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Teacher will sadly say goodbye after 40 years

| Rob Dicker ~ Sun-Times Media

| Rob Dicker ~ Sun-Times Media

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An open house in celebration of Judy Denzel’s 40-year-long teaching career will be held from 3 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 8, in the library at Hillcrest School, 433 E. Depot St., Antioch.

For more information, contact Jean Johnson at

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Updated: June 26, 2013 2:33AM

It can be difficult to step away from a life’s work, one that has been a source of fulfillment and joy. But that is what teacher Judy Denzel will do on May 31, when the school year comes to a close at Hillcrest Elementary in Antioch.

Denzel, 64, a resident of Antioch Township, has taught first grade for nearly 40 years, the last 29 of them in Antioch District 34. She is “a little teary” these days, she admits, thinking “this will be the last time,” as she reads a favorite story to 20 shining, upturned faces or escorts her fidgety gaggle of six-year-olds to see their first theater production.

“I’m trying not to be sad,” Denzel said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful career and I would never, never trade it. I’ve made a difference in children’s lives.”

Year after year, Denzel has waved her magic wand over children fresh from kindergarten, their brains brimming with the alphabet but still begging for a connection to the printed page. On Tuesday, first-graders read out loud at small tables in Denzel’s bright classroom, where the walls are covered with words and lined with books, books and more books.

Student Jasmine Fisher paused to share some inside information on what her teacher will do in retirement. “She’s going to read,read read! She loves to read!” Fisher proclaimed.

And of course, it’s true. Denzel can get weepy talking about books like “Owl Moon,” by Jane Olen, a story of a father and daughter’s trek deep into the woods on a clear winter night in search of the Great Horned Owl. Books have been Denzel’s greatest ally in her mission to teach every tyke under her tutelage not only to read, but to fall in love with reading.

“Books aren’t going anywhere,” Denzel insists, when asked about the digital future. She walks quickly to a shelf to retrieve a big, “beauteous” volume titled “Creatures,” by Andrew Zuckerman and a wordless, but sumptuously illustrated version of the fable “The Lion and the Mouse,” by Jerry Pinkney.

“There will always be a love of authors and treasures to be found in books,” said Denzel, who recalls the gasps of pleasure from her students at their first glimpse of an illustration of an elephant so lifelike, they can count the wrinkes on its skin.

A native of downstate Eureka, the former Judy Swigart attended Eureka College and had planned to become a laboratory technologist and work in “some dingy basement” until a lively professor noticed her gift with young children at the college’s nursery school. Married and the mother of two grown sons, Denzel is looking forward to spending more time with her one-year-old grandson, cooking, gardening and reading.

Denzel has taught nearly 1,000 children during her career, which also includes seven years at St. Peter School in Antioch. At Hillcrest, she teaches alongside five of her former students, including Jean Johnson, who was a first-grader in Denzel’s class in 1981.

“She’s been a huge inspiration to me,” Johnson said. “She’s passionate about teaching, about her kids and what’s best for them and she shows such love and support. Her students make amazing progress.”

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