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PE Teacher Made Exercise Important

They were packing everything away on Monday evening after school — the balls, the unicycles, the nets, the hundreds of sports items the physical education program uses at Shady Grove Elementary School.
The title “legendary” is often tossed about where it’s not deserved, but retiring PE teacher Karen Umberger has earned that status. She spent 27 of her 30 years teaching at Shady Grove, and she made PE the best part of every child’s school day. Parents of children at Shady Grove, this one included, quickly learned that PE was serious business.
Her program became the model statewide and beyond. Children regard her with an uncommon affection. When Karen Umberger said jump, they did. A lot. And not only the students.
Her PE Club involved entire families — taking them hiking on Stone Mountain, skiing in winter and canoeing on the New River. Because the children were going, parents had to go. Because the parents were going, brothers and sisters had to go.
Maybe I was a little portly the day five years ago when I reported for the Stone Mountain hike. Mrs. Umberger sized me up and said, “You know, this is a rigorous hike.”
I can’t hike Stone Mountain now without vowing to defy Mrs. Umberger.
“I smiled when I said that,” she recalled Monday.
The Shady Grove school district voted overwhelmingly for the recent high school bond referendum. Days before the vote, Karen Umberger recorded a phone message to her parents asking them to support the bond. She was one of the secret weapons in the bond campaign.
Her unicycle teams became the darlings of the county — dazzling crowds at parades and ball games. Little boys and girls on unicycles darted in and out of their routines with amazing precision. One devoted mother said the unicycle — and Mrs. Umberger — had given her desperately shy daughter a new self-confidence and joy.
She had jump rope teams and cup stacking teams — anything to make children move and have fun.
For Mrs. Umberger, PE wasn’t just football, basketball and baseball — the usual big sports. It was a host of ways and gimmicks to get children — and even their parents — up and active. She was wonderfully creative. Couch potatoes didn’t have a chance around her.
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From Stone Mountain, I’ve advanced to higher peaks. For the weekend, young Michael and I returned to Mt. LeConte, elevation, 6,600 feet, in the Great Smokies, for our annual camping trip and hike.
We made it up in three hours. The weather was wonderful. Skies were clear. Rhododendron and mountain laurel were blooming on the eastern slopes. At the top, maybe 50 people were having a party — a group of Boy Scouts and an adult group who were spending the night at the primitive Mt. LeConte Lodge. We descended the mountain an hour later. Coming down, the old knees began to ache and the feet grew weary. At the bottom, skies darkened, and the rain began. We cooked corn on the cob and New York strips over the coals back at camp. I’d like to say it was wonderful, but it wasn’t. I slapped Michael’s steak onto a plastic plate in the rain.
“It’s soggy,” he said, but he ate it.
We finally retreated to Dairy Queen in Cherokee to get out of the rain.
I bet Karen Umberger couldn’t climb that mountain.