Tears flowed freely as former students, friends, family members and colleagues paid tribute to Cathedral Grade School teacher Mary Pat Kuebel, who is retiring at the end of this school year.
Kuebel, 62, was surprised Monday with a "This is Your Life" assembly organized by her friends and co-workers at the Belleville Catholic school where she has taught first-grade for the last 34 years.
Kuebel was greeted with a standing ovation and applause as she entered the gymnasium in the McCormick Center in Belleville. She then was crowned "Queen for a Day" and given a sash to reflect that.
Kuebel is one of nearly 150 school employees in St. Clair County who are retiring at the end of this school year, according to the Regional Office of Education.
As Kuebel listened carefully, voices from her past spoke from behind a makeshift wall and Kuebel had to guess who it was.
Some were easy like her 26-year-old daughter, Mo Kuebel, while others were more difficult.
"You taught me for 26 years and I have learned more from you than anyone else," Mo Kuebel said.
"You have helped make me who I am," said Bill Bruns, one of the first students she taught at Cathedral.
"I remember not wanting to go to second grade, because it wasn't Ms. Kuebel," said another former student Matt Wiegers.
Both Bruns and Wiegers said they wanted to come back to Cathedral to