Skip to Content

Cover Story: Retired Teachers are Helping Preserve America's Past

Susan Breitkopf

Charles Farrow can tell you a lot about the mills of his native Connecticut.


 He can tell you about the manufacturers that made farm implements, name numerous textile makers of yesteryear, and tell you how shoes were made in the late 19th century.

With such an in-depth knowledge of the state’s industrial history, one would think Farrow had taught years of units on the evolution of steam power, child labor, and capitalism. But no. Farrow taught English for 30 years.

“I’ve been interested in history my whole life even though I was a English teacher,” he says. And thanks to the team concept at the school where Farrow taught, he was able to foster that interest.

He did many cooperative projects, developing units with teachers of every subject from math and social studies to cooking. Several times over the years he helped teachers develop units on mills, because of their local prevalence. “I would get the primary sources—the letters, the ledgers, the photos—and the science teacher would teach about water power.”

Now Farrow runs and raises money for the local historical society, where he leads tours of the mills and other areas of historic interest. “We have a bunch of retired people who each do part of the work,” he said.

Farrow is not alone. Many retired teachers have found second careers preserving history. They lead tours, write books, visit classrooms in costumes, or teach lessons to combat intolerance. They volunteer hundreds of hours per year and, like Farrow, they realize they work nearly as many hours as when they were in the classroom.

Most don’t receive any monetary compensation—what sustains them is knowing that they are keeping history alive.

Terry Davis, president and CEO for the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), said that retirees, including teachers are crucial to keeping history organizations going. “All sorts of wonderful things are happening with retirees,” she said.

According to AASLH, most history organizations in the United States are small, volunteer led and often volunteer staffed with slim budgets and limited staff resources. “Almost all volunteers are retired,” said Davis, impressed by retirees’ generosity.

In fact, this year a group of retirees at the Hillsborough Historical Society earned AASLH’s prestigious Albert B. Corey Award—which recognizes primarily volunteer-operated historical organizations that do extraordinary work with limited resources—for their work digitizing county photos for a multitude of uses.

A 2001 study conducted by nonprofit advocacy group Independent Sector indicated that 44 percent of those age 50 and older volunteer. And Davis noted that with Baby Boomers now retiring in droves, there is a huge influx of potential volunteers whose passions may lead them to support many different causes.

“Baby Boomers are not going to sit around and eat bonbons,” she said. “What history institutions are trying to do is figure out how to get them to work for their cause.”

The tasks and responsibilities required of history volunteers vary greatly, said Davis. People may first think of the docent leading tours, but “volunteers do everything there is to do in a museum,” she said. “Without people like NEA’s Retired members, museums and history organizations couldn’t achieve their lofty goals.”

Farrow began helping his local historical society achieve its goals 15 years ago when he was still teaching. “I’ve always volunteered. Teaching gives you some time either late in the day or summers where you can volunteer. That’s been part of my life for some time.”

But his interest in mills didn’t begin with his volunteer work. In 1971, Farrow bought a farmhouse with a mill nearby. “I just started to look for more mills.” Farrow explained that in the Lower Connecticut River Valley, there are dozens of streams that feed into the river. “There was a great need for mills and a rich textile history. There are 20 mills within five miles of this house.”

Though the work is different, Farrow says many teaching skills translate to history work. “It does call for some education skills,” he said. “You have to be able to read and research and have innate curiosity and be able to manipulate information.”

Farrow said that he has enjoyed watching children who he works with through the local historical society get excited about history through technology.

He has worked with a group photographing collections. “I’m 60 and I grew up in a school system that saw kids as an open vessel to pour knowledge into,” he said. “Now teachers see kids as partners in their own education. Now teachers are signposts and letting kids learn at their own pace.”

Shirley Pitts has also taken students on as partners to educate others about history. She founded the Michigan-based Jackson High School Black History Tour Group in 1994, while she was still teaching high school English.

The group consists of 35 high school students, who must maintain good grades and must be models of  behavior for the younger children they visit. They visit mainly schools, performing songs and skits and teaching facts about Black history talking about the struggles Blacks have faced in the past and up to the present day.

The reason she founded the group was to combat the intolerance she saw all around her. “There is so much racism it’s unbelievable. We try to target schools where they’re having problems or where there’s little diversity.”

She said many program participants are worried about the group criticizing White people. But Pitts says that’s not the point. “We’re trying to keep the races together, not tear them apart.”

In 1998, she retired and dedicated herself full time to the group. “After [retiring] the group got bigger and better,” she said. “I never thought when I started it how big it would get.” Pitts said that the group has performed at the White House twice, sung at Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s second inauguration and met celebrities from Olympian Dominique Dawes to singer Anita Baker.

While the group has become Pitts’ full-time job, she does not draw a salary from it. That means she actively fund raises by soliciting donations and writing grants. 

Pitts says the group is fulfilling in a different way than classroom teaching and that it’s refreshing working with youths who want to do what their doing. “It’s a totally different relationship than teaching,” she said. “The kids sign up and desire to be in the tour group. They don’t want to leave [when they graduate high school.”

