Thursday, July 4, 2013

Teacher dons same '70s outfit for 40 years

When physical education teacher Dale Irby realized he'd worn the same outfit for his school photo two years in a row, his wife dared him to wear the same polyester shirt and brown sweater the next year as well. Sure enough, Prestonwood Elementary School in Richardson, Texas, saw Irby's signature look for a third time on school picture day — and then for the following 37 years. "It was like, 'Why stop?'" Irby reflected in a Dallas Morning News interview. The 63-year-old finally hung up his famous shirt-and-sweater ensemble this year with his retirement. But despite its fame, the clothes will probably just stay in the closet after their own retirement. Irby said, "I don't think the Smithsonian would want them."

After a good long career in education, Dale Irby has retired. And so have his groovy shirt and sweater vest.

In every school picture for the past 40 years, Dale wore the same 1970s-era polyester shirt and coffee-colored sweater.

And let me just say he aged a whole lot better than his clothes did.

It began as an accident — a product of his sparse wardrobe back in the day.

“I was so embarrassed when I got the school pictures back that second year and realized I had worn the very same thing as the first year,” said Dale, 63.

But his wife, Cathy, dared him to do it a third year. Then Dale thought five would be funny. “After five pictures,” he said, “it was like: ‘Why stop?’”

So he just never did, right on through this, his final year as every kid’s favorite physical education teacher at Prestonwood Elementary in the Richardson school district.

Dale and Cathy, 62, met in 1973 as first-year teachers at Titche Elementary in the Pleasant Grove area of Dallas. He remembers getting the announcement that school-picture day was coming and that teachers should “wear something nice.”

In his case, that was the patterned, pointy-collared shirt with matching wool vest he had just bought at Sanger-Harris in Big Town Mall. “I really didn’t have anything else,” said the man who got to wear coaching shorts almost every day of his career.

In the later years of his tradition, Dale carried the disco-era ensemble to school and put it on just long enough for the photo. Still, I congratulated him on being able to button up the shirt at all.

“Uh, yeah, if I suck it in a little,” he confessed.

The fashion world will probably survive the retirement of Dale’s shirt and sweater vest. But his departure is a real loss for education.

“He took his job so seriously in teaching good sportsmanship — both in athletics and in life,” Prestonwood principal Pam Aitken said. “He taught a lot of kids to be fair and respectful of others. That’s a great legacy to leave.”

Here’s a measure of the respect for Dale. The gym at Prestonwood now has a big sign over the door: “Irby Gymnasium.”

Not only did Dale retire this year but so did Cathy. The language arts teacher had most recently served as assistant principal at Lister Elementary in Garland. “We’re going to miss it,” she said. “We’re going to miss the kids — and the teachers. But not the red tape and the politics.”

“And not the alarm set at 4:50 a.m.,” added Dale. He helped augment teacher salaries by driving a school bus every morning for the last 36 years.

The Garland couple looks forward to traveling on their schedule, not by the school calendar. They already have a trip to New England planned in September. “Every teacher wants to go see the leaves in the fall,” Cathy said.

They also relish trying a new daily routine.

“We have promised ourselves we’re not going to eat lunch in 20 minutes,” Cathy said with a laugh.

As for the shirt and sweater vest, Dale figures they will spend a quiet retirement in the back of his closet.

“I don’t think the Smithsonian would want them,” he said.

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