She's "Grandma" - not "Mrs. Rice."

And every boy and girl in the school knows her that way, because there is no other name for her. Not here.

Evelyn Rice sat on a small chair Tuesday morning as the students at Franklin Elementary counted out every turn of spring to summer to autumn to winter of grandma's 91 years.

"80! 81! 82! 83! ..."

And finally? "91!"

"There, that's enough," said Evelyn, the familiar face in the kindergarten classroom at Franklin, where the former nurse has volunteered for six years. "We stop there."

The morning class at Franklin did stop there on cue, but there's no telling when Rice, a Missoula-born and Ronan-raised woman who has called western Montana her home since 1919, will herself stop.

Every morning she gets up and drives her car to the Missoula Senior Center, where she reads for hours for the Missoula Audio Information Network, which provides news for the blind across the state.

And every morning, she she comes to Franklin to read to children three generations her junior, to file paperwork, to organize lessons, to help the kids and, most important of all, to listen to them.

"I listen," said Grandma, "to help them learn to read."

Missoula's schools work because of people like Evelyn, who come here not because they're bored or shiftless or have nothing to do, but because they remember what it was like to be a little girl in a strange place, sitting and learning in this brave new world of school.

And what a different world it was when Evelyn was a 5-year-old at Lowell Elementary on what is now Missoula's Northside so many, many years ago.

"When we went to school," she said, "we walked into the class and sat in our chairs until recess."

Not here. And not now, because the kids were too busy singing "Happy Birthday" to her, and urging her to press the "on" button of the Green Gorilla, the electronic toy that pirouetted around on its base as it belted out the Beatles' "You Say It's Your Birthday."

After that? Cupcakes, of course. Celebratory cupcakes for this spry lady, who drives here every day to spend time with classrooms of kindergarteners and first-graders who have their whole, long lives in front of them.

"She is just amazing, and we love having her," said teacher Bonnie Goettlich, who first took over this kindergarten class when Evelyn arrived in 2005.

Before the class sang to her, they also presented her with a gift: A buffalo-themed napkin holder - handmade with brown yarn to symbolize the mighty bison - that would hold the 91 napkins she was also presented with.

The buffalo. A perfect symbol for Evelyn, who's made Montana her home for nearly a century, the latter part of those years a gift herself to these little boys and girls.

Charlotte Whitehead, a retired teacher and another classroom aide here, made the metaphor complete.

"The buffalo says, ‘Stand your ground, cherish wide-open spaces,' " she said. "And ‘Have a strong spirit.' Grandma has a strong spirit."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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