Alan Bell has fostered a similar passion in his post-teaching life. While the New Haven, Missouri, resident was still teaching high school art, a local developer was going to tear down the town’s first formal school building, built in the 1890s, and sell the bricks for salvage.

Bell and a small group of other residents didn’t want to see the town’s heritage disappear the way it had when other historic buildings met with the landfill.

So they enlisted the help of the local Pepsi bottler to raise money to renovate the building enough to stabilize it. Today, half of the building has been restored with two metting rooms and one room serving as a museum with school and community artifacts. The preservation society still holds fund-raisers for upkeep and further restoration.

The New Haven Preservation Society, which started with six members and 20 years later has 75, is also restoring another historic building in New Haven that will eventually become an art gallery and studios.

Bell  said New Haven changed when a highway was built through it, causing many businesses to relocate from the downtown to flank the highway. He and the rest of the preservation group are working to turn the downtown core into an arts district.

“History is an asset tourist-wise. It’s a different kind of economic resource than stores,” he said. “It brings a different kind of economy. We need to look back and appreciate what was there before. It was the foundation for the town.”

“We’d like to keep the small-town quality of life,” he added. Bell explained that New Haven is bookended by Washington, a suburb of St. Louis and location of many big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, and Herman, a major tourist destination with four major wineries.

Betty Carlson Kay’s passion for history took root in her home state of Illinois. She taught first grade for 34 years, and in that time she began writing historical nonfiction for children. Kay now has 10 books under her belt. Several have been about Abraham Lincoln, who lived most of his adult life in Springfield, Illinois.

Since retirement, Kay has been visiting about 50 second- to fifth-grade classrooms a year dressed as Mrs. Rutledge, a woman who knew Lincoln as a young man. Now, she is taking a year off to write, but next year she’ll hit the classroom circuit again as Elizabeth Edwards, Mary Lincoln’s sister.

Kay’s new book, created in conjunction with the Abraham Lincoln PresidentialLibrary who generously supplied the photographs, will cover the lives of both Abraham and his wife Mary from A to Z. Kay says she learned everything she knows about Lincoln from extensive reading, volunteering at the museum, and attending lectures.

 Her forthcoming book has been endorsed by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission who is planning activities and celebrations for his February 12, 2009 birthday. “I feel so fortunate that I was chosen,” she said. “That’s a real leg up for me.”

Like many teachers, Kay finds working with kids fulfilling. That said, she expressed some relief at not having to be responsible for a classroom of students in the same way. “When I leave the school, I don’t have to take any homework home,” she said. “I love to work with kids but I enjoy not being tied down. The kids are the highlight.”

Like Kay, Bill Sano found his second career in history. The Salem, Massachusetts resident taught elementary music, art and drama for 31 years.

He retired five years ago, but before that he ran tours during summers and weekends. Now he conducts tours full time as a freelance guide.

And unlike the rest of the retired teachers interviewed for this article, he earns a living at it. Even so, guiding tours was not something he sought out. It landed in his lap when a friend who ran a tour company had two guides quit on her.

Knowing that as a teacher he was comfortable communicating information to groups including children, she turned to Sano, who had always harbored a love of history. “I had more history books on my shelf than music books,” he said.

Sano said he very much enjoys the change of pace and scenery. “It gets me outside,” he said. “I meet people from all over the country and the world.” What’s more, like Kay, Sano enjoys not having to keep tabs on the kids. “I’m not responsible for them,” he said. “I get them for an all-day tour, and then they go on with their teachers.”

Although he draws a paycheck from doling out history, Sano feels strongly about the importance of teaching it. “No matter what country you grow up in, you have a responsibility for your past and knowing your past,” he said.

Similarly, Kay says that while the recognition for efforts makes her current work very satisfying, she also finds joy in simply passing on her passion for history. “I enjoy history and making kids aware of history,” she said. “They don’t get enough in schools. It’s part of our culture. It’s who we are. They find out who they are by looking at the past and applying it to who they are.”

Leave your mark on history!

  • Just about every community has a historical society or museum. Start by contacting their staff, suggests Terry Davis, president of the American Association for State and Local History, and ask about preservation needs in your community.
  • Have an area of specialization? If there’s an era or historical figure you know a lot about, find a way to share your expertise. Some NEA-R members, like Betty Carlson Kay, work with active teachers to help present a unit to students in the classroom. 
  • Peruse, which offers information on historic preservation and heritage tourism, and lists more than 4,500 historical societies, 7,000 history museums, and all State Historic Preservation Offices.
  • If, like Alan Bell, you want to help preserve a local historic site, look at the National Trust’s Community pages. They offer models and resources, even financial assistance for those striving to preserve a sense of place while revitalizing declining buildings.  
  • Most everyone would like to make a record of their family’s stories. But anyone who’s tried knows it’s not as easy as it sounds. The Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Programs offers some tips on how to conduct an oral history, with a host of sample questions.

Published in:

Published In


  • anc_dyn_linksMay 2013
  • January 2013January 2013
  • November 20122012 Archives
  • September 20122011 Archives
  • May 20122006 – 2010