MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa (AP) — Don Berkey was the class brain. His sister would watch him go to his room every night at 10 and study until midnight. Few around Mitchellville knew he got straight A's — he was simply the barber's son — until Don Berkey was named 1957 high school class valedictorian.
Go to college, everyone told him. Study engineering at Iowa State. Make big money.
But at Iowa State, Berkey lost his study habits, lost his scholarship and returned to Mitchellville to mow lawns. He hopped from job to job for years, never marrying, never having kids.
The Des Moines Register reports that (http://dmreg.co/YWbCWh ) 50 years later, the bachelor that some in town called "Quirky Don Berkey" returned to the same school building where he was once top dog.
He's 74 and now walks a little slower across the old wood floors. On every school day, for not one thin dime, he sits on little chairs and helps elementary school students who are having trouble with reading or math.
He doesn't tell those kids that in this same building where he went to school from kindergarten through 12th grade that he once lit a firecracker in the boys' room and tossed it out the window. He will tell them with a little regret that it's important to go to college.
He tried college twice, once after graduation and another time after stints in a factory and the Army. The second time he quit six weeks short of a degree because he was devastated over his father's death and couldn't live up to his own standards.
"He's a perfectionist," said sister Jean Redman of Mitchellville. "If he can't do it right, he won't do it."
There was one woman he wanted to marry and that didn't work out, so that was it. There were low-paying jobs, but not until he found a profession with exactitude and efficiency at the post office in Des Moines did it stick. For 17 years, Berkey forwarded mail and came up with more efficient methods to do so.
He spent his retirement money traveling the world and spent a lot of time down at the senior center analyzing things. That's when the principal of the school he attended, which is now called Mitchellville Elementary because it only goes through fifth grade, visited the center four years ago. Joe Nelson asked the old boys if they would help by buying snow pants and boots for the kids at school, half of whom are on free and reduced lunch.
Berkey followed Nelson back to the school that day and dropped off a $200 check. "This place is important to me," he told Nelson. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"
Nelson told him test scores and attendance weren't where he wanted them. Teachers needed more one-on-one time with students. Would he like to volunteer?
Most volunteers come an hour a week or half a day a week. Berkey started showing up every day and stayed all day. He helped kids one-on-one and even got teachers coffee. He organized the library and ordered and paid for missing books.
He even asked Nelson if he could take time off for a trip and was reminded that a volunteer didn't need to ask for vacation time.
On his trips he will call back and check in from Turkey, or Nepal or New Zealand, asking how things are going, or for a count of the kids in various classes so he could bring each back a gift.
Teacher Laurie Flynn's fifth-graders followed along with his New Zealand travels, studying the photos of the sights, animals and culture he was seeing daily.
The teachers sign their students up for "Don time" on a large color-coded schedule.
They sometimes pick him up from his house two blocks away or give him a ride home. They marvel at his old-school teaching methods with math.
"He's brilliant," said Flynn. "He would have been a great professor. Now he's getting to do that."
Berkey acknowledges he had a lot to learn about kids. He hadn't been around them much. Kids these days seemed so emotionless and without proper manners, but were certainly less ornery, wanted to please and were like "little sponges."
He was helping a little boy with math and the boy got stuck. His lower lip quivered. "You said only babies use their fingers," the boy told him sadly.
The boy, Berkey realized, had remembered his careless remark and it injured him. It taught Berkey a lesson.
Teachers said he has taken youngsters who just couldn't get their multiplication tables and, after working with them daily for a month, helped them break through.
"It gives me pleasure when I see dawn break for them," Berkey said. "It's all worth it then."
On a recent day, he took kids having trouble with reading through a practice story on horses, helping them sound out "sugar" and "cube," words giving many students difficulty.
"They teach me every day: Don't be in a hurry," he said.
The repetitive reading practice they get with Berkey often makes a big difference, said first-grade teacher Amy Twohey, who has 27 students. "They love that connection with him."
So does Berkey. The volunteer work put meaning in her brother's life, Redman said, although he's not big on talking about it.
He only quietly acknowledged it to teacher Flynn one day.
"This is the most important job I've ever had," he told her.
He was asked about that comment later.
"All my life I've never done anything that was noteworthy," he said. Now it feels like he can make a difference.
"Maybe 20 years after I'm dead, they might be able to remember, 'Mr. Berkey helped me out.' "
Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com
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