LAUREL HILL — When out shopping or at a restaurant, Carolyn Radford will often be approached enthusiastically by adults who, at first glance, don’t look too familiar.
It’s not until they start to talk that parts of the person Radford knows start to shine through — a person who is much smaller and much younger — one of the hundreds that Radford has taught and loved in her 37 years as a caregiver.
“I would be afraid to even estimate the number of kids who have come through these doors,” she said Thursday, a day before she would walk through the doors to Radford’s Child Care Center for the final time.
Radford is retiring. Her daughter, Anita Radford Watts, her “right arm,” has chosen not to continue the business, but will continue for a short time to care for those children whose parents have not yet found another care center.
“It was really hard to make up my mind,” she said. “All these years, I have really enjoyed it. When I tell people I’m retiring, I then have to force them to believe me.”
Radford grew up in Laurel Hill, daughter of a longtime employee of Springs Mill in Springfield, which is now being razed. She makes her home next door to the daycare center, which she says is the oldest in Scotland County.
She often recalls children who have had a special impact on her life, who now hold positions throughout Scotland and Rockingham counties — including a Laurinburg police officer who she said she wouldn’t embarrass by revealing his name.
“He was a holy terror,” she said with a laugh, rolling her eyes skyward and adding that the now-policeman and one of her sons were then closer than her two intertwined fingers.
Bradford said that while she had a strict curriculum including numbers, colors and ABCs, the children were not the only ones learning. The love she had for her students, she said, helped her through the loss of two of her own sons — her oldest in a car accident in 1997 and her youngest in a heart attack 10 years later.
“You have to have patience, you have to have love, you have to have respect,” she said. “You have to know as much about the children as they know about you. … When you have that close relationship, it really means a lot.”
Thursday, the few children still under Radford’s care crowded around her on the playground, jostling for a place on her lap.
“It’s just great to see them grow up, see their little lives sprout up,” she said. “Once you have them so many years, they really feel like a part of you, like one of your own.”