Visiting a friend’s childcare operation many years ago in Louisiana, Artie Mae Grisby saw nothing but runny noses and dirty diapers and knew immediately she’d never go into that line of work.
Oh, how her vision changed.
And now, after a career spent pioneering the field in Colorado and helping shape state child-care standards, Grisby — at 79 — will earn her bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood Education.
“It’s been a lifelong dream,” she says. “I’m being validated. A lot of the things I knew, now I know exactly why I know what I know.”
In other words, experience counts. Grisby has pursued her education in unconventional fashion, earning an associate’s degree in her 50s before pursuing her bachelor’s through UNC’s Center for Urban Education.
The quest filled a void. Her husband, Theodess Grisby, died in June 2010. About a month later, at the urging of a friend and colleague, she enrolled at UNC.
“It was a pretty tough time for me,” Grisby says. “It just kind of took my mind off of losing him.”
Alicia Biggs had just stepped in as senior instructor in UNC’s Early Childhood Education program. Her first call was to Grisby, whom she had known for years after working on a Denver pilot project that brought training to unlicensed childcare providers.
“I told her to get down here now,” recalls Biggs. “She said, ‘I can’t, I’m too old, I’m too tired.’ I said, ‘I’ll come pick you up. But you’re coming.’ ”
Grisby worried how she would afford the classes. Biggs walked her through the process of applying for grants and scholarships. Later, she helped her new student with homework, typing — or sometimes just encouragement.
“Since she’s one of the eldest students here, we all have that respect for her,” says Biggs, who also teaches at the center. “She has definitely earned it.”
And Grisby returns the compliment: She credits Biggs and Center for Urban Education director Irv Moskowitz, the former Denver Public Schools superintendent, for guiding her through the last stages of her degree.
Meanwhile, Grisby’s son, 50-year-old Kenneth Wayne Harper, also enrolled in UNC’s program. Harper, taken in and reared by Grisby when he was 3 days old, has gotten used to the idea of being amazed by his mom — even when they were in the same class.
“There’s nothing,” he says, “that she’s going to do halfway.”
Grisby attends class four days a week at the school’s Lowry campus and also works part-time with kindergartners and first-graders at the private Watch-Care Academy in Park Hill. Her son worries because she sometimes stays up until 2 or 3 a.m. poring over homework.
“It bothers me that she doesn’t get enough rest,” Harper says. “But I’m scared to slow her down, because this has been her whole life — on the move, on the move, on the move.”
Grisby grew up a farm girl in rural Shreveport, La., the 22nd of 24 children between her father’s two marriages. She trained to be a licensed practical nurse and a cosmetologist. Her father died when she was 6.
“I’ve always said life was tough but fair,” she says.
Eventually, Grisby left for Denver, following the man who would become her first of two husbands. Once here, she worked as a nurse for several years before taking a job as a case reviewer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
A woman of strong religious faith, Grisby turned to God for the next phase of her life.
“I asked the Lord to give me something to do,” she recalls, “and when he said, ‘Child care,’ I said, ‘Not me!’ ”
But she grew into the calling and eventually pulled together childcare providers in her Montbello and Green Valley Ranch neighborhoods to bring more skills to the job — such as greater expertise in nutrition and child development. Her love for the field grew into involvement on the local, state and national levels.
Along the way, she ran her own family childcare home for 24 years, then served as a mentor to other providers through local community colleges. She had been out of the business for more than 10 years when her husband died and she decided to fulfill a nearly forgotten dream.
“She’s kind of a legend in our field,” says Jo Koehn, an infant-and-toddler program director with the Colorado Department of Education. “She has inspired hundreds of folks to pursue further education, be that formal or informal. In our field, there’s many paths where a degree is not required. She didn’t have to do this. To do the additional work and push herself, she is truly amazing.”
Grisby is on schedule to graduate in May.
“I’d really like to continue educating providers who have not had an opportunity of going to school,” she says. “That’s my goal — to pass it on to those who have not been able to go to college.” NV
— This article first appeared in The Denver Post on Oct. 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.