Lake Norman & Mooresville

She wants her GED so she can help others

A typical school break, from one year to the next, might last about two months.

For Denver resident Sarah Beard, 74, the break has lasted a bit longer - 58 years, to be exact.

After quitting East Mecklenburg High School at 16, she will resume her studies to earn her GED at East Lincoln Christian Ministry in October.

But why did she leave school as a young girl?

"I hated math," she said, "and I saw this cute guy named Gene at church. He became my No. 1 priority."

She went on to marry that cute guy shortly after he graduated high school. She was 18 and he was 19. "I milked cows on my family's farm the day I got married," she said.

Coming from a large family, with seven brothers and sisters, she and Gene followed suit with five children of their own: four girls and a boy. Their daughter Marie was killed in an automobile accident on N.C. 16, just after her high school graduation in 1974.

By the time Beard was 20, she had her third daughter. They lived with Gene's parents for a while before building their own small home, which Gene designed, just next door. Despite having polio as a young boy, Gene went on to become an accomplished residential designer, working for Seth Lumber in Charlotte.

"He never allowed his infirmity to interfere with his career or his life as a husband and father," said Beard.

As for Sarah Beard, "I worked as a lab technician for Hunter Dairy in Charlotte for a few years, and I drove cars for an auction house," she said. "I also modeled hair-do's on TV for Anthony's, a hairstyling shop in Charlotte."

While Gene worked designing homes, Beard kept busy raising their five children, but as they grew older she found time to pursue some other creative outlets.

"I designed and made my three daughters' and my granddaughter's wedding gowns, and I made my great-granddaughter's christening gown. I also taught myself to make woven swings and hammocks, just to see if I could do it."

Although she initially was interested only in making presents for family and friends, her hobby led to a home-based business that Gene suggested she call Lazy Days Swings 'n' Things.

"It was fun, but not a money-making venture. Even though I sold merchandise all over the U.S. by word of mouth, I never let my hobby-turned-business take over my life."

Twenty years later, Beard continues to pursue her hobby, but she had added another element to the mix. "When we were in our 50s, Gene suggested we take a stained-glass-making class that was being taught by a local woman.

"Gene quit the class but I stayed with it, and I began making stained glass as a hobby. Before long, some folks wanted to buy my work, so I started a small business called A Touch of Glass. I'm still making stained glass."

After more than 50 years of marriage, Gene's health began to deteriorate, a consequence of his lifelong bout with polio. He died at age 75 in August 2010.

Gene and Sarah, high school sweethearts, had been married 56 years.

"Our life together was the most wonderful ever," she says. "He loved to shop for clothes for me. He was an absolute jewel."

"As his health declined, I told Gene I might go back and get my high school diploma, my GED, so I can help other older folks to learn to read. He told me he'd be awfully proud. Now I'm going to do this, for my own satisfaction and to complete what Gene and I talked about."

Her reasons for wanting to help others learn to read can be traced to her own childhood as well.

"My dad was illiterate," said Beard. "When he died at 49, he was trying to learn to read by watching television."

A longtime member of Salem United Methodist Church in Denver, Beard also volunteers at East Lincoln Christian Ministry, where she will attend GED classes in pursuit of her high school diploma.

"I think anybody who knows me knows that I really like people. I'm like Will Rogers - I never met a person I don't like, who isn't interesting in some way, enjoyable to talk to."

And if that person just happens to have some difficulty with reading, Beard will be there to help.