WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Eleanor Hightower Mann spent nearly 40 years doing what she loved -- teaching children to read.
So after the retired Lexington Two teacher’s death in 2017, it wasn’t hard for her family to figure out how best to honor her memory.
SETF Inc. -- the company started by Steve Mann, Eleanor’s husband of 38 years, and their two adult children, Frances Medley and Thomas Mann -- is gifting $20,000 to Riverbank Elementary for reading initiatives for students, the ones Eleanor always called her “kiddos” and “friends.” The school announced at this month's board meeting that the donation would be used to purchase books for several of the school's reading programs, and to create a reading room with soft furniture for young minds to learn.
“She worked hard to connect with kids who were having trouble reading,” said her daughter Frances, who’s also a schoolteacher. “If a child loved dogs or trucks or tractors, she would create her own books with things the child loved, with words he needed to work on, to try to connect.
“If she were still here, she would give back to this district to give kids the opportunity to be successful,” Frances added. “If they couldn’t read, they couldn’t be successful.”
A Bamberg native, Eleanor graduated from Clemson University and took her first job in 1978 at Lexington Two’s Saluda River Elementary, first working in special education and later teaching second and third grades. She was a certified reading recovery teacher and an instructional facilitator, still working in reading but also math and other areas. She mentored younger teachers and did professional development to help educators hone their classroom skills.
Teaching “was her ministry,” Frances said.
“Teaching allowed her to work in a job she loved,” Frances said, “and gave her lots of time to be a mom, which she also loved.”
Both Frances and her brother Thomas attended Saluda River, recalling the time they spent with their mother in her classroom before and after school. “I loved being at school with her,” Frances said. “I feel like we got to spend a lot of extra time together.”
Thomas also got extra time with his mother -- even as a student in one of her third-grade classes.
“Mom taught South Carolina history to all third-graders. … It took some time for both of us to adjust. She was so worried about showing favoritism that she literally would never call on me the first few weeks, and I had to adjust to her being my teacher in this role and not my mom. After a couple of weeks, I think we both figured it out, and everything was good.”
Thomas said his mother cared deeply for her students.
“Mom didn't just serve their minds, she served their souls, and I think that made a huge difference,” he said. “She cared so much for her students, and I think they recognized that from her actions. She was good about accepting them for who they were but also challenging them to be better.”
Eleanor retired after the 2010-11 school year -- but her time away was short-lived.
“Patti Sims called her about a SMART room opening at Springdale (Elementary),” her husband Steve said. “She missed working with the kids, and this was an opportunity to do what she loved, which was reading. She was excited to work with Patti and (principal) Shane Thackston.”
Eleanor also was excited to share her love of reading and books with Frances, who followed in her mother’s footsteps to become a teacher. Her mother and father helped her start a classroom library, and her mother helped set up Frances’ classroom each year, scrubbing floors and walls.
“At one point I wanted to be a lawyer,” Frances said. “But I loved kids, and I had seen how much mama loved what she did -- how she would run into kids she knew (out in the community), and they’d be excited to see her.”
Teaching was a passion mother and daughter shared.
“I had a common language with her,” Frances said. “If my kids were having trouble, we’d sit down and talk about ideas. She knew the challenges and struggles. We had that connection.”
Eleanor always was focused on good health, Steve said. So when she started to get shortness of breath and lower energy levels, she went to the doctor, where they discovered a heart condition in fall 2016 that stemmed from similar issues as a child.
Her health challenges forced her to step away from her Lexington Two classroom for good after just two weeks in 2017. But she continued to enjoy her life’s passions as health allowed, including a trip to see Clemson -- where all the Manns attended and graduated -- as the Tigers won the National Championship.
Shortly after her death at age 61, Eleanor’s family opened her prayer book, which she wrote in throughout her life. They found prayers for her two children and her husband, as well as many of her students.
“She always prayed for her children, prayed that she could provide them with the best instruction, that God would help guide her in her teaching,” Frances said. “She would pray for specific children, too, who might have challenges or needed extra help in their homelife.”
Thomas said his mother had “a servant’s heart that made an impact in the lives of many, many children. Frances and I were lucky to call her mom, but she served in a motherly role to many children, too many to count.”
The gift from SETF Inc. will ensure that her impact continues.
“Not only did Eleanor Mann devote nearly 40 years to teaching the children here in Lexington Two,” said Superintendent Dr. William James Jr., “but this special gift ensures that she will continue to instill that love of reading in our students at Riverbank for years to come.”
The family still hears from former students, some of whom say they became teachers because of Eleanor.
“She loved the district, loved the kids,” her husband said.
“She never considered anywhere else,” he added. “This was home.”