At just the right time of year, a tree needs to be gently planted in a spot where it will thrive. It should be surrounded with mulch and watered regularly during its first few years. A little nurturing will make it grow strong for the future.
Mrs. Denise Walker, who taught first grade at Greenwood Elementary School for more than 23 years, treated children the same way. Mrs. Walker passed away in February due to an ongoing health issue, but the people who loved her most have no plans of letting her kind heart and warm wisdom be forgotten.
On Friday, Greenwood school children, faculty, staff and the PTA invited Mrs. Walker’s family to the school to help them plant a flowering Aristocrat Pear tree near the playground in honor of their beloved teacher. Her husband, Steve Walker, and their daughter, Sarah Walker Simpkins, attended the ceremony and each shoveled in a few scoops of soil. According to Principal Dennis Winn, the school will add a memorial bench to the area before the end of the school year.
“It’s very nice of them to do this,” Steve said. “It’s been a great effort by the people here to keep her memory alive. It’s an honor for her and a way for these kids to deal with a loss.”
Ray Meunier, whose son Luke, 9, had Mrs. Walker as a teacher a few years ago, also attended the ceremony. Meunier, a member of the Warwick Wildlife and Conservation Commission, helped plant the tree and spread the surrounding mulch.
Following the planting, he said that the tree was donated by Yard Works Floral, Gift & Garden through the suggestion of local historian Henry Brown.
“When I told him, he said, ‘I’ll get you a tree,’” Meunier said. “He’s a great guy.”
For nearly a decade, the Commission has planted a tree in the city each year in observation of Arbor Day, which they did last month at Lippitt School. In the past, trees have been planted at other schools, including Toll Gate, Aldrich, Cedar Hill, Oakland Beach, to name a few. In 2007, a tree was planted at Greenwood in memory of Dylan Gleavey, a student who died from encephalitis.
Now, Mrs. Walker’s tree is keeping Gleavy’s tree company. It’s a comforting thought, as Gleavey was exactly the type of child Mrs. Walker likely helped grow.
“She truly was a giving, loving person,” Steve said, noting that after she died, he found a journal she kept from 1996 to 2000 documenting stories of her life at school. “She wrote about how she loved kids and how they made her day. She was a very dedicated person. She loved life.”
Steve said many of the entries feature prayers she offered to school children and their families, plus co-workers, friends and family members of her own. At times, she asked God to give her strength to always treat people fairly and foster compassion and kindness.
He shared one entry about how touched she was to overhear a few students saying sweet words about her.
“What a wonderful feeling I had today at school,” Mrs. Walker wrote. “I heard my first grade girls talking together when they said, ‘Mrs. Walker is the best teacher.’ Another said, ‘I wish I could have her again.’”
She wrote that, as a teacher, she knew how common it was for 7-year-old girls to have great affection for their teachers. Even so, it warmed her heart.
“That’s probably why I’m still teaching first grade,” she wrote. “It’s still a heartwarming and personally fulfilling experience to hear that unconditional love that they have at this age.”
That love lives on in Greenwood students. Third grader Luke Meunier, 9, remembers Mrs. Walker most for organizing Pasta for Pennies, an annual initiative she created to encourage children to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In 2010, Greenwood earned the Decade of Recognition award, as they placed as one of the top 10 schools six times in 10 years.
Most recently, they raised more than $5,000 for the cause. As the school’s former fundraiser coordinator, that total would have made Mrs. Walker proud.
“She was a great teacher,” Luke said.
Fourth grader Olivia DeGaetano, 10, said she liked everything about Mrs. Walker.
“I went to private school from pre-school to kindergarten and when I came here, Mrs. Walker introduced me and my mom to the school,” DeGaetano said.
Joseph Dunphy, whose twin daughters Meagan and Erin are second graders at the school, also had kind words to share about Mrs. Walker. Before the twins began first grade, he thought about enrolling them in two separate classes so they would grow as individuals. When he approached Mrs. Walker about it, she agreed with him and helped the girls with the transition.
“They loved Mrs. Walker,” Dunphy said. “They are going to remember that tree even when they are older and have kids.”