BLANCHARD — When Genelle Richey first stepped into an Oklahoma classroom to teach, Harry Truman was in the White House, still grinning over his surprise re-election. Elvis Presley was 15, learning guitar licks from a neighbor in Memphis. Ethel Merman was about to star on Broadway in “Call Me Madam,” portraying a character based loosely on Oklahoma native Perle Mesta, then U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg.
That was the fall of 1950. Today, Richey, 82, is still teaching, continuing a career that has spanned the administrations of 12 U.S. presidents.
Richey teaches honors English composition at Blanchard High School, where she has taught for all except six years of a career in its 62nd year. She has taught children of her former students and is now teaching some of their grandchildren. Her own grandson is a Blanchard sophomore.
Several former students have become teachers themselves.
“I guess when I start teaching great-grandchildren, maybe it'll be time to quit,” she said. This year, 58 seniors are enrolled in her three classes.
“I'm taking it a year at a time,” she said. “If I feel good, I'll keep going.”
Richey was hired as an elementary teacher at Middleberg School while still in college. She earned a bachelor's degree from Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha and after six years at Middleberg, moved to Blanchard — where she graduated in 1948 — to teach high school English.
“It took me five years to finish college, but I taught three of those years,” she said. Back then, teachers could start working before finishing their degrees.
She had planned to retire 20 years ago, but her principal at the time, Glen Castle, asked her to continue teaching senior English instead of retiring completely.
“I wasn't sick and felt good, so I thought, ‘I can do three hours,' ” she said.
“I'm 82, but I don't feel it. My students ask me how old I am, and I just tell them I'm 100.”
Greg Jackson, Richey's current principal, said she is welcome to continue teaching as long as she is feeling good and enjoys what she's doing.
“She's a tradition,” Jackson said, “just a classy lady. The students respect her, and the parents respect her.”
Richey, Jackson said, “lets them know how important writing is.”
A focus on writing
Richey describes herself as “an old-fashioned teacher.”
She tells students on the first day that what matters in her class is “tone of voice, and don't ask me why.”
Janeen Heller, the junior and senior counselor, graduated from Blanchard in 1980 and was in one of Richey's classes. She said students clamor to study with Richey.
She said it's common for students who come back to visit to remark how well-prepared they were for college-level writing.
Richey said her goal during the first nine weeks of school is to raise her students' scores on the English portion of the ACT. After that, she said, “we have a term paper, and we write a lot of essays.”
Richey's husband, Roley Richey, died in 1986. Both of their daughters are longtime educators.
Robbie Canada taught at the University of Oklahoma before forming an education consulting firm. Jane Brewer retired last year as head of the English department at Westmoore High School in Oklahoma City.
“It's bad when your daughter retires before you do,” Richey joked.
Her son, Scott, owns an oil and gas company and is involved in farming and ranching.
She has four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Grandson Clay is on the Blanchard Lions football team.
Brewer said her mother doesn't like to brag about herself. “She doesn't like a lot of attention, and doesn't like being in the spotlight.”
When they are out in public, her daughter said, and present or former students spot her, “they come running over.”
“They just feel sorry for me because I'm old,” Richey said.
Instilling high standards
Science teacher Kevin Bilyeu is a 1986 graduate of Blanchard High and one of several former students of Richey's to become a teacher. Bilyeu remembers her as a strict but effective teacher, particularly with writing assignments.
Bilyeu said his own exacting standards were instilled in him by Richey.
“It is important to represent yourself well in your writing,” he said. “That comes from her. It has to be as good as it can be.”
Allyson Lambert, senior class president, said Richey has helped her improve her writing.
“She has helped me understand dependent and independent clauses, and where to put commas,” Lambert said. “I think what I have learned will help me in the future.”
Richey said teachers generally will succeed if they heed certain principles.
“You have to be dedicated, follow instructions and, if possible, be at school every day,” Richey said.
Richey said she has never regretted her decision to teach and continues to enjoy being around students.
“If you don't like kids, you better not teach,” Richey said.