SPRING PLACE — The library was dark except for a faint glow coming from the corner.
Then there was a cackle, a loud witchy cackle that grew louder.
There would sit Jean Ballew, in her rocking chair, dressed as a witch, a flashlight under her chin casting eerie shadows.
As the students at Spring Place Elementary School would gather around her for their weekly story time, Ballew, the school’s librarian, would read a Halloween-themed book.
“She’s a big part of the reason I love reading,” said Kenny Wells, now associate pastor and minister of music and education at Spring Place Baptist Church. “I remember her reading scary stories. A big part of what I do as a minister has to do with words. ... She means a lot to me.”
Many of Ballew’s former colleagues and students mentioned remembering her reading as a witch during Halloween.
“Whatever the holiday, she always dressed up to read to the children,” said Betty Henry, who was a special education teacher at Spring Place.
On Sunday, Ballew was given a surprise reception at Spring Place Elementary’s library in honor of her years of dedication to the school. She was a teacher and a librarian there for 40 years. Murray County Sole Commissioner Brittany Pittman declared Sunday “Jean Ballew Day.” Members of Beta Phi — the local chapter of the teacher sorority Alpha Delta Kappa — and the Spring Place Ruritan Club sponsored the day.
Pittman’s declaration said Ballew drastically influenced many children in the community.
“These are those children,” Ballew said as she pointed around the room. “All of you mean so much to me. You just don’t know.”
Ballew has been sick, and she said through her illness, she has thought back on her years at Spring Place Elementary, where she started in 1955.
“I think of how wonderful it was here,” she said.
Ballew began her teaching career with seventh and eighth grade classes. She became a librarian in the 1970s after longtime principal Carl L. Davis asked her to do so because the school needed one. She had to go back to school to receive her degree as a media specialist.
“Forty years, at the same school,” Ballew said. “I loved every minute of it.”
Ballew said it meant the most to her to see children understand what she was teaching.
“When teaching the card catalog ... you’d see the light in their eyes,” she said.
Annie Brindle, a kindergarten teacher at Woodlawn Elementary School who attended Spring Place as a child, said she modeled her style of teaching after Ballew.
“She brought fun to the elementary school,” Brindle said. “When I teach my kids now, I try to be like her. ... It brings back so many good memories being at Spring Place.”
Ballew would read stories, bringing them to life with different voices for each character, Brindle said.
Henry said Ballew also taught children about the different literary genres and about a book itself, such as the index and title page, as well as how the library was organized.
“She taught them to appreciate books,” she said. “There was so much love for Mrs. Ballew, not just respect. She never raised her voice to anybody. Everybody just loved her.”
Pam Bishop, who taught second and third grades at Spring Place for several years, said Ballew “never forgot she was a teacher.”
“She kept them engaged,” Bishop said. “I could be doing a lesson on space, tell her that, and it wasn’t five minutes later she would come with a cart of space books to my room.”
Elizabeth Robinson, co-president of Beta Phi, said the organization does a project where they “commit to others” each January. This year’s project was to honor Ballew and take up items, such as toiletries and sweets, for residents at Chatsworth Health Care Center.
“All of these supplies will be given to the nursing home in Jean’s honor,” Robinson said.