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Preschool owner to retire after 35 years

By Christina Killion Valdez

The Post-Bulletin

The warmth and charm Kathy Smith exudes on a regular day gushed Tuesday as memories and former students flooded back to Buttonwood Preschool.

"Oh, let me see you," Smith said as Mark Conway, now 30 and working in law enforcement, stopped by the two-room school in Homestead United Methodist Church to see his teacher 25 years later.

Like many of the former students who attended the school’s first alumni open house, which drew about 400 people, Conway brought photos from his preschool years.

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"Oh my gosh, who’s that young woman?" Smith said, seeing herself.

More than just a reunion, it was a chance to say good-bye for Smith.

Smith, who’s worked at Buttonwood since it opened 35 years ago, is preparing to hand over the reins at the end of the school year. Sandy Shanahan, who taught at Buttonwood for 23 years before retiring in February, also attended the open house to say good-bye.

"We had fun," Shanahan said. "And I think the kids did, too."

The Buttonwood philosophy is "learning is fun."

"The number one rule is it has to be fun," Smith said. "If everyone used that in life, it would be so great."

They’ve passed that lesson on to Melissa Johnson, who after eight years of working at the school will take over ownership next year.

"They’ve taught me a lot," Johnson said of working with Smith and Shanahan.

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Parents at the reunion said they’ve learned a few tricks from Smith and Shanahan, such as having kids hold on to a knotted rope so they wouldn’t get separated. Then there’s all the memories like "unbirthday" celebrations for the kids whose birthdays didn’t fall during the school year, and Esmerelda, the witch puppet.

"I don’t know if they really know how many kids they made an impression on," parent Marcia Kluck said of Smith and Shanahan, "But we sure realize it."

Some returning students were most surprised to see how small the school is.

"Those stairs used to be huge; now they’re small and the tables are all short," said Nicholas Rohde, 16, who attended Buttonwood from 1994 to 1996.

Buttonwood was started in 1972 by Sandy Schmidt and Jenny Lee, who brought in Smith that fall as the school’s first licensed preschool teacher. Smith later took over ownership of the school.

In 1979, Buttonwood became the first preschool in Rochester to mainstream special-needs children, Smith said. Sixteen years ago they also started accepting special-needs adults into the classes, she said.

Over the years, Smith estimates she’s taught about 1,600 kids, most of whom she still remembers by name. That includes entire families in which as many as five siblings attended, and former students whose own children attended.

"They stay in your heart and mind," Smith said.

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On May 24, the last day of school, Smith will say her final good-byes.

"It will be an emotional day," Smith said. "But it always is every year."

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