Harper’s Unsung Heros
Written by Gale Fischer
The Heart of a Volunteer
“The heart of a volunteer is never measured in size, but by the depth of the commitment to make a difference in the lives of others.
Many institutions in our world would be unable to exist were it not for the time given by volunteers. This is as obvious in our schools as it is in any other setting. In my twenty plus years at Wattles Park Elementary I have seen many individuals help with multiple tasks from making copies for teachers to providing one on one time to guide struggling readers. Some of these individuals give of their time multiple times a week while others on a few occasions. There are those who are here for the years that their children call our school their home while others volunteer year after year over the course of multiple decades. Many might spend only a few hours helping while other individuals give of their time hundreds of hours over the course of many years. Whether one spends two hours in our school assisting or a hundred plus hours, all is appreciated. This month’s Harper Unsung Hero, Chris Beaver has been a valued volunteer not only for Wattles Park Elementary but for other organizations in our community. When her own children came through our school she would come in and pitch in doing whatever was needed. Eventually she was hired as an employee. She was in the building every day already. Even as a paid employee she is willing to help in any way that she is asked.
Chris was born and raised in the Cereal City. She talks about her life growing up. “I was born in Battle Creek August 29, 1952, the youngest of two. My older brother Jim was born a year earlier. I started school at Battle Creek Public Schools in Kindergarten. We moved to Pennfield when I entered fourth grade. I began at Purdy in 4th grade. This is where I met my best friend Helen Repair. She is still my best friend today.” Chris and Jim both graduated from Pennfield High School. Chris’ mom and dad worked full time while she was growing up. “My mom, Elizabeth Burton (Mickey) was a special education teacher at Ann J Kellogg for thirty eight years. My dad worked for Consumers for forty years.”
Chris shares some of her memories growing up. “My dad had a boat so we spent many weekends on Gull Lake. We also spent a lot of time tent camping.” Chris and Jim enjoyed being outside year around. “Our house in Pennfield had a huge sledding hill so we spent hours and hours sledding in the winter. We made an ice run for our metal saucer sleds.” Chris and her family enjoyed vacationing in northern Michigan where her mom grew up. “My grandmother on Mom’s side lived up north in Honor, Michigan and we went to visit her often. My dad enjoyed fishing on the Platte River near where my grandma lived.”
During her time as a student at Pennfield High School there were few opportunities for girls to participate in athletics. Chris explored other interests during her time in high school, in her participation in home ec class. “My mom and grandma enjoyed sewing and this is something I picked up. I also enjoyed cooking and still do today.” Chris continued using the sewing and cooking skills she learned growing up when her kids were younger and still enjoys cooking. Chris and Jim took piano lessons as kids. Although she loves music, piano lessons were not something she enjoyed.
Chris began gaining experience in taking care of young children as a child herself. She talks about her first job as a teenager. “I worked at Battle Creek Day Care Center. I started working there when I was in junior high school and continued working there for many years as an adult until they closed their doors.”
After graduating from high school in 1970, when not working at Battle Creek Day Care Center Chris baby sat for friends and neighbors. Her experience in caring for children would give her plenty of practice in being a mom but this would have to wait a few years. Like many girls of her generation she knew she wanted to marry and raise a family. Chris describes her journey in meeting her future husband. “My plan after high school was to marry an architect. I loved houses and designs. As fate would dictate I met an architect, Tom Beaver in 1973, three years after I graduated from Pennfield. A friend of my mom’s lived next door to Tom’s sister. They set us up on a blind date and we went to Tom’s sister’s house and played euchre.”
After their initial date it seemed Tom was ready for a second date but it seemed like Chris played hard to get. “After the initial meeting he kept calling me. I was still living at home and I spent a lot of time babysitting. Tom called me several times to go on a date but it seemed I was always babysitting and wasn’t able to work out a time to meet him. Finally we were able to go on a date. We went on to Sharkey’s Bowling Alley.” Their relationship moved quickly after this. “We were engaged not long after this and married May 18, 1974.”
Tom was two years older than Chris and went to high school on the opposite side of Battle Creek. Chris explains Tom’s journey to becoming an architect. “He graduated from Lakeview in1968 then went on to the University of Michigan to earn his architect degree. After college Tom got a job at Binda Associates, an architecture company with a focus on building and putting in additions to schools.”
Tom loved his work as an architect but now as a young husband he would have to make a shift in his career. Chris gives details about how this came about. “Work was spotty at Binda. Work on building schools was in high demand during the summer, spring and fall but work was hard to come by during the winter. Tom decided he needed something more dependable and landed a job at General Foods getting a job as system’s manager just before we were married.” Tom found his niche at General Foods and worked there until he retired in 2008. While working at General Foods he also started his own business with a few other business partners. Their business, Great Lakes Micro Systems, developed software for home health care.
After Tom and Chris were married, she stayed busy working for Battle Creek Day Care Center as well as babysitting after hours. The two of them enjoyed time together and agreed to wait a few years before starting a family. “We started a family five years after we were married. We were blessed with a first child, Sarah, September 1, 1979. Our next child, Jeff was born April 15, 1982. Suzanne was born November 8, 1984. All three went through Harper Creek Schools.”
