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Indian River teacher recognized for 50 years of service

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PHILADELPHIA — In 1962, the first Walmart opened in Arkansas and John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Two dimes could get you a loaf of bread.

That was also the year a young Edinboro University of Pennsylvania graduate was hired at Indian River High School to teach art.

Tracy L. Robertson, who has taught at the middle school since its construction, remembers accepting the $5,000-a-year job, a substantial wage when he first taught.

A little more than 50 years later, he is the longest-serving teacher in the history of the district, according to Superintendent James Kettrick. The district honored Mr. Robertson with a pin for his service Sept. 4, the day before school started.

Indian River High School Principal Troy W. Decker recalled that he and his father both were taught art by Mr. Robertson. District Athletic Director Jay M. Brown had him in the seventh grade about 1976. And Mr. Robertson gave Mr. Kettrick rides to school for four months in the 1990s when his car was clipped on the side of the road.

If Mr. Robertson had his way, he probably will teach Mr. Decker’s children: he has no plans to quit any time soon.

“I applied to a couple of places and the idea of an adventure was good,” the Pittsburgh-area native said. “New York’s salary was higher than Pennsylvania’s.”

He said Indian River’s starting salary was boosted to about $10,000 by the 1970s and is about $38,000 today.

He remembered teaching his students to duck under tables for air raid drills while the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was still hot. He recalled the “doggone” oil crunch of the 1970s, as he called it. He remembered comforting a black boy just about that time because of the lack of diversity in the area.

Diversity boomed in the 1980s, when Fort Drum expanded. Before Camp Drum became Fort Drum, however, military liaisons met with community and school officials to let them know there would be a more diverse population because of the influx of soldiers.

“I taught Addie Russell,” Mr. Robertson said, referring to the assemblywoman from Theresa. “It was her mother who called me up on the phone to tell me they had a meeting. They were talking about there was going to be a change in diversity.”

Susan M. Jenne, Mrs. Russell’s mother and a town of Philadelphia official at the time, pointed out to the military liaison that there was already a member of the community who was not Caucasian.

“I was the only black person in the district for the longest time,” Mr. Robertson said.

He said he thinks most people at the school just forgot about it at times. As a young black man, he was tempted to head to Washington, D.C.,when Martin Luther King Jr. organized a civil rights march in 1963. Instead, he taught just as he would on a normal Wednesday.

“I felt a need to be here and represent minorities up here,” he said. “I remember talking to people who said, ‘You being here is really good, like minorities aren’t bad like you see in the news.’”

In the 1980s, his days were consumed by sweet melodies of the Barbershop Harmony Society. He competed in the district championship quartets and international competitions. He even met his wife, Kari S., when he took over the all-female Northern Blend Chorus about 1985. The two married shortly after.

Mary Ann and Charles G. Wert both were involved with the Northern Blend Chorus when Mr. Robertson directed and his wife sang. Mr. Wert remembers Mr. Robertson’s fun-loving spirit, and said he was a bit of a prankster.

“He’s been barbershopping for a lot of years,” Mrs. Wert said. “He’s kind of laid back, but always has a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.”

She and her husband took over the Northern Blend Chorus when Mr. Robertson took a break to spend time with his two children in the mid-1990s. He wanted to expose his children to art and the world.

“Life is this long, and it’s not really short, but if you don’t take advantage of it, it’s gone,” he said. “It’s like on the first day (of school), the kids are sitting there with big grins on their faces and there’s laughter. Yesterday, someone said it was the best class she’s ever had.”

His passion to teach, his acceptance of the ever-changing world of education and his love of children keeps him teaching into his 70s. In 50 years, he taught through America’s first black president’s inauguration and saw his mother turn 95. And he has no retirement date yet.

“I don’t see myself stopping,” he said.

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