Summit County man reads to Breckenridge preschoolers for 13 years
CELEBRATE WITH GRANDPA TOM
Little Red Schoolhouse invites alumni and families to a farewell celebration for “Grandpa Tom” Zebarth before he and his wife, Ruth, move across the country. The preschool will host a party May 7 at Carter Park in Breckenridge at 5 p.m.
Tom Zebarth has read to the children at Little Red Schoolhouse in Breckenridge nearly every week for the last 13 years.
The preschoolers “Grandpa Tom” first read to are now likely high school seniors about to graduate.
Zebarth, 69, and his wife, “Grandma Ruth,” will leave Summit County next month and move to Pennsylvania.
“It’s going to be very sad,” said Jill Dixon, a 41-year-old Blue River resident whose 7-year-old son and now 3-year-old daughter were both read to by Grandpa Tom.
“He’s been reading for a very, very long time,” she said, “and it’s definitely a treat being able to have him in their lives as an older adult when our kids aren’t raised around their grandparents here.”
Another local mother, Gretchen Hamilton, posted on the Summit Daily’s Facebook page that her son, Lucas, literally thinks of Zebarth as one of his grandfathers.
Zebarth has filled a role that extended family members would normally provide in other places where children live closer to their relatives.
He’s been a consistent, reliable presence for Summit County children living in a transient community, said Greta Shackelford, director of Little Red Schoolhouse, and he shares a special bond with them.
“They all line up to give him hugs and wait at the door for him to get here,” she said.
A GRANDPA MEANS MORE
Zebarth grew up in a military family in the 1940s and ’50s, and his mother read to him until he could read to her.
When Zebarth retired from his Air Force career in 1988 he worked in the computer science industry in Colorado, and about 10 years later he and his wife moved full time to their home between Blue River and Hoosier Pass.
Besides his preschool reading gig, Zebarth might be familiar to others in Summit County from his years working as a librarian. He also spent four winters grooming for Breckenridge Ski Resort.
He didn’t have much experience working with young children when he discovered Little Red was looking for a grandpa to read to the preschoolers. But Zebarth liked kids and fit the bill.
“He thinks the world of those little kids. He just loves them. They’re like his own grandchildren really,” said his wife, Ruth.
The kids benefit from having an older male role model in their lives, she said. “There’s something about having a grandpa read to the kids that means more to them.”
For Dixon’s 3-year-old daughter Emma, Tuesday is Grandpa Tom day.
“He’s definitely a conversation that we have at our house,” Dixon said. “When they see him outside of school they get so excited.”
Zebarth has attended the preschool’s Halloween parade, Thanksgiving dinner and other events.
SILLY AND PATIENT
Shackelford said Zebarth has rarely missed his weekly readings over the years.
He started coming twice a week about three years ago, dividing his time among the preschool’s classes. Zebarth picks out different books for the 2-year-olds, the 3-year-olds and the 4-year-olds based on their attention spans, vocabularies and interests.
“With the 2-year-olds you want to do the same thing over and over and over again,” he said. “They like comfortable. They like a story where they know what’s going on and what’s going to happen.”
He tries to keep things fresh with the older kids with his funny voices, silly faces and stories that involve action and adventure.
“They’re like hummingbirds,” he said. “You have to keep them entertained.”
Still, he said, every month he reads “Cock-a-Moo-Moo,” by far the most read book in his arsenal. He’s probably read it 500 times.
Readings typically start with a name game song to help Zebarth and the children learn everyone’s names. The kids love when Zebarth does “fuzzball,” or puts on a pair of glasses whose lenses turn the children into amorphous blobs and tells them to be whatever they want to be.
He sometimes tells them to “put a bubble in it” and puffs out his cheeks to get the kids to quiet down, and every once in a while the children are so wound up when he arrives that he doesn’t read that day.
“I could have 12 kids in a circle, and there will be six different conversations going on at the same time I’m trying to read,” he said.
Though the Little Red staff praised Zebarth’s graciousness and patience, Zebarth said his tolerance has worn thin as he’s grown older.
“I don’t have the patience that I did when I started,” he said. “I used to just be a rock.”
He’s careful not to get upset in front of the kids, even when one is having a screaming tantrum or otherwise disrupting his reading.
“I have had kids hit me. I’ve had kids snatch my glasses right off my face,” he said.
Those situations are rare, however, he said, praising the Little Red teachers. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the kids are absolutely wonderful.”
DRAGONS ON PEAK 8
Besides a calm demeanor, Little Red’s next grandpa should be willing to keep up with the movies the kids watch, Zebarth said.
“You’ve got to be a big Disney fan, big Dreamworks fan,” he said. “For the last three years it’s been nothing but ‘Frozen.’”
Zebarth also incorporates Breckenridge and Summit County names, history and wildlife into the books’ stories to engage the kids, who have already seen bears and moose by the age of 3 or 4.
“We do ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ They know what you’re talking about when you say it comes from Como over Boreas Pass,” he said.
In the winter, he reads about skiing, building halfpipes and shoveling snow. In the summer, he relates to kids whose parents work in construction by choosing books with heavy machinery, he said. “Those books go over well in the summertime when Highway 9 is getting its annual mauling.”
At one point, Zebarth’s children’s book collection peaked at around 250 books. He has slowly been donating them to Little Red and plans to take about 75 with him to read to his young grandchildren. He’s also donating his 55-gallon freshwater fish tank and its fish to the school.
In the end, he hopes the kids enjoyed his stories and were inspired to learn to read as quickly as they could.
He will especially miss the children’s hugs and kisses, the times he was able to reach a child with a short attention span, and the moments the kids sat and listened with eyes wide and mouths open.
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