After 20 years of helping young learners, school’s out for classroom volunteer
Bill Valachovic of Colonie was in the middle of a mystery with Teaishane Monroe.
It was all about “Maya and the Missing Pudding,” a reading and spelling project inside Carol Zebrowski’s classroom at Lincoln Elementary School in Schenectady.
Valachovic helped 8-year-old Teaishane with questions attached to the one-page story. “How do you spell chocolate?” asked the young reader.
“Look it up,” Valachovic answered, smiling. “You can find it just as good as I can find it.”
The 89-year-old Valachovic has been helping kids at the Robinson Street school find their ways in math and reading for the past 20 years. School is almost out for Lincoln’s 365 kids, and for “Mr. V,” too — Valachovic will discontinue his Tuesday and Thursday morning visits after next week’s classes.
“What I have found here is a very dedicated staff of teachers,” Valachovic said, taking a break in the school library. “I’ve been in contact with many of them and I have found they’re just tremendous people. They’re surrogate mothers, they’re nurses, they’re psychiatrists, they’re mentors and most of all, they’re wonderful teachers and good people. I love them. I think they’re just absolutely great.”
Teachers like having the grandfatherly Valachovic in their halls and classrooms. Zebrowski has been with the senior education specialist since 2001, when she began teaching in room 23.
“He came with the room,” Zebrowski said. “I walked in and said, ‘This is where I work.’ He said, ‘This is where I work, too.’ So we started working together.”
Valachovic thinks and dresses young. Kids in class on Thursday wore sneakers and T-shirts that advertised Adidas and Old Navy and proclaimed love for New York state and for “Cupcake Rock.” Valachovic wore a teal blue T-shirt decorated with symbols from the Abenaki Indians. And he wore white sneakers.
Math games and fire drills
“He’s been on the floor with the kids playing math games,” Zebrowski said. “When there’s a fire drill he goes down the stairs with us and right outside. Last week, we took a field trip to Saratoga Spa State Park. He went on the trip and enjoyed himself with the kids.”
Valachovic has made appearances in the second, third, fourth and fifth grades during his days at Lincoln.
“He’s the smiling face when they walk in,” Zebrowski said. “They’ll run up to him and give him a hug. They’re so happy to see him.”
The 25 kids in Zebrowski’s class all seemed glad to be with Valachovic. They had gathered, about five or six to a bunch, at five “tables” made of desks pushed together. Valachovic went from table to table, offering help.
He knows his Schenectady schools, too. He attended Hamilton Elementary and McKinley Junior High before moving into Mont Pleasant High School. He graduated in June 1940 as class president, and left with technical and electrical skills.
Valachovic studied for three semesters at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and served with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War II. After the war, he resumed his studies. In 1949, he graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy with a degree in electrical engineering.
Valachovic then began working for the General Electric Co. as a steel mill application engineer. He began traveling to places like Spain, the Netherlands, Mexico and South Africa.
“I put in steel mills all over the world,” Valachovic said. “I like to think of them as monuments. My name is not on them, but it was a wonderful opportunity to see the world and do things that were constructive.”
He retired from GE in 1988. He put in a couple more years with the company as a consultant.
The return to school came during the early 1990s. Valachovic’s son-in-law, then Lincoln art teacher John Watrous, was planning a Native American long house for his classroom.
“I helped him build the longhouse,” Valachovic said. “One year, he had a kid that was so disruptive that he couldn’t teach because of the disruption. He said, ‘Would you sit with him an hour and keep him busy and work with him so I can teach the rest of the class?’ ”
Valachovic worked with the youngster. He thought he could do a little bit more.
“I thought to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing here for one hour?’ ” Valachovic said. “Why not spend the rest of the morning here? I went to the principal’s office and said, ‘Look, I’m here, I’m available. Does anyone want me?’ ”
Teacher Michelle Van DerLinden wanted him, and Valachovic found another teaching assignment. Van DerLinden is now principal at Schenectady’s Hamilton Elementary.
Valachovic always knew he would give something back to education. He made the pledge after spending summers of his youth at Camp Horman in Pattersonville, which was designed to help prevent tuberculosis in young people. Iva J. Thompson was one of the directors.
“This lady became my mentor,” Valachovic said. “She said to me, ‘Billy, don’t look down, look up.’ My father’s ambition for me was to be an apprentice. She said, ‘You could be more than an apprentice, you could do better.’
“This lady was my mentor and my ideal. She inspired me as well as other children. She was a wonderful woman. I couldn’t pay her back for all the wonderful things she did for me, so I said when I get a chance, I’m going to try to pay back to others what this lady gave to me.”
Valachovic also has had experience with kids at home. He and his wife of 63 years, Mary Jane Robert Valachovic, raised four children of their own and also were guardians for four foster children.
“The reason I come here is I want to be able to push at least one through,” Valachovic said. “If I can push one through so they can be somebody or do something . . . I get such a charge out of seeing them understand something.”
Hoping to pass the torch
The time has come to stay home, Valachovic said, because morning sessions have begun to tire him out. He said he’ll go home to lunch and have to take a nap afterward.
Valachovic hopes other people will follow his lead, and lend talents to kids who will appreciate their efforts.
“There’s an opportunity for people to do the same kind of job,” he said. “Do something, because the school needs the help, . . . if they would only give an hour or two a week.”
Valachovic had time for Tylor Sears, 9, who had started to page through R.L. Stine’s “A Night in Terror Town,” part of the “Goosebumps” series.
He took a seat next to the budding scholar. “Read to me,” he said.