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Goodbye, Miss Barbara

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Thu October 20, 2011
Every town should be lucky enough to have a resident like Barbara Drugan to guide its little ones.
Every town should be lucky enough to have a resident like Barbara Drugan to guide its little ones.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene says a favorite kindergarten teacher died; her service is Wednesday
  • He says the teacher, Miss Barbara, was much beloved and bound to her Ohio town
  • He says she remembered names, was a touchstone for many; later was crossing guard
  • Greene: In a fragmented world of fleeting relationships, Miss Barbara mattered

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship." His forthcoming "The Road Home: Tales from the Back Nine of Life" is being previewed at twitter.com/the_road_home. Watch him on CNN Newsroom Mondays during the 9 a.m. (ET) hour.

(CNN) -- On Wednesday night, on a small patch of lawn in central Ohio, generations of people bearing affection and gratitude will gather to say one last goodbye to Miss Barbara.

That's what she was called her entire adult life, and that's the way she wanted it. Barbara Drugan was 85 when she died in the waning days of September, as a new school year was getting started. She was a young woman just out of St. Mary of the Springs Academy and the Ohio State University when, in 1947, she commenced her life's work: teaching kindergarten in Bexley, Ohio. For 32 years, Miss Barbara would greet new, nervous, excited groups of 5-year-olds in her classroom at the south end of the first-floor hallway of Cassingham Elementary School on Cassingham Road.

That is where the memorial gathering will be held on Wednesday night: on the lawn right outside the window of her old classroom. And the reason the town will gather for Miss Barbara ...

Well, if you have ever lived in a community in which one person's devotion to the town, and to its residents, is a part of everyone's memory, then you will understand.

Miss Barbara never forgot a child's face or a child's name, even when the boys and girls had grown older and had children and grandchildren of their own. How she did it, I don't know. She knew your name, she knew your parents' names, she knew your brothers' and sisters' names -- 20, 30, 40 years after you had left her kindergarten class, she knew.

"She was everything to this town," said Tim Madison, an attorney who lives in Bexley and who was a child in Miss Barbara's kindergarten class in 1969. "She was a part of the town's life for as long as many of us can ever remember. And she remembered each one of us."

That matters. In a world where relationships can be fast and fleeting, that matters. For generations, men and women who had once been her students would sometimes move away, pursuing jobs elsewhere or starting families in other parts of the country. When they would return for a visit years later and run into Miss Barbara as she walked around town, the sight of her face and the sound of her welcoming voice made it official: They were home.

She dealt with the ups and downs that are a part of a long life with a smile and the will to keep on going. After she retired, there was an item in a local newspaper saying that the school had decided to have crossing guards at Cassingham Road and Fair Avenue. There had always been patrol boys and girls at the other end of the block -- at Cassingham and Elm, where there was a stoplight. But now the school was looking for adults to help out at the unguarded far end, and the story in the paper announced a time and place for a meeting for volunteers.

Miss Barbara went to the meeting. She was the only one to show up.

And for the next 27 years, as she grew old, she was on that corner every day, helping the children get safely to school. She was there in the rain and she was there in the snow, and once I asked her if it wouldn't be better for her to stay home in such foul weather. No, she said; that's when it was most important for her to be on duty, when visibility was bad and accidents more likely.

In 1952, in Miss Barbara's kindergarten class, I met Jack Roth, who would become my friend for the next 52 years -- my oldest friend in life. Miss Barbara watched the friendship begin. When Jack died of cancer in 2004, and his wife and daughter asked me to deliver the eulogy at his funeral, it was a very difficult day to get through. At the end of the service, as I followed his casket up the aisle, I felt a hand reach out from one of the seats, and hold my own hand.

Of course.

Miss Barbara.

She never married; if you read the formal obituaries last week, you might have surmised that she never had children.

But that is untrue. She had hundreds of children; hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds, who she never forgot, and who never forgot her.

Who loved her then. Who love her still.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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