A visitor at the Gazette recently mentioned in passing that Mary Ellen Allen would be turning 100 years old on Nov. 7.
“I had her as a substitute teacher!” said two Gazette staffers who happened to be in the office at the time.
That’s the sort of impact a good substitute teacher can have.
“When we were going to school in Morgan, she would substitute at our school sometimes,” said Mary Ellen’s daughter, Jane Sullivan.
“The other kids would ask, ‘Is Mrs. Smiley your mom?’ That was the students’ name for her — Mrs. Smiley.”
Born on a farm near Franklin in 1912, Mary Ellen “took off to St. Catherine’s College when she was 16, and majored in chemistry and history. She had a science mind,” said her son John, who went on to become a teacher himself.
In the Great Depression, jobs for chemistry majors were scarce, so Mary Ellen moved back to Franklin and got a job substitute teaching.
“She preferred substitute teaching because she was raising four children at the time, and subbing gave her more flexibility,” said John.
Mary Ellen married Frank Allen on Oct. 4, 1941, and lived on the farmstead until January 2006. In addition to Jane and John, Mary Ellen has two other children: Sister Mary Fran, and Richard.
Mary Ellen quickly became the sub of choice at Franklin, Fairfax, Morton, Morgan, and Bird Island.
“In all those years, she was never a long-term sub,” said John. “She preferred to do one day at a time.”
That meant there was little consistency in Mary Ellen’s life. She often didn’t know where or if she would be working on any given morning.
The trade-off was that if there was something going on in her life on a given day — like needing to take care of a sick child — she could turn down an assignment.
Being a substitute also meant having to think on her feet.
“One day, she walked into a room to substitute, and her only instructions from the teacher were, ‘Do your own thing,’” John laughed.
According to John, Mary Ellen’s main hobby was “conversations with people. She was a great one for visiting shut-ins and older people in nursing homes. Now she’s the one in that spot.”
She has lived at the Golden Living Center in Franklin since July 2008 — suitable, since in the 1960s she helped raise funds for it when it was first built at the Franklin nursing home.
“She was very community minded,” said John. “She was on the school board, and was on the committee for Catfish Days for years and years.”
Page 2 of 2 - “She was also an avid letter writer, which is almost a lost art today. She had such beautiful handwriting my wife and I thought about framing some recipe cards she wrote.”
“She was a wonderful greeter, and always knew the names of everyone,” said Jane. “If anyone needed a name, she could tell you. She didn’t just know their name, she knew their whole history.”
In the summer of 2008, Allen attended her 75th college reunion.
Well, “reunion” is a strong word. She was the only one from the class of 1933 to make it.
John gave an example of Mary Ellen’s independence and positive outlook:
“She never went to a doctor from the time I was born in 1950 for the next 35 or 40 years, and never took any medications at all.
“When she entered the Franklin nursing home, they had a care conference after a few weeks to discuss her situation.
“One woman had a three-inch binder filled with medical information about Mom, and said, “I’ll start. In the last three weeks, your mother has taken one Tylenol.”
“My wife and I were amazed that Mom had taken that much.
“Later in the meeting, the woman said, ‘While everyone else was talking, I was sitting here reviewing Mary Ellen’s records. She was offered one Tylenol, but turned it down.”
Mrs. Smiley could take care of it herself.