Dene Heaton has always had a soft spot for students. As a para pro, she taught countless students to read. In retirement, she’s crocheted more than 5,000 hat and bootie sets – and donated all of them.
Dene was born in Alabama in 1928 and raised in Gadsden. Her mom worked in a cotton mill and her father, who eventually became a policeman, owned a grocery store. Dene has fond memories of eating lunch at her dad’s store every day until third grade, when the town built a new school that included a lunchroom. Dene loved English and literature, but wasn’t fond of speaking up in class.
“I was so bashful,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in glee club or any of that!”
Her first job, which she began while still in school, was working at her dad’s store. After graduation, she worked as a cashier in the office at Woolworth’s, then at J.C. Penney and at a local cleaners. She married Leroy Heaton, a career Navy man who served on submarines in the early days, and together, they lived in California, Connecticut, and Virginia before moving back to Alabama and then to Jonesboro, Georgia in the 70s. Once in Georgia, Dene took classes to become a parapro. In those days, that meant filling in for absent teachers, sometimes for weeks or even months, and helping out with special projects, classes, and programs.
“I taught in the Title I reading program for years,” she says. “I worked with all kinds of children from all backgrounds. My one goal was to find a way to reach each child and help them learn to read – and hopefully love it.”
She fondly remembers one six-year-old girl who came into the program unable to identify basic words such as pig and cow. Dene worked diligently with the child for months, even helping her to write a book to keep her engaged. Eventually, it worked.
“That child was just so excited when she finally realized she could do it,” Dene recalls. “She raised her hands up in the air and just squealed ‘I can read! I can read!’ I’ll never forget that.”
The little girl never forgot either. A few years ago, Dene was in the drive-thru line at a restaurant and the girl recognized her as the one who taught her to read. She asked Dene to come inside for a hug and thanked her for teaching her how to read. Another day, she was at a yard sale and a man asked her if she was Mrs. Heaton. He introduced her to his wife, and talked about how patient Dene was as she taught him how to read.
“That was really special,” she says. “As soon as I got home I picked up the phone and called the man who was principal back then to tell him.”
Dene loved her job and it loved her back. When she left, the staff threw her a party, which included testimonials from many of the teachers she’d worked with.
“I’ll always remember one teacher saying that I never cared whether a students was Black or white or Hispanic, whether they were rich or poor, boy or girl, or who their parents were,” she recalls. “She said I was determined to get every single child reading and that’s all that mattered. That meant a lot to me because it was true. Everyone should be able to read and should get help when they need it. It’s too important for life.”
One of Dene’s favorite hobbies – the one that prompted her Women of Wisdom nominator to send in Dene’s name – is crochet. In fact, she’s done so much of it – and donated so many items – that it’s hard to consider her crochet just a hobby. Over the last several years, Dene has crocheted 5,264 baby hat and bootie sets and many blankets. She knows it’s that many because she’s kept careful tally. About 3,000 of the projects have gone to the Pregnancy Resource Center and about 1,700 to the NICU at Piedmont Atlanta. Many more have been donated to charity thrift stores here and in Gadsden or sold at the Fayette Senior Center, where Dene spends much of her time.
“It’s funny,” she says. “My mother used to crochet and she tried to teach me, but I never could learn. But when I was pregnant with my first child, my friend Mary Alice Mauldin convinced me to try again. I told her about my mother trying to teach me and she said ‘Dene, back then your mind was on boys and you didn’t care. Now it’s on babies so you’ll learn.’”
Mary Alice, whom Dene met in Connecticut in 1959 when both were naval wives, says it’s amazing how many of their lessons took place over the phone – and at what a passion it became for Dene.
“She just loves it so much,” says Mary Alice, “and so do I. We don’t get to see each other as much as we used to, but I think about her all the time – especially when I pick up a new quilt or crochet pattern. She’s the most wonderful friend I’ve ever had.”
Dene says she’s always loved art and crochet is the perfect retirement pastime for her.
“I just love making things for babies,” she says. “And I can never just make a simple toboggan. I add flowers and lace and ribbons and pom-poms. It just makes it more fun!”
Dene has also done countless counted cross-stitch pieces as gifts, has sewn an astonishing array of colorful quilts, and crocheted everything from shawls to bedspreads for friends and family. She spent several months leading art and craft projects at the senior center and still loves to grow vegetables and flowers and to cook.
As of September, she has someone new to crochet for: her eighth great-granddaughter. She also has seven grandkids and four children of her own.
“My mom is a very caring person,” says son Larry. “She really likes to do things for people.”
Some might consider that an understatement, but it seems to be the defining characteristic of Dene’s life.
“You have to do something with your time,” Dene says. “Why not do something you like that helps someone else at the same time?”
HER LIFE ADVICE:
“Listen and learn, love one another, and stay out of trouble.”