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Love of books, children bring retired teacher back to the Stowell classroom as Mrs. Claus

Martha Smith, dressed as Mrs. Claus, read a Christmas book on Monday to second-grade students in the classrooms of Erynn Chartrand and J’Lynne Schafer at Hannibal’s Stowell School. This is an annual visit for Mrs. Smith, since she retired in 2003. Contributed photo.


Mrs. Claus made her annual visit to Stowell School on Monday, carrying with her a time-honored bag of Christmas books, along with candy canes in her apron which were intended for each of the students in two second-grade classrooms.

Martha Smith, in costume, read from one of her favorite Christmas storybooks, “The Sweet Smell of Christmas,” written by Patricia Scarry and illustrated by J.P. Miller.

While this retired teacher’s Christmas book collection has grown throughout years, she has a particular fondness for this particular book. It helps children identify the scents that represent Christmas in their own families, she said.

“Gingerbread, cooking, a big bowl of oranges, hot cocoa, a big candy cane, (the smell of) pine in the house, an apple pie in the oven, that Grandma or Mom might be baking.”

Erynn Chartrand, second-grade teacher at Stowell, said that on Monday the students “were very excited to see her costume and were very good listeners, I think just getting to hear Christmas stories,” is special,  “30 minutes uninterrupted and the whole purpose is just for fun. They got to sit and enjoy being read to.

“It was fun to see the kids excited about Christmas,” Chartrand said. Even more special, the children were dressed for “pajama day” on Monday, “listening to Christmas stories.”

J’Lynne Schafer, another second grade teacher at Stowell, said that Mrs. Smith’s visit “encourages (the students) to read and explore books they might not otherwise see.

“We told them all day were were having a special guest, and they were real exited when Mrs. Claus walked in.”


Each year, just before Christmas, Mrs. Smith arranges for a school visit, arriving in her Mrs. Claus costume, which Joan Thompson made for her many years ago. 

Mrs. Smith takes with her a bag of books, which she calls, “Mrs. Martha Smith's big book bag.” It is the same bag she carried with her all those years when she was teaching at Stowell, and today it contains about 16 books of Christmas stories. 

“I have my big apron,” she said, and in the pocket on Monday she brought candy canes for each of the children.

While she is reading, she prefers that the children sit in a semi circle around her. “Small groups sit along on the floor. I’d rather have them right in front of my face, not in a great big class. I prefer that they are sitting on their haunches. 

“They are so good, I let them be a part of it. I never have any discipline problems; they love it. They love it as much as I do. I let them have time to ask questions.”

Mrs. Smith, who retired as a third-grade teacher at Stowell in 2003, maintains a particular fondness for Stowell, its staff and the students. 

“I taught 36 years, and 29 at Stowell, third grade,” she said.  After retiring, she went back as a substitute teacher, primarily at Stowell, until 2015.

“Stowell is in my heart and will always be in my heart,” she said. “They have a wonderful faculty and the students - the special students I had - are a big part of my life. I taught because I loved to teach. I looked forward to the paycheck, but teaching was in my heart.

“I’ve always loved children and collecting books. Our church (First Christian) has a day care. When I’m gone, I want all my books to go to Wee Care, which has a pretty big enrollment.”

In the mean time, “I keep my books all bagged up on a shelf downstairs; I’m ready to go when they call me.”

Mary Lou Montgomery retired from the Hannibal Courier-Post n 2014, after a 39-year career as a community journalist. She can be reached at

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