Retiring preschool teacher made 1,000-plus friends
Kalamazoo — Liza Wolfe has more than 1,000 good friends.
It’s what she calls her students. Above all else, Wolfe wanted to show her 3- to 5-year-olds to be good to themselves and one another, it’s more important than being able to count or spell your name, after all.
Each little step means something, she said. After 42 years of letting children grow and learn from her basement preschool in the Westnedge Hill neighborhood, Wolfe is putting both feet into retirement.
Wolfe, 78, is smart as a whip. She has a dry and self-referential sense of humor, sometimes cracking a wide toothy smile to emphasize her point.
Though she is retiring, Wolfe isn’t going anywhere. For now, she plans to write thank you notes and work on books, a collection of stories from her long career and a story about “Poppy the Purple Pig” puppet are two examples.
“I am no quitter,” Wolfe said at the entrance to her colorful classroom. “I’ve never been a quitter.”
But it is time for the preschool to end.
“I figured out not too long ago that everybody is still going to have babies, and they don’t need me anymore,” Wolfe said.
There might be some disagreement on that last thought. Wolfe acknowledges she is somewhat of an institution in the community.
She started in 1976 by delivering letter notices to her neighbors, but the school eventually had a never-ending supply of new students from families around Kalamazoo County.
One of the biggest lessons the kids learn is how to be away from their parents, Wolfe said. Likewise, parents get their first taste of separation anxiety.
Wolfe was trusted to ease that transition for generations of families.
Suzanne Lepley was in one of Wolfe’s first groups of students. She attended in 1979 and later sent her daughter Ellie to Wolfe’s basement in 2005.
For children of working parents, the experience at different day care facilities can vary. Lepley found herself in a few cold places, but Wolfe’s preschool was different.
“I remember feeling it was the first place I went where I felt so deeply loved,” Lepley said. “I think that her love for children is so genuine, and it spills out to how she educates them.”
When it was time for her daughter Ellie to attend preschool, there was no question where she would go. Lepley’s daughter met Wolfe’s granddaughter there and they’ve remained close ever since, she said.
Wolfe keeps in touch with her former students, but sometimes has to squint to remember a face.
When she announced her final year of teaching, a Facebook group coordinated a final send off at the Kalamazoo Do-Dah Parade and shared nostalgic memories. Almost 90 people ordered the classic “Mrs. Wolfe is my good friend” monochrome T-shirts.
The response is a credit to the impact she has in their childhood and adult lives, said Gwen Nelson, who attended the school in 1989. She grew up to become a third-grade teacher in Ohio.
Nelson said she attended Wolfe’s summer camps, Easter egg hunts and picnics hosted, drank cider from her homemade press outside fall garage sales and often stopped at Wolfe’s house to call home before cellphones were invented.
“Mrs. Wolfe has always just been a part of us,” Nelson said. “To think that she is done doing that for another group of children is sad, because we want more people to become a part of this family. This family of Mrs. Wolfe’s friends. We love her because she is family.”
Nolan Kiplinger, 11, said he’s sad that children won’t be able to learn from “the greatest preschool teacher in Kalamazoo,” but thinks they’ll still get a chance to be close to her.
“I know she was really big part of my life, and so I want the kids who are not going to Mrs. Wolfe to know that she is an amazing teacher,” he said.
Wolfe’s students remember simple lessons, like how to tie your shoes, eat healthy and the difference between colors. Then there were more universal ones; about etiquette and politeness, how to share, be kind and courteous.
How to be a “good citizen,” as Wolfe would say.
Perhaps most importantly, the children are taught to play, explore and never indulge boredom.
“Play is their learning instrument; it’s been that way all along,” Wolfe said.
It’s a creed that isn’t far off from the philosophy of Fred Rogers, the late and beloved host of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” Rogers has been quoted as saying “play is the work of childhood.”
The two met one summer in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Wolfe recalls Rogers being oddly fond of the color orange and for dutifully putting on one of her “Mrs. Wolfe is My Good Friend” T-shirts.
“I suspect it was the last time he wore it,” Wolfe joked.
Wolfe is self-effacing, but her former students speak of her in as a venerable figure.
“I think the world needs more of her, especially in the environment (children) are growing up in,” Lepley said. “I think people need more Liza Wolfes. I would argue her work isn’t done.”
Wolfe doesn’t disagree.
“I’ll always be their friend,” she said. “I’ll always be around for them. They just need to come see me.”