ENID, Okla. — Retirement never held any appeal to Velda Rivenburg. The 86-year-old started working for Enid Public Schools in 1974, first as a volunteer, then as a crossing guard, then as a teacher's aide, and then as a paraprofessional in a special needs classroom for the last 12 years.

Thursday marked her last day at Waller Middle School, her last day with the district.

"This is not what I planned," she said. Her body seems ready to retire, but she isn't, she said, never expected she'd have to. "Nor did I ever think I'd live this long.

"I never ever thought about it, I just kept on plugging along," she said.

Family, friends and colleagues put together a surprise party for her Thursday. There was cake, handwritten cards from students and a custom-made trophy presented to commemorate all her time and dedication to Enid's children.

"We couldn't find a trophy big enough, but we tried," retired Hoover Elementary School Principal Karen Heizer said.

When Heizer was just beginning her teaching career at Glenwood Elementary School, Rivenburg already was there, working as a teacher aide.

Heizer said Rivenburg's mind and memory had always been sharp, qualities that had stuck out to Heizer ever since they met. That hadn't changed.

"It has been an honor to be a part of your life, and to have you in my life," Heizer said, handing over the trophy. "I know all these people feel the same way."

Bridget Ciliberti, Rivenburg's daughter, helped coordinate the party by phone from Nashville. She couldn't make it to the celebration. Her son has the rare opportunity to perform at the Grand Ole Opry soon, and as such Ciliberti has been "forbidden from coming home" by her mom.

"I'm not going to be the reason he couldn't sing at the Opry," Rivenburg said to her.

"My mom has worked all of her life ... she has always helped everyone," Ciliberti said. "She has sacrificed herself to help her grandkids, to help me, to help children in need. I couldn't be more proud of her than I am."

She didn't want the distance to stop her giving her mother the recognition she's due.

"If anybody deserves to be honored, it's my mom," Ciliberti said.

It took a great deal to finally convince Rivenburg to retire: concern from her doctor, from her daughter, from friends. Even with her back and legs giving out, she wanted to put in another year, she said.

"If she thought she could physically do it, she'd be back next year," Ciliberti said. "She pushed herself to do it this year and it took time from her life, I know, but it's OK, because all she wants is be there helping those kids."

The kids are what Rivenburg will miss the most, she said.

"With special needs kids, they try harder than the other kids do, because they know they have to surpass things that most kids don't have to," she said. "They learn from the ground level, a lot of time they have to learn to talk, learn to walk, there's all those things they have to learn to do, and boy they'll try."

"I'm going to miss it really bad," Rivenburg said.

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Willetts is education reporter for the Enid News & Eagle. He can be reached at mwilletts@enidnews.com.

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