Every year, some of the many teachers, administrators, bus drivers and other staff who keep the Roaring Fork School District running decide to retire or move on. Re-1 is one of the valley’s largest employers, so 18 departing staff members won’t hold the district back, but their co-workers and students will feel the difference in the fall.
Just the three longest-term retirees this year — Julie Hawkins, Larry Estrada and Christina Lanci — represent nearly 100 years of combined devotion to schools in the valley.
JULIE HAWKINS has spent the last 35 years teaching art in the valley, and is the longest-serving Roaring Fork School District retiree this year. She worked under at least 12 principals during her teaching career, and has had the children of former students in class.
“I have to stop before I get someone’s grandkid,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins first came to the valley from Chicago in 1979 and found the hippie movement still alive and well. “It was quite a culture shock, but I loved it,” she said. She came to ski and applied for several positions at the resorts, but she ended up landing a job teaching art to Basalt elementary and middle school students.
“Art was always a part of my life,” she observed. “My mom illustrated children’s books.”
After living all over the valley, Hawkins eventually settled in Carbondale. When she accepted a job at Carbondale River Elementary in 2000, she had three sons in the Carbondale school system.
“It was a good time to make the switch,” she said. “It was pretty cool because I got to teach all my kids.”
Things have changed since then, Hawkins says, but not that much.
“Kids still love to do projects,” she said. “I think it’s still in their hearts that they love to do art.” Hawkins credits her fellow teachers as well as the community at large with keeping arts in the schools through a tough economy.
“While some schools are deleting their art programs, I think we’re stronger than ever,” she said.
Even so, Hawkins thinks it’s time to hang up her hat. Her last son graduated in 2013, the same year she suffered a heart attack that made her look at life differently.
“You’re not indestructible,” she observed. “You’ve gotta make these moments count.”
“I’m really lucky. I’ve had a great career,” she added.
Hawkins intends to use her newfound free time to spend more time outdoors, reading, traveling, and doing some of her own art.
LARRY ESTRADA for 22 of his 32 years on the job has carried the heavy responsibility of calling snow days. As transportation director, he was up at midnight, looking at conditions and checking weather reports to provide the superintendent with a recommendation at 5 a.m.
“I will not miss it. It’s the most difficult decision. It affects so many people,” Estrada said. “My main priority is the safety of the kids and the drivers.”
There’s more to the position than snow days, of course. He serves dual roles supervising transportation and facilities. Even the everyday tasks are daunting, to say nothing of providing buses and drivers for field trips and sporting events or preparing school grounds for graduation. Covering three different towns — Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs — with different needs and different weather adds to the challenge.
Estrada, 55, worked his way up through the ranks. As a senior at Centennial High School in Pueblo, he started work as a custodian at the elementary school. In 1982, during a vacation to Glenwood, he saw an ad in the paper for a position as a driver and custodian. He applied and got the job on the spot.
For eight years, he drove a bus, mopped halls and delivered mail from dawn until dusk. Since being elevated to transportation director, he has outlasted four superintendents.
Although he could have hung up his hat five years ago, Estrada has stayed on and even offered to stay through the summer to help with the transition. Even when he and his wife, Cindy, make the move to Grand Junction, he plans on lending a hand when necessary.
“I told them if they needed anything, I’d be just an hour away. The school district has treated me right, so I want to return that favor.”
Estrada also intends to spend some time volunteering in his grandchildren’s schools in Grand Junction, and hopes to volunteer for the local VA — his daughter is a veteran.
“Neither one of us sits still very long,” observed Cindy Estrada, who already began her retirement after working for the district for more than 20 years. Transportation secretary Linda Sturges is also leaving the department this year, after 20 years working in the same building.
“I think Larry and I have just been a super combination,” Sturges observed. “We’re always on the same page.”
CHRISTINE LANCI didn’t expect to spend 28 years as a bus driver. She stumbled onto the job more or less by chance. She and her husband ran a rafting company and attended the same health club as then-Superintendent Dwight Helm, who told them the district needed bus drivers. At the time, the same license Lanci had for the raft bus qualified her as a school bus driver.
Lanci ran the route to Canyon Creek beginning in 1986, and eventually moved to the Spring Valley route, which she has covered for 23 years.
“I love my route. The kids are great,” she said.
In addition to chauffeuring students to and from Glenwood Springs High School, Glenwood Springs Middle School and Sopris Elementary, Lanci has joined her kids on every one of their field trips and gone on several other adventures besides. She spent a week in the desert doing archaeology, stayed a night at a museum, and dropped a GSHS sports team off in a blizzard only to drive home again.
Lanci admits the job isn’t for everyone. Managing 40 or 50 kids while driving is challenging. “My first priority is driving the bus and the second is making sure the kids aren’t killing each other back there. We do have eyes in the back of our heads at times. Our mirrors help, but we can also tell when the kids are up to something.”
Lanci, now 55, is ready for something new. Among other things, she and her husband, Chuck, intend to spend more time with their 7-month-old granddaughter.
Even after all these years, she’s has never lost her patience or sense of humor.
“You just have to remember that they’re kids,” she said. “From when I first started till now, kids are kids.”