Bev Cooke with first-graders in Meredith Elliott's class at UES

Unionville Elementary School instructional assistant Bev Cooke helps first-graders in Meredith Elliott's class. She's pictured here with Hannah Rose, Kinley Crack, Sean Smith, Brooklynne Turner and Emily Stanley. Cooke has worked at the school for 36 Years. 

The latest in a series on longtime county employees.

If anyone knows Unionville Elementary School (UES) inside and out, it’s Beverly Cooke.

She enrolled at UES as a first-grader in 1960, when the school served grades one through seven instead of kindergarten through second grade. A few years after she graduated from high school, she returned to her old elementary school as an instructional assistant. She left for a while and worked elsewhere, but when the opportunity arose to return, she did so gladly. She has worked 36 years altogether at UES.

Cooke, 64, has stayed at Unionville because she delights in the children and thinks the world of her colleagues.

“We have a very, very dedicated staff here. I’m not just saying it—we do. I know everybody wants what’s best for these children coming through here, and we just try. We don’t give up. We just continue to give it all we can give and help them as much as we can,” she said.

“We’ve got a lot of support from [Principal Peggy Kinser], and all the teachers here are great. I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. I really wouldn’t,” she added.

A native of Orange County, Cooke has strikingly green eyes and an unassuming manner. She is one of those people for whom friendly conversation is effortless, a decided advantage when it comes to working with children.

UES then and now

Cooke lives across from the Orange County Airport in the family home where she and her sister, Janet, grew up. Her father was a carpenter and her mother worked at American Silk Mills in Orange.

When she thinks back to her student days at UES, she remembers “wonderful” teachers and friendly, well-behaved classmates.

“I know a few people got sent to the office. But I lucked out—I never did get sent to the office. I didn’t have anything to worry about; I was a pretty good kid,” she said with a chuckle.

She enjoyed bowling and playing softball when she was growing up. Mainly, though, she loved to read. She jokingly describes her younger self as “an indoor, nerdy type of person.”

After she graduated from Orange County High School, she worked for the old Blue Bell factory as an inspector of blue jeans. Her next job was at UES, where she started out in the school library. She then worked with children who needed help with their reading.       

In 1984, she left Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) and took a position with a federal job-placement and education program for high school dropouts. Then the program folded.

“I thought about what I was going to do, and I thought, ‘I really miss the kids,’” Cooke said.

She met with Orange County Public Schools administrator Warren Widmyer, who offered her a job at Prospect Heights Middle School. After a year, she had a chance to return to Unionville and has been there ever since.

As either a student or staff member, Cooke has known all nine of the school’s principals, including Kinser, the current leader. She has helped thousands of students learn to read, solve math problems and have a good, happy day at school. She also has encouraged and gently advised new teachers as they find their footing at UES.

Asked how things were different when she was a student at the school on Route 522, Cooke said there was no annex to the main building, and classes were smaller. Even though the school covered seven grades, there were only a couple of classrooms at each grade level.

Her face breaking into a wide grin, Cooke added, “Of course, the teachers all looked a whole lot older!”

On a serious note, she said, “I think we had a little bit more respect for the teachers than what they do now. … Sometimes I feel like we need a little extra support from the homes. I don’t think we get as much support from the parents as we did back then. I can remember my mom sitting down and helping us with our homework and reading to us. I don’t know if kids are getting that now.”

“Friends are the family you choose”

Instructional assistants work with small groups so everyone can get more individualized attention. During a typical day, Cooke moves around from grade to grade. She helps groups of kindergartners develop basic reading skills, assists first-graders with math and second-graders with reading comprehension.

She doesn’t have a college degree, but she took a test some 20 years ago to qualify as a paraprofessional. The way she looks at it, instructional assistants are part of the school’s team effort: “We all have our own groups, and we do what the teachers ask us to do.”

She praises Kinser, whom she calls “a remarkable leader,” and the UES teachers, who rallied around her when her husband, Bernard, was dying of cancer. She said she would arrive on Monday morning and often find a case of nutritional drinks they had bought for her to take to him. They also would leave her pre-paid gas cards, because they knew the Cookes were frequently driving back and forth to the hospital for his treatments.

Cooke’s affection for the rest of the UES staff is mutual. Kinser describes her veteran staff member as “truly a gem,” and Meredith Elliott, a first-grade teacher in her third year at UES, said, “She is inspirational. She is warm-hearted. She is wonderful. She is just the best. I call her my ‘work mama.’”

Cooke is not just a “work mama.” She has a son, T.W., a daughter, Julie, three grandchildren and a great-grandson. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling around with her family to watch her 17-year-old grandson, Mason Gibson of Louisa, play baseball for a team called Virginia Select.

As her 65th birthday approaches, Cooke said she will probably retire in December. She’s looking forward to spending more time on arts and crafts. Among the items she sells at a booth at the MinuteMan MiniMall in Culpeper are decorative tiles she has painted and birdbaths made from old lamps.

Even so, she plans to get on the substitute list so she can come back to the school that has been a second home since she was 6 years old.

It’s not just the place but the people she loves: “I don’t know if you’ve heard this saying, ‘Friends are the family you choose.’ And you know what? That’s how I feel about all the people here.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and writes feature stories for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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