Lawrence educators — retiring in hectic, unusual year — look back on long teaching careers

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Gwen Wedd stands outside of Billy Mills Middle School, where she ended her 30 year career with the Lawrence school district as a special education teacher.

When Gwen Wedd served as a long-term substitute early in her teaching career in Lawrence, she was originally set to work alongside her father-in-law, the late Ralph Wedd.

However, before she began teaching as a physical education teacher at what was then known as South Junior High, Ralph Wedd chose to retire instead.

“I don’t think he wanted to teach with me,” Wedd joked when she recently spoke to the Journal-World.

Years later, Wedd would end up teaching with one of her family members anyway. Her daughter, Lora Hardesty, joined the Billy Mills Middle School staff as a sixth grade teacher.

“Never did we think it would be a Wedd teaching affair, but it seemed to come to be that way,” she said.

Now, with a circle seemingly complete, Wedd said she too was ready to end her teaching career, which spanned 30 years and ends with her serving as a special education teacher at Billy Mills.

She is one of the many educators in Lawrence who have retired or will soon retire after decades educating Lawrence children. About 75 faculty and staff members from the recent school year will have finished their careers with the Lawrence school district by Aug. 1, according to information the district provided to the Journal-World.

For some of them, the teaching profession has been a blessing, but the past year may have been a turning point. Both Wedd and Carol Souders, who taught at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, said the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t the reason they chose to retire, but it certainly made the decision easier.

Meanwhile, Leslie Campbell, who will retire as a library media specialist at Free State High School, said that the pandemic was difficult but didn’t play into her decision. Instead, she is ready to spend more time with family and focus on her creative projects, like quilting.


Wedd began her education career as a long-term substitute physical education teacher, which was her focus in college.

But when she couldn’t find any PE teaching jobs that summer, she chose to get her master’s degree in special education. While pursuing the degree, she worked as a paraeducator for special education in Lawrence, then eventually became a full-time teacher.

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Gwen Wedd, a Billy Mills Middle School special education teacher who is retiring after 30 years with the school district, stands in front of a plaque at the school’s football stadium honoring her father-in-law, Ralph Wedd. Billy Mills Middle School was formerly known as South Middle School.

Although she didn’t work with her father-in-law, Wedd did end up working alongside her husband, Dirk Wedd, who was a longtime Lawrence High School football coach. She served as the LHS cheer coach for 25 years, leaving that position around the same time her husband retired from coaching in 2017.

Additionally, about five years ago, one of her former cheerleaders, Jennifer Bessolo, who was the South Middle School principal at the time, asked Wedd if Wedd’s daughter, Lora, would be interested in returning to Lawrence. Wedd said her daughter “absolutely” wanted to return, and they worked at the same school at the tail end of her career.

“Ending my teaching career and having her be there was really fun,” she said.

Once the pandemic emerged in March 2020 and teaching became extremely difficult, Wedd said she began thinking the 2020-21 school year would be her last. As a teacher working with special education students, Wedd’s workload became increasingly demanding.

Fortunately, though, the easing of the pandemic this past spring made it possible for Wedd to begin working with her students in person again before her career came to a close, she said.

“I really didn’t enjoy my school year until my last nine weeks when the kids were actually in school full time,” she said. “That part was a lot more fun.”


This year’s retirement class also includes teachers who could have taught much longer but chose to hang it up now.

Souders told the Journal-World she always wanted to leave teaching while she still loved the job and the students she taught. That way, she would never end up as one of those teachers who resented being in the classroom and working with young people.

photo by: Contributed

Carol Souders

To make sure that happened, Souders, who is only 55, took the chance to retire at her first opportunity when the school year ended last month. She completed 32 years with the district, all at LMCMS, and applied for retirement when she first became eligible.

But it was not an easy decision to leave the profession.

“I still love the kids and the job, so it was hard to retire,” she told the Journal-World recently. “I always get along with the kids, so I felt blessed.”

However, last year did make it a bit easier than she expected. She said she began considering retirement before the pandemic, but the challenges of the past school year solidified that decision.

Souders, like other retiring teachers, said the reality hasn’t yet set in — and probably won’t until the school year begins in the fall.

She also said she wasn’t planning to sit back and relax just yet. She plans to return to work in some way after the summer break, just not in education.

“I’m going to work in an entirely different field,” she said. “I’ll find something to do.”


The difficulty of the pandemic didn’t factor into all of the teachers’ decisions. For Campbell, choosing to retire had more to do with her family than the job, she said.

“The biggest reason is that I have two grandchildren who are really small,” she said. “I just wanted to spend more time with them.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Leslie Campbell, library media specials for Free State High School, stands in the schools library on Thursday, June 10. Campbell is scheduled to retire at the end of the month after serving 27 years with the Lawrence school district.

Campbell, who is retiring after 27 years with the district and 37 years overall, began her career in Lawrence as a third grade teacher at Deerfield Elementary School in 1994. She then moved over to library work at Prairie Park Elementary in 2000. Her final move was to the high school ranks, taking the same position at Free State. Prior to Lawrence, she spent 10 years teaching second grade at Perry Elementary School.

As a librarian, Campbell is a passionate reader. She said she was looking forward to spending much of her retirement reading. She is also looking to be more creative in her free time. She has long been a quilter, and created a quilt that now hangs in Free State’s library to recognize the school’s 20th anniversary in 2016.

When she was working, she used her evenings and weekends for her creative side, but now her days will be her own.

“That will be fun to be able to dash up to my sewing room on a whim, rather than having to schedule it into my day,” she said.

While the pandemic didn’t affect her decision to retire, she said it did change her job quite a bit. As the librarian, she is in charge of making sure students have certain resources. During the pandemic, that included working with the district to make sure students had internet access to learn remotely.

She said she too was happy that her career reached its end with students back in the building full time. That also included the standard graduation ceremony, which Campbell has helped with since she joined Free State.

“It’s the happiest day of the students’ lives up to that point,” Campbell said. “I loved that.”

photo by: Dylan Lysen/Lawrence Journal-World

Leslie Campbell stands in front of a quilt she made recognizing the 20-year anniversary of Free State High School opening in Lawrence in 1996. The quilt hangs in the school’s library, where Campbell works as a library media specialist.

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