FORT MILL -- During the school year, three times a week, Jerry Vawter wakes up at 5:30 a.m., puts on coffee and waits for the phone to ring. And when it does ring, by 6:15, Vawter throws on a white shirt and tie, sportcoat and pressed slacks, slips into his shined shoes and is out the door.
Vawter is headed to one of Fort Mill's two high schools or three middle schools. He's a substitute teacher, willingly facing the daunting task of teenagers.
Vawter is 5 feet 4 inches and a smidge tall. He might weigh 130 pounds.
Oh, yeah. There is one other important statistic to report -- Jerry Vawter is 87 years old.
Why, Mr. Vawter? Why go at 87? Vawter possesses four degrees, including a doctorate of law. He worked in the insurance business for years, taught business in college and high school for another bunch of years until retiring in 1985. He could do a million other things, including put his feet up and giggle at the dummies on TV.
But he does not. Vawter works three days a week.
Here are some descriptions of the oldest sub in Fort Mill -- and maybe, the oldest anywhere -- from principals who sure have seen enough teens trample frazzled substitutes who ran screaming for the exits:
"Dependable, terrific, enthusiastic, I could go on." -- Fort Mill High principal Dee Christopher.
"A joy, a natural teacher, absolutely wonderful with students, able to handle any class, life experiences that can teach all of us." -- Gold Hill Middle School principal Tommy Johnston.
"Takes command of a class -- a skill not everyone has -- loved by students and respected by students." -- Nation Ford High School principal Beverly Bowman.
Vawter is surely the only teacher in Fort Mill who, when the subject is the Great Depression, can call out, "We were so poor then that we had to wear our one shirt inside out when it was dirty."
He is certainly the sole teacher to demonstrate how he had to take a bath in his combat helmet during World War II or regale gape-jawed students with the tale of how a holiday dinner of canned ham in the Pacific in 1945 came from a can with the expiration date "1917" stamped on it.
Still, why would someone who's 87 choose to stand before a roomful of teens?
Vawter explains that almost as soon as he retired from full-time teaching, he began to "sub" and never looked back. He's been subbing ever since. First in Oregon, then in Charlotte and Fort Mill after he moved to this area to be closer to his son, and now the past several years exclusively in Fort Mill.
The answer why he subs: "The kids keep me young," Vawter said. "I love going in to work."
The phrase "He sure does love it!" is thrown like a ship's anchor into the conversation. The thrower is Bobbi Vawter. Wife of 55 years. "Everywhere I go, these students and parents and teachers come up to me and say how much they think of Jerry."
Vawter says he might sub another year or two. "Preposterous longer than that," Vawter said. "A 90-year-old teacher. Absurd."
His wife says, "Three years."
"I want to take a birthday cake over to him at work when he turns 90," Bobbi said.
But why sub only three times a week if you love it so much, Mr. Vawter? Well, somebody won't let him work more than three days a week.
And who is that somebody?
"Me, his wife," Bobbi said. "I want him around a little bit."
The best teachers know how to learn a lesson, too.