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Esther Geary retires after five decades in Indian education

LAWRENCE, Kan. - As she turned around to leave her office, tears welled up in Esther Geary's eyes. The empty desk she faced, once filled with work, once hers, was empty, waiting for its next owner.

To Geary, it represented the end a career that spanned 47 years, nearly all of them dedicated to Indian education. Geary ended her career in education as the dean of students at Haskell Indian Nations University on August 3.

"It really got to me when I turned around and looked at my desk," Geary said. "I knew then I was really leaving."

Geary, a Cheyenne River Sioux born at Cheyenne Agency in South Dakota, dreamed of being a teacher from an early age.

"I always knew I wanted to be a teacher," she said. She had no way of knowing her love for education would help thousands of American Indian students over the years fulfill their own dreams, as she quietly worked in the background to make sure they had financial and sometimes emotional tools needed to finish college degrees.

Despite hard times, Geary earned her two-year degree at what was then called Northern State Teacher's College in Aberdeen, S.D., and began teaching at Cheyenne Agency in the early 1950s. She was one of only two Native Americans teaching at the school and remembers the early years fondly.

"It was what I had always wanted to do. I remember my first look at the classroom. It was the same one I had gone to during the fifth and sixth grades when I attended the boarding school there.

"It was gloomy and blah. I went to the facilities people and begged them for any kind of paint I could get. What I got was the ugliest government green and yellow ... I painted borders around the chalkboards and the bulletin boards, but it was the kids who really brought life to the room - all 42 of them!"

Geary could have stayed on her reservation and taught for the duration of her career, but a twist of fate intervened. A beloved nephew died during her second year of teaching and a young student died of pneumonia.

"It was a combination of the two deaths that caused me to leave," Geary said. "It was so hard to lose my nephew and then to go back to my classroom and see the empty chair of the other little boy who had died."

Geary went into the public school system and taught at Harold, S. D., and later in Pierre, S.D. She married, had two children and moved to Arizona in the early 1960s. During that period, she worked part-time on her degree at the University of Arizona, before moving back to Aberdeen in 1965.

While teaching in the Aberdeen school system, she finished her degree, taking night classes at Northern State College. She was offered a job in the Rapid City school system, the only place she said she ever really felt any workplace discrimination.

"I had been hired to teach at Pinedale (elementary school)," Geary recalled. "But when they saw me, they told me I would be teaching at Horace Mann, a school with a high percentage of Indian students. I was never sure if it was because they didn't want me to teach there because I was Indian and the Pinedale area was primarily white, or if it was because they thought I would be a good role model at the other school."

Geary taught in Rapid City for three years before she was off again, this time, she was going home. Cheyenne Agency was under water following the damming of the Missouri River and the tribal headquarters and school was now in Eagle Butte. While there, Geary completed her master's degree through Black Hills State University, taking distance learning and weekend classes, again while teaching full time. She started the first all-day kindergarten in BIA schools.

"I was asked if I wanted to do it and I, of course, said 'Yes.' It was very successful and they still have it. But the kids had changed since my first years of teaching at Cheyenne Agency. Back then it was hard times, some of the kids came to school hungry. It was in the years before school breakfasts and milk breaks, they only had lunch. The kids in Eagle Butte had a lot better nutrition and it really did make a difference."

By that point, Geary was a divorced, single mother with two children and anything American Indian was popular.

"I was offered a job by the state of South Dakota, so I took it." It was one career move she isn't particularly happy about because it took her away from teaching.

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Even though Geary threw herself into her new job, she said she was relieved when Dennis Fox from the Aberdeen Area BIA Office called her about a job in post-secondary education and urged her to apply.

"He said he thought I would really like it and that I would be good at it," Geary said. "He was right I loved it right off the bat."

Geary worked with the BIA Higher Education program, funding college bound students while at the area office.

"I got to work with the colleges and with the students. There was really a connection. What made it all worthwhile were the letters from students who wrote to thank me for my help and to let me know they had graduated. It made me feel as though I had really been a part of helping them go on to better things."

After working in Aberdeen for several years, Geary's office was part of a government cutback and she and her staff went under a reduction in force order. She believed then that she had left government service for the last time and returned to Rapid City and taught part-time at a private school in the area.

"I was in Rapid City for about 10 months and then, once again, Dennis Fox called." She laughed. "So this time I ended up in Washington, D.C.!"

This time Geary worked with the BIA Higher Education program again, and all the tribally controlled community colleges across the country. The only fly in the ointment was that she was isolated from the students she was funding.

"After five years I was tired of the rat race and I missed the connection I had with the students," she said matter-of-factly. "That was when I left and went to Haskell."

For Geary, Haskell was a perfect fit. She not only got to work in post-secondary education, but she was once again connected to the students.

Her first position was as director of financial aid.

"The first thing my staff and I worked on was increasing the amount of Pell Grants to the students," Geary recalled. "They got something like $135 per semester, now they get around $1,600 as their maximum for on-campus students."

Geary went on to become first the director of Admissions and finally dean of students.

"This has been probably the most rewarding part of my career," Geary said. "I had a great staff who wanted to get things done and we were able to accomplish nearly everything we set out to do."

Staff and students alike showed up for Geary's retirement party to say goodbye to the woman who had become a part of many families at Haskell. Most wanted to know what she planned to do next. She simply smiled and said, "Substitute teach if they don't think I'm too old!"

Retiring was a difficult decision for Geary, but she said she knew it was time to take life a little easier.

"But I will always miss it. Even as a kid I remember looking forward to the beginning of another school year. The smell of the chalkboard, the excitement of the kids and all the new faces, even at Haskell I could feel and sense that same wonder.

"Each new school year always represented a new beginning for all of us. I'll miss it, but I will always treasure every moment of it."