If you’ve entered Putnam Heights Elementary School in Eau Claire any time over the past 28 years, there’s a good chance you were greeted by Dayna Smith. Likely with a smile. And very possibly by name.
Since August of 1992 she’s served as the school’s secretary, a job whose duties far transcend the office managerial role one might expect. Dayna is part-teacher, part-counselor, part-confidante, and, when called upon, even part-nurse. While the school now has a health care assistant, for several years, if a student suffered a bump, or a bruise, or a scrape, or a fever, Dayna always had just the fix.
But when COVID-19 stuck, not even Dayna had the solution. One mid-March afternoon she waved goodbye to Putnam Height’s 430 students. She hasn’t seen them since. Such a lack of closure has made her decision to retire all the more difficult.
“It’s hard because I miss being able to see the kids,” Dayna says, “though on the flipside, if we were together, I would really struggle to keep my composure in these last days. People are so, so kind here,” she adds.
And that kindness begins with Dayna.
Twice now, I’ve endured the tear-jerking experience of dropping my kindergartners off for their first day of school at Putnam Heights. The kids were fine, though I’m pretty certain I stopped traffic with my blubbering. Thankfully, Dayna was there to soothe both students and parents. As the mother of two daughters, she’s well versed in parental anxieties. In an effort to alleviate them in others, Dayna made it her business to try to learn every parent’s name.
Just ask Larry Jolivette, who last saw Dayna while dropping his son off at school in 2001.
Seventeen years later, when picking up his grandson, he walked through the school’s entrance to spot Dayna once again. She greeted him as if no time had passed at all: “Well hey there, Larry!”
Second grade teacher Anne Aubart recalls an equally astonishing example of Dayna’s personal touch. One day Ms. Aubart walked a sick kindergartner to the office and informed Dayna that they would need to call the child’s home. Nodding, Dayna picked up the phone, then dialed the number from memory.
“Dayna knew the number because it was a returning family,” Aubart explained, “and she’d called home for the child’s siblings at one time or another.”
While Dayna concedes that she has a pretty good memory, she also notes that she works at it. Each August, she studies the names and photographs for every incoming kindergartner.
“Once I learn their names as kindergartners, I’ll remember them for the rest of the time they’re here,” Dayna says.
As a guy who regularly confuses his own children’s names, Dayna’s “pretty good” memory seems more like a superpower. But her memory’s only half the source of her strength.
Dayna’s greatest gift is utilizing her first-name basis relationship to ensure that every student is seen. As class sizes increase and teachers become ever more taxed, sometimes a staff member like Dayna can make all the difference in the life of a student. Parent Kristen Berger shared how her son, Owen, once regularly ambled into the office under the auspices of phantom tummy aches, hoping to be sent home. Dayna always listened, sympathized, and after a bit of chitchat (which regularly seemed to cure what ailed him), redirected Owen back to class. Over the years, Berger witnessed similar encounters involving other students. “Dayna was always able to get the kids on their way back to where they need to be without making them feel like she hadn’t met their needs,” Berger said. “All they wanted was a little attention, or maybe someone just to tell them they were OK. Or maybe,” Berger added, “they just needed some Dayna time.”
In 2017, Dayna received the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation’s prestigious Golden Apple Award, then Putnam Heights principal Kim Koller commending Dayna for her kindness, her helpfulness and how, “at the end of the day you make sure everyone gets home.”
It’s no small matter overseeing the personal safety and well-being of a school’s worth of students. Dayna rightfully credits the entire staff, but I can’t help but think that student-centered approach begins at the school’s front desk.
“An elementary school office is a bustling place,” remarked second grade teacher Kate Gilboy, “but Dayna always stays calm and collected. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as composed, while also being organized, hard-working, kind, and quick to solve problems. First impressions are impactful. Putnam has been blessed to have such a class-act as our first point of contact.”
Retired media specialist Sharon Bestul described Dayna as “the heart and soul of Putnam Heights,” and, indeed, many parents agree.
When I ask Dayna what she’d have told her students if she’d had the chance to say goodbye, she mulls it over for a moment.
“I’d wish each and every one of them the very best throughout their lives,” Dayna says.
And surely, she’d call each of them by name.