As a trained educator, Carol Neal was picky when it came time to look for a pre-school program for her son and daughter. When she couldn't find one she liked, she persuaded her church to let her start one.
Now, after working with 33 fellow teachers and more than 3,000 students, Neal is retiring as director of the Little Elks Pre-School at South Elkhorn Christian Church.
"It was my calling, but I never thought I would be doing it for 43 years," she said. "I tell people I've never been smart enough to get out of preschool."
All of those former students and teachers are invited to a reunion honoring Neal from 1 to 3 p.m. April 14 at the church, 4343 Harrodsburg Road.
After months of searching for addresses, the staff has sent reunion invitations to 1,400 former students and teachers and is looking for more. RSVPs for the reunion are requested by April 7 to Littleelkspreschoolreunion@gmail.com.
"It has been a big part of my mother's life for as long as I can remember, obviously," said Neal's son, Rick, who is a lawyer in Louisville. "My wife's a preschool teacher, too, and I know it's hard work and you take a lot of it home with you."
The school has about 30 3-year-olds in four classes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and about 65 4-year-olds in six classes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. About 10 current students are second-generation Little Elks — one of their parents attended pre-school there.
"I had gone there, my niece had gone there and I wanted my son to go there," said Carolyn Sandusky Slone, whose son Grant turns 4 next month. "The education they provide is outstanding. It's a loving and caring environment."
Slone works with medical data, but when she was studying early-childhood education at Midway College in 1993, she did an internship at Little Elks.
"At least three of the teachers I worked with are still there," she said. "I think that says a lot about the program."
Neal agreed that the preschool's strength has been its ability to hire and retain good teachers. The current staffers, who all have education degrees, include Marsha Salmon, who has been there 28 years, Kim Wemyss (26 years) and Vicki Garrett (25 years).
"Kim Skidmore, who's taking over for me, is the newest kid on the block; she's only been here seven years," Neal said. "I have never advertised for a teacher in all those years. They just magically appear when I need a teacher."
Although many of the teachers attend other churches, Neal has been an active member of South Elkhorn Christian Church, which knows a thing or two about longevity. Founded on the present site in 1783 as a Baptist congregation, it affiliated with the Disciples of Christ in 1831. The current sanctuary was built in 1870.
"A lot of people know about Little Elks and have a positive impression of our church because of it," said the Rev. Mickey Anders, the fourth senior pastor at the church since Neal started the preschool. "She has led it with such expertise."
Neal plans to remain active in her church, but retirement will give her more time to spend with Bill, her husband of 47 years, her son and daughter, Missy Watts, and her five granddaughters.
Neal said she will be available as a substitute teacher at Little Elks, where she has seen big changes in children and parents alike over the years.
Parents are often more involved with their children now, but less demanding of them. They also are more protective — sometimes too protective. Children often come to preschool now with less discipline and a shorter attention span, but more academic knowledge and comfort with technology.
"Kids are like sponges. They've always been smart, but they are exposed to so much more," she said. "They can pick up the iPhone, they can pick up the iPad. That's the way they're used to learning."
Neal said one thing that hasn't changed in 43 years is the bond that forms between a young child and his or her first teacher.
"They think you are wonderful, that you rule the world," she said. "They'll just be walking by and grab you and hug you on the leg. Where do you get that kind of unsolicited love other than from a 3- or 4-year-old?"