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History Comes Alive in Virginia for Educator Scholarship Recipient Susan Sarver

For Road Scholar Susan Sarver, a retired special education teacher and history buff from Illinois, participating in Virginia, Mother of Presidents: Seven Historic Sites program last month as the recipient of Road Scholar’s Professional Educator’s Assistance and Recognition (PEAR) Scholarship was a dream come true. Today, National Teacher Appreciation Day, we honor Susan for her years of dedication and share her story with you.

Born and raised on the family farm in Illinois, Susan attended Illinois State University in the 70s to become a history teacher. “Upon graduation, I didn’t get a teaching job, so I went to work for an insurance company,” she says. Years later, Susan decided to pursue her love of teaching, took a position as a teacher’s aide, and then went back to school to get a degree in special education. After 20 years as a teacher, she retired in 2014 to care for her dad at home. She had also cared for her mother who died 15 years earlier. She went on to work at a camp for disabled people until the pandemic in 2020 when she retired for good.

Susan with a life-size sculpture of Thomas Jefferson

A Serendipitous Web Search

“My good friend went to Ireland last year with Road Scholar,” says Susan. “I decided to look online at all of the programs that Road Scholar offers. It was like looking through the old Sears catalog for my Christmas presents when I was a kid.” While browsing the website, she came across a message: “Do you know a teacher who deserves a trip for their years of service?”  She immediately clicked on the link, read the guidelines and started her application. For her essay, she drew from a story she had recently written about her life for a writing class. She was thrilled when she received the call from Road Scholar in August 2023 with the news about the scholarship. “I felt like I had won the lottery!” says Susan.

The scholarship for the program came at a good time for Susan. Five days before Christmas last year, she lost her sister to cancer. “Thankfully, the anticipation of the trip gave me something to look forward to when I was depressed,” says Susan. “I spent a lot of time reading five or six of the suggested books about every president.”


An Unexpected Benefit

Because Virginia, Mother of Presidents: Seven Historic Sites was a somewhat active program, Susan was afraid she might be unable to keep up with the group. “In February, I started walking every day to get in better shape and prepare for my program in April,” she says. At her six-month checkup with her doctor, her weight and blood glucose levels were down. “There was a lot of walking on the program, sometimes on cobblestones,” says Susan, but she kept the pace and slept well at night!  “I intend to keep walking every day now.”


History Comes Alive

Coined the “Mother of Presidents,” the state of Virginia is the birthplace of eight presidents. “History came alive for me,” says Susan. “If you love history, this is where it all happened.” In a group of 14, Susan immersed herself in George Washington’s life at Mount Vernon, a National Historic Landmark. While Susan had visited Mount Vernon as a child with her parents and later on her senior trip in high school, she found this experience to be the most fulfilling. “We learned that it took more than 300 enslaved people to run the plantation and care for the five residents in the house,” she says. “That was one of the most eye-opening things I learned, and the instructors skipped over this fact the last time I was at Mount Vernon 50 years ago.”  She knew their group leader, Karen Warnecke, was exceptional when she brought glasses for everyone to watch the eclipse on the grounds of Mount Vernon on April 8. “That was something to remember!”

Susan with James and Dolley Madison statues

Jefferson’s Monticello

From Mount Vernon, Susan and her group went to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where tulips were in full bloom. Here, Jefferson declared, “All men are created equal.” Yet, they discussed the many enslaved people Jefferson kept there. “I will carry this with me,” she says. “Even though I studied history in the 70s, I didn’t know about this.” Jefferson decided to start a university and founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1819. Visiting the campus, Susan’s group learned that Jefferson planned the university so he could see the dome from Monticello in his retirement years.

Later in the day, Susan and her group met “James Monroe” — a historical interpreter who gave the history lovers a first-person perspective on James and his friends of the Virginia Piedmont. “We had an equal number of couples and singles, from all over the country,” says Susan. “When Monroe asked us where we were from, a woman next to me from Illinois responded, ‘We’re from the Louisiana Purchase!’ It was a fun group.”


Madison’s Montpelier

The following day, it was on to James and Dolley Madison’s home, Montpelier. While the exhibit, “The Mere Distinction of Colour,” was closed to the public that day because of a previous fire, the group still got to explore the house. “Because Road Scholar had arranged our visit in advance, they led us on an informative walk.” Besides seeing the home, she was pleased to see the monument to the enslaved individuals in progress.


The Home of John Tyler

A field trip to John Tyler’s home, called Sherwood Forest Plantation, gave the group a private look at rooms others don’t see. “Our guide opened locked doors with his keys and shared many stories about the family with us,” says Susan. “We learned that John Tyler — who had 15 children with two wives — still has one living grandson, now 98!”

Susan at Mount Vernon

Independence Day

“Traveling alone was good for me,” says Susan. “It’s the first time I’ve done something independently, and I felt I could rely on myself.” While Susan did invite her husband to join her on her learning adventure, he encouraged her to travel solo. “It was beneficial for me,” she says, “because I’ve only traveled to Oregon alone to visit my son, and he always meets me.”


Thankful for the Memories

Now home in Illinois, Susan recalls her Road Scholar Adventure. “I never thought I would be honored in this way. Road Scholar made this the best trip and learning experience ever!”  

If you or someone you know is actively teaching or retired from teaching, please learn more about the recipient guidelines for a Road Scholar PEAR Scholarship. You may, like Susan, receive the learning adventure of a lifetime.