Chris continued babysitting even after the kids were born. As the kids grew older they attended Wattles Park Elementary. Chris eagerly became involved in whatever was needed at school. It was a great way to help out while also being involved in the activities of her children. “As my kids started going to school I joined the PTA at Wattles Park. I did many things to help the school including organizing and participating in bake sales and volunteering on the playground and lunchroom.” Teachers and office staff quickly grew accustomed to seeing Chris at school. It seemed as if she was an employee with the number of hours she spent volunteering. “Finally I was asked if I wanted to get a paid position since I was there all of the time. I was hired as a recess aide in 1998.”
Sarah, Jeff and Suzanne eventually moved on from Wattles Park to the Middle School and then High School but Chris chose to stay at Wattles Park. It became an important part of her day and there were never any thoughts about giving it up. Chris shares some fond memories from her time volunteering and working at Wattles Park. “We used to have talent shows for the kids. It was always fun watching the kids perform. We would have a bake sale every Friday, which helped feed my joy for baking. We used to sell pretzels at lunch time on Fridays for a quarter. A few years back we started a year around fitness program for our students. We called it WOW (Wattles Outstanding Walkers), Students were given the opportunity to walk or run laps during recess, earning points for trophies, sportswear and medals. It has been enjoyable seeing our students getting excited about WOW.” Chris even passed on her interest in sewing to students at Wattles Park. She joined forces with Mrs. Joostberns, Mrs. Griffioen and Mrs. Kloosterman to host an after school knitting club for 3rd and 4th grade students.
Chris has worked in the cafeteria and on the playground for many years but she has also filled in in the office covering for former secretaries Sue Truax, Cindy Nora, Jill McCombs and current secretary Corenna Turnbull for their lunch breaks and on days when they have been out of the office. Some might say that she has helped train our new secretaries.
Watching their kids grow and develop from birth and on through elementary school, middle school and high school has been something that she and Tom have cherished. Although this phase of life is a few years looking back, watching their children participate in sports for Harper Creek was always a joy. “All three kids participated in athletics in high school. Jeff played football and ran track. Sarah played golf and tennis. Suzanne played softball, track, volleyball and basketball. Suzanne eventually dropped softball and committed to track. She is on the Harper Creek Wall of Fame. Suzanne also played volleyball for KCC and for Saginaw Valley State University.” Suzanne earned a degree in occupational therapy and is employed by the CISD. She began her career working at Ann J Kellogg ironically in the same space where her grandmother taught special education. She now works with students who attend Harper Creek, including Wattles Park Elementary. Just as they did when Suzanne was an elementary student, she and Chris are able to spend some time together each week at Wattles Park Elementary.
Chris has spent hours volunteering for Wattles Park Elementary but has given of her time elsewhere. She and Tom were both youth group teachers at Pennfield Presbyterian Church. Chris also helped out with girl scouts when Suzanne participated as a child.
Chris and Tom’s children have blessed them with seven grandchildren. Jeff has three children, Jordan, Makenna and Nevaeha. Sarah has two children, Ryan and Drew. Suzanne has two children, Grady and Ella. The lives of Chris and her extended family would take on a major unexpected transition a few years ago. Chris talks about Tom’s bout with cancer. “In April of 2021 Tom became sick. He was having trouble with reflux. He went to get a scan and was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer. The tumor originated in the esophagus. He passed away just five weeks after getting the original scan.”
Chris and Tom had forty-seven years together. With all three children going through Harper Creek and the time that Chris has spent at Wattles Park they have both spent time together with activities revolving around Harper Creek but they also had other interests. Chris talks about one of her most coveted hobbies, gardening. “I have always loved gardening. I have four hundred or more varieties of hostas and two hundred or more varieties of daylilies. Tom used to help me a lot in the garden. I spend much of my time during the summer tending to my flowers.”
Anyone who has spent enough time around Chris knows that her heart bleeds maize and blue. “Tom and I have had Michigan football season tickets since we met in 1973. We still have them but I don’t go as often. I’ll give them away, but I still cheer for Michigan and watch the games on TV.”
The theater is something that Tom and Chris have enjoyed through the years as well. They have had season tickets to the Barn Theater, Farmers Alley Theater in Kalamazoo, the Civic Theater in Kalamazoo and What A Do Theater in Battle Creek.
Corvettes have also been a part of their lives. Chris reflects on their involvement with the local Corvette Club. “Tom and I have been a part of the Battle Creek Corvette Club for years. Tom was the president of the club when he passed away. I am currently the vice president. We have two corvettes.The club does rallies, car shows and parades.”
There are many moving parts to keeping a school running smoothly day after day. Teachers make up the largest sector of any school’s staff but the support needed for our students to grow and develop comes from many. Administrators, secretaries, paras, cooks, bus drivers and lunch/recess staff fill in the gaps. Volunteers provide yet another level of support. Could schools get by without volunteers? Possibly, but many tasks that keep schools afloat would most likely be swept under a rug if it were not for our volunteers.
Chris is the longest tenured staff member working at Wattles Park. She has been a valuable member of our team well before she was placed on the payroll. Her life experiences have served her well in the way she is able to interact with staff, students and families in our community. Every school could benefit from someone like Chris.
Gale Fischer has spent most of his career as a special education teacher for Wattles Park Elementary dating back to 2001. He is an avid runner and began writing the stories of local runners twelve years ago. Many of these stories have appeared in the Battle Creek Shopper and the Battle Creek Scene Magazine. Recently he started capturing the stories of Harper Creek staff members. His column, Harper Unsung Heros, features a different staff member each month. He believes that everyone has a story that can inspire others.
Vote May 7, 2024
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