| The Ledger
AUBURNDALE – Esther Hammer, 86, and her husband, Dr. Wray Hammer, began volunteering at the East Area Adult Education Center, a public school for grown-ups, more than 20 years ago.
Wray would help students with their higher-level math classes, while Esther, a former school teacher, would work with students in reading and math as a substitute and volunteer.
And so it went for two decades for the high school sweethearts, who began going steady when they were 16 at Fort Lauderdale High School. They married after she finished at Florida State University, and she taught school for a few years while he attended medical school at Emory University in Atlanta. He landed a job in 1964 as an internist at Gessler Clinic in Winter Haven. Three children came along – Larry, Ann and Stanley – and eventually four grandchildren and one great grandchild.
The couple pitched in where they could at the adult school, even spending their own money to replace equipment, including a grounds tractor, or pay tuition for students who couldn’t afford the $45 a semester for residents or $180 a semester for non-residents after the district began charging a fee.
“Her personal interactions with our students have impacted lives beyond the school grounds,” teacher Brooksie Smith said. “Students return year after year to let us know that Mrs. Hammer helped them so much as they prepared to take the GED tests.”
In January 2019, Dr. Hammer died, but Esther continued to show up at the school, helping students with their reading and some math as she quietly dealt with her grief.
This week, Esther Hammer will be awarded with the Adult and Community Educators of Florida Volunteer of the Year Award, besting dozens of other nominees from 17 other districts in the state.
“I love you…we all love you, obviously.” — teacher Karen Hagerty
Last week, the school held an after-hours, socially distanced, masks-on party to let Hammer know she had won an award for which she didn’t even know she had been nominated. They lured her to the school with a fib about substitute teaching and then surprised her with the award – a golden apple, along with a certificate, all the nice letters written to the award committee, and a cake.
“I love you…we all love you, obviously,” said teacher Karen Hagerty, fighting back tears as she handed Hammer the apple. “You have been a wonderful contribution.”
Hammer, sporting an East Area Adult Education Center face mask, was shocked.
“I got a little weak in the knees here,” she said.
Her children, who all live in Sylva, North Carolina, watched on a live feed, as did two grandchildren, Abigail and Paul Hammer.
“It’s incredibly well deserved,” said her son, Larry Hammer. “Mom loves the adult school and loves to volunteer.”
Her daughter, Ann Green, summed up the family’s feelings.
“I think we’re all glad that you appreciate her as much as we do,” Green said.
Throughout the years as Dr. Hammer worked at the clinic, Esther filled her days substitute teaching at Polk County Public Schools at all grade levels. But she preferred high school, she said. Hammer said she and her husband found out about East Area Adult Education when they took a computer class there and then began helping out.
“If they needed me to sit with a student or run off copies – just generally whatever a teacher needed,” Hammer said when asked what she did. “My family were not well-to-do people, but they paid for my education. I only taught (full-time) for three years, but I wanted to give something back. I’ve enjoyed all the people I’ve worked with.”
Teacher Kelly Darnell, whose math classes were often crowded, steered Hammer to her room to help students.
“I had a big class and said, ‘You’re going to stay here with me,’” Darnell said. “She’s been so much more than a volunteer. She’s always willing to work one-on-one with the students. If they need anything, she goes out of her way to come, even if it’s on her day off.”
And, Darnell said, Hammer often substitute teaches at the school.
“She knows the school as well as any full-time teachers,” Darnell said.
The school has another surprise for Hammer – they are naming their learning center after the Hammers.
“She and Wray have had such a huge impact on our lives, both personally and professionally,” Hagerty wrote in her nominating letter. “She is selfless and we are blessed to call her both friend and family.”
Hammer is not the only one winning a statewide award for East Area Adult Education. Others are:
• Media Promotion of the Year – Christopher Stumpie and Stumpies Marketing.
• Business Supporter of the Year – Rotary Club of Auburndale.
In addition, West Area Adult Education in Lakeland had two statewide winners:
• Teacher of the Year – Leah Sanoba.
• Non-Instruction Support Staff of the Year – Sherry Bigelow.
The awards will be presented on Thursday morning during a ceremony broadcast on the internet.
Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.