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“If I made a difference in one child’s life then all the 45 years of work was worth it.”
That statement, made by Shirley Hunter, the long-time principal at Beach Elementary, is a fitting epitaph for her career as an educator.
Hunter is retiring after 45 years in the Pascagoula School District. Also known as the Flamingo Queen, she leaves behind a legacy of giving, support, love, and yes, flamingos.
On May 18 she was treated to a parade celebrating her retirement. Dozens of vehicles decorated with flamingos drove past her with students, faculty, and parents holding up signs reading “Thank you,” “Your flock loves you,” and “We will miss you” as she watched from the sidewalk in front of the school.
“They’re here celebrating my career, but I’m the one who’s blessed because I’ve been able to have all their wonderful children. I’ve even had three generations of children. They’re still those little kids to me, they’re just in grown up bodies. And I love them all,” said Hunter.
So how did she become known as the Flamingo Queen?
“When I first came here to Beach we had to have a mascot and I thought, why don’t we be the flamingos? And then we just started putting flamingos out everywhere – they’re on the front door, on the marquee, just everywhere. And then everybody started giving me flamingos for all my gifts and it just grew from there. And the next thing I knew I came to be known as the Flamingo Queen.”
Hunter estimates she has probably 3,000 flamingos given to her by her flamingo babies and families, as well as from her personal family. They’ve even replaced ones she lost in Katrina.
“I’m having to screen in my carport to have a flamingo room because each and every flamingo has a significant memory about it. Thirty-two years of flamingos is a lot of flamingos,” said Hunter.
Hunter graduated from Pascagoula High School and then obtained an Associate’s Degree from Jackson County Junior College. She then attended the University of Southern Mississippi where she received a Bachelor’s degree in Education K-8 and a Master’s degree in Education K-8 and Education Administration K-12.
She began her career at South Elementary, first as a substitute teacher, then as a 2nd grade teacher of all subjects for 11 years and then as a 6th grade teacher of all subjects for two years. She was next a curriculum coordinator with the Pascagoula School District for a year before becoming principal at Beach Elementary. And it was there she would remain for 32 years.
Hunter gets emotional as she thinks about retiring.
“It’s bittersweet, because as I get older, I want to be with my family and spend time with them, and watch them grow up. But I’m also going to miss all my families that I’ve raised. It was a hard decision to make.”
There’s no question that Hunter has impacted the lives of countless people, people who say they were blessed, but Hunter says she’s the one who’s blessed.
“All my family, my parents in Heaven, and my brother-in-law who just passed, and all these families, it takes the whole village to raise children. And it’s not about just academics. It’s about raising well-rounded children who will grow up and be productive citizens.”
Erin Parker, the librarian at Beach Elementary says, “She’s the most outgoing, bubbly, and friendly person. I’ve worked at several different schools before and this is literally the best job that I’ve ever had. She makes it a fun place to work.”
Parker says that Hunter is also one of the most giving people she’s ever known.
“Many a time when a parent couldn’t afford for their child to buy a field day shirt or go on a field trip she would pay for it out of her pocket.”
Hunter is appreciative and humbled by all the attention and love that’s been shown to her.
“I want to thank everyone. Everyone that I’ve ever had any kind of touch in your life, I want to thank you for being there. Parents and grandparents thank me, but I want to say, no, thank you. Thank you for sharing your families with me.”
And it isn’t just the lives of elementary students whose lives have been impacted by Hunter. She also taught reading at night at the Pascagoula Adult Learning Center where she says her greatest joy there was teaching a 90 year-old gentleman to read and then see his tears of joy that he could read.
Hunter’s devotion to her students is a testament to her character, as evidenced by a statement from Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich: “She’s guided one of our most successful schools for many years. When you have served for more than 45 years no one can ever question her commitment to children. She will be greatly missed.”
And that sentiment is echoed by Parker.
“I don’t even know how to begin to describe how Hunter’s time has impacted Beach Elementary. Most people automatically identify it with her because she’s been here so long. She is Beach Elementary.”
Looking back on her career, Hunter sums it up with one word – “blessed.”
“I’ve been blessed to be a part of all the students’ and families’ lives I’ve met during my career.”
After retirement Hunter plans on spending time with her family and staying in touch with everyone via social media, and, more than likely, looking forward to more flamingos in her future.