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Class act: Shelley Trathen

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Shelley Trathen

Money shouldn’t stand in the way of an education, Shelley Trathen believes.

But she knows it happens. Her parents had to drop out of The University of Texas  when the Depression hit.

Trathen was luckier. With the support of her parents she was able to complete her degree at UT Austin in 1956. And now, with a scholarship Trathen has created in her parents’ names, future UT students will have the opportunity her parents didn’t have.

“I love my parents very much, and I wanted to do something to honor them,” says Trathen, a retired teacher of children with special needs. “I think they’d be pleased with it.”

Trathen hopes the Audrey and Sheldon Davis Endowed Presidential Scholarship in Education will make the path toward a UT degree a little easier than it was for her parents.

“I wanted to help others with their education,” she says. “I know it’s expensive to go to school now.”

Trathen has also created a scholarship in her own name. Like the scholarship in her parents’ names, Trathen’s will benefit students in the College of Education.

The Davis scholarship has already been created; the scholarship in Trathen’s name will be created through a bequest in her will. She has also given several outright gifts to the University and created two charitable gift annuities. The Georgetown, Texas, resident likes the twofold benefit of her charitable gift annuities — she receives an income now while knowing that her gift will be used for good later.

Through her parents’ scholarship, Trathen is helping people now, too. She gets to learn exactly how she is making a difference through the annual thank-you notes she receives from scholarship recipients.

One of those students is Kimberly Fish, who is the first in her family to attend college. She is studying for a bachelor’s degree in applied learning and development and hopes to teach younger children in underprivileged schools in central Texas.

“Inspired by teachers who went above and beyond their peers, I have chosen to dedicate my life to inspiring the same drive for learning in young children,” Fish writes in a 2008 letter to Trathen. “Thank you so much for bestowing me with this scholarship. Its use will aid a future educator in achieving her dreams and attaining her goals.”

Trathen’s own path toward becoming a teacher started at home with parents who emphasized the value of education and revered The University of Texas.

“The University was always an important part of our lives — watching football games, seeing the Tower,” Trathen says.

When it came time for her to go to college her mother suggested that she become a teacher. She followed that advice, majoring in elementary education at UT and living at home to save money. She remembers her years at the University as ones where she learned independence and built confidence.

“It opened up my eyes to all these new things,” she says. “It gave me the ability to educate and help others, the kids I had in class.”

By the time she retired in 1994 Trathen had taught in all types of settings — in a two-room schoolhouse, at the Texas School for the Blind, in a Houston classroom, and as an itinerant special-needs teacher in Copperas Cove and Belton, near Killeen, Texas. She became certified in teaching children with visual impairments, and she learned to read and write Braille.

During her time as an itinerant teacher she visited children with multiple disabilities, some as young as 6 months old. Trathen did whatever she could to get through to her students, whether it was crawling on the floor with them, grabbing their attention with a mirror and a flashlight, or making them laugh. Sometimes a hug or a touch worked for students who couldn’t see her facial expressions.

With her gifts Trathen is honoring not only her parents but also her profession.

“You’re giving a gift to the future,” Trathen says. “That’s what you’re doing with teaching.”

Her advice to future teachers?

  • Have patience. “Never say that a kid can’t do something.”
  • Don’t treat all children alike. “You can’t go at every kid the same way. You want to give up sometimes, but keep trying a different way.”
  • “If you don’t enjoy it, don’t teach. The kids know it.”
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