When you've done something 24 times, the 25th shouldn't hold any surprises. It took Mildred Helms Elementary School teacher Mary Alice Smythe Anders about three seconds this week to learn otherwise, and she's still learning up in Washington, D.C.
Mary Alice left Wednesday with about 80 kids and 24 chaperones for Washington. This is the 25th time that she has led a group of Safety Patrol members on the tour. She would have preferred that this silver anniversary trip be treated like any other, but her friends and fans secretly decided this milestone couldn't be ignored.
Mary Alice got her first clue Wednesday morning at the Clearwater train station "when I drove up and saw they all looked alike." All of the children and many of the chaperones were wearing T-shirts emblazoned, Helms' Tours 25 Years.
If she figured that was the extent of the recognition, she is finding out now that she was wrong. U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, presented her Thursday with a flag that has flown over the Capitol and a copy of remarks he prepared for the Congressional Record in which he salutes her "remarkable feat" and says:
"Mr. Speaker, teachers have a tremendous influence on our nation's children. They dedicate their lives to their students. Every once in a while, however, I meet a special educator, one who goes far beyond the call of duty and as a result has a lasting impact upon her students. Mrs. Mary Alice Anders is such a teacher."
Some of the Washington restaurants on the itinerary every year have been alerted and are planning appropriate greetings. People here made a banner to hang in the McDonald's restaurant they go to for breakfast.
A representative from the National Education Association will be coming to the hotel to present Mary Alice with a plaque.
Finally, a scrapbook is being prepared with pictures from this and past trips. And that's where you come in if you were one of the hundreds of children who accompanied Mary Alice to Washington over the past quarter-century.
The scrapbook committee would like you to send in pictures or memorabilia or simply messages reminiscing about your Helms' Tour adventure. For example, if you were the kid who slipped away from the group during the White House tour and ended up in the Oval Office, remind Mary Alice of that escapade. (If that really ever happened, by the way, please send me a copy of your note so I can publish it.)
Send material to Betty Shields, Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, 650 Seminole Blvd., Largo, FL 34640. You can call her next week at 585-6518. Don't call now because she is with the tour group for the 10th time.
There must be something addictive about these jaunts. This is Lisa Miller's fifth time. She went in 1977 as a Mildred Helms fifth-grader. She went again two years later as a 14-year-old "chaperone" to keep an eye on her brother. That was it until two years ago when, as a Dunedin Elementary School teacher and Safety Patrol sponsor, she called Mary Alice to ask if her group could tag along.
The Dunedin children are part of this year's tour group for the third year, along with several children from Skycest Elementary School.
Lisa's sister, Marie Miller, who made the trip as a Mildred Helms fifth-grader and is now a student at the University of Central Florida, is helping to chaperone the Dunedin patrol members for the third year.
The group will return home Monday afternoon.