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"I've been very happy here'

Mary Vause ran Westminster Day School since 1961 and is considered "part of the personality of this school."

An institution changed hands Friday when Mary Vause surrendered leadership of the school she has directed for 39 years.

Now 82, the director of Westminster Day School has suffered "mini-strokes" that have left her less agile than she would like. And Vause is a perfectionist. If she's not 100 percent in charge, she'd rather not be running the show.

On Wednesday, though, it appeared Vause was in total command of the preschool and kindergarten at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 126 11th Ave. NE.

She stood in the same area by the doorway where she's been standing for decades, anointing each child with a kiss on top of the head. It's a ritual she'll be carrying on next year as "director emeritus," a title created especially for her.

The reins for the school's affairs pass to Kathi Trautwein, a seminary graduate and the church's director of Christian Education who will double as the church's associate pastor after she is ordained.

"I can't imagine what it will be like without her," Pam Anderson said while dropping off her daughter Emily, 5. "She's part of the personality of this school."

Vause was the church's original director. The multi-tasking schoolmarm has been hiring teachers to work with the 65 children for years. The school now has six teachers, not including visiting specialists in Spanish and music.

"One of the nice things about this school is that it's a low-tech school," said daughter Kathleen Vause, who was one of the first students to attend Westminster in 1961. "You don't have a bunch of computers, you have kids still being kids. It's an old-fashioned nursery school."

Everything about the building suggests that what the younger Vause is saying is true.

The tiny chairs.

Pastel colors on the walls, using up nearly every square inch of space to capture short attention spans.

Paper, pencils, paste.

Glitter.

A teacher's cabinet jammed with books about alphabets and how to make animal art.

"I've been very happy here," Vause said. "It's my baby."

Born Mary Reese in Tampa, Vause married a railroad ticket taker and moved to Treasure Island in 1940 to stay with her parents. The couple then bought a three-bedroom home on Second Ave. N for $4,300. They traded in that house in 1952 for a larger one near St. Petersburg High School, where they would raise four daughters. Vause has lived there ever since. Zeno Vause died years ago from emphysema.

In 1961, she was asked to direct a new day school at Westminster Presbyterian Church, one of the first of its kind in the area.

Almost all televisions were black and white then, and so were ideas about the family. But the norm of a married couple idealized on shows like Leave It To Beaver, in which the man works and the woman stays at home, had been changing since the end of World War II.

Most of the parents who drop their kids off here are either single or married to a partner who also works. They get out of their cars and walk in straight lines to the school doors, with children approximately in tow or weaving circles around them.

Vause stands in the entrance way as if she has been planted there, bending over as each child stops dutifully to be kissed on top of the head. It's the one defining gesture everyone from parents to teachers to students associates with her. It also dates and defines her as a relic from a more expressive past.

Shadowed by the possibility of abuse allegations, teachers in public schools are taught to avoid touching children if at all possible. Vause said she has noticed that trend.

"I know that and I resent it very much," she replied when asked about the new sensitivity. "I can't imagine not kissing them."

Teacher Renata Doughtie, who handles the 4-year-olds, said, "It's a shame. Especially the way she does it, you can see clearly that it's love: "I see that you are here. I know your name. Welcome to this school.' "

Students Cameron Ryan, Alec Fox and Adam Miller in the 5-year-olds' class said variously that they respect Mrs. Vause, that they like her and that she is nice.

And, as classmate Erin Waterman was quick to point out about next year: "She's going to stay and still kiss us on the head."

The church is honoring Mary Vause with a retirement party this afternoon at 3 p.m. The public _ especially former students from any era _ is invited.

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