NEWTON FALLS — She began her school career with a tornado. She ended with a global pandemic.
In between, Sandra Halls said over her 36 years as an administrative assistant in Newton Falls schools, 475 students served as office aides for her — usually 14 students per year — running errands and answering the phone.
“I had thought of a reunion of all my office aides,” Halls said. “I always had special memories of the students who helped,” she said.
Halls was born and raised in Newton Falls and graduated from the school district.
“I had gone to business school. When I graduated from high school, I had wanted to be a high school English teacher but instead went to business school, got married and had children,” she said.
When her children were in school, she went to work at the Colonial Bakery Shop in Newton Falls. Her work days started at 4 or 5 a.m., and she worked weekends when her husband was at their Newton Tomlinson Road home with the children.
“I had to be at the bakery early because people would stop in and pick up stuff early. I enjoyed being there and getting the baked goods ready for the customers,” she said.
Three years into her bakery career, she heard about an opening for administrative assistant at the schools. Just like the bakery, the job required early hours — just not as early. Halls said she started her days at 6:30 a.m., checking for teacher call-offs and finding out who the substitutes would be.
“I would get everything ready for the substitutes,” she said.
It was the last day of school in her first year when the tornado hit.
It was just before 7 p.m. May 31, 1985, when the F-5 force tornado ripped through the area, destroying hundreds of buildings in a 47-mile swath through Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Newton Falls and Niles were the hardest-hit communities.
Halls said she and her husband, Milo, were driving when they saw the tornado.
“It was a really hot and sticky day. We were in the car and could see the tornado ahead of us. We pulled in where St. Mary’s School used to be and all got into the ditch. It was really scary,” Halls said.
She said they saw the large funnel cloud and all the debris.
“We were worried our house was hit. We did not know what to expect. Our house was fine, but there were a lot of trees down,” she said.
Later, she walked around what was left of the junior high school. Parts of the building were missing.
“I remember when we walked around and looked at all the damage. The gym had been set up for eighth-grade graduation and then got damaged,” she said.
For the next two school years, she and the staff of the seventh- and eighth-graders were at Lordstown Elementary School off Salt Springs Road.
“The students would be driven by bus to Lordstown and then later back to Newton Falls. We did that from 1985 to 1987,” Halls said.
Halls said she remembers once a bus was bringing students to the school on Selkirk Road when it overturned. She said her son told her the bus went around the bend and a wheel came off and the bus flipped over.
Outside of the tornado, the biggest change she saw in her years was technology, Halls said.
When Principal Bob Force hired her into the junior high school office in 1984, the school didn’t have copy machines.
“We had typewriters and laminators, and people used carbon paper,” Halls said. “When it was time for report cards, the teachers had to come to the office and had to put the students’ grades on the report cards by hand. We had to type all the students’ schedules. Everything including attendance was done by hand.”
In 1995, she moved to the high school.
By the time her career wrapped up, she was on the internet and checking the morning call-offs on Google Docs. This past year, when the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down schools, classrooms went online.
Halls said for her last few months of work during the pandemic were different from anything else she experienced. Even the typical commencement ceremonies were gone and the senior class lost so much, she said.
Halls said she will miss all the interaction with all the teachers, students and other staff.
She said she and her husband, who also is retired, will travel to Hilton Head and the New England states once the coronavirus pandemic ends.
Halls said many of her friends from school are retired and she will be able to go shopping with them. Halls said she enjoys shopping at specialty stores with family and friends.
Halls said she also plans to garden more with her free time and spend more time with her children, Scott and Cassie.
“I have always loved to read, and since I can remember I used to ride my bike to the library during the summer when I was growing up to get books. I enjoy reading fiction more than anything,” she said of plans to read more books now that she can.