulsa's youth, Samilton is hard-pressed to identify just one.
Then, she concedes that she often thinks of the 13 young women she helped see through to graduation in that at-risk program decades ago - she calls them her "Unlucky, lucky 13."
"I never think about it. I always go forward," she said. "Each day is a new day. Every day there is something new that I haven't experienced or been a part of."
Original Print Headline: 50 years with TPS
Andrea Eger 918-581-8470
Willene Samilton, parent facilitator at Edison Preparatory School, talks with sixth-grade student Raul Hernandez about his paperwork Thursday. Samilton has worked at Tulsa Public Schools for five decades. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Seniors Jaxon Richins and Jack Stewart chat with Willene Samilton, parent facilitator at Edison Preparatory School, on Thursday morning in her office. Samilton, who has worked for the district since 1963, has been called out of retirement repeatedly at Tulsa Public Schools. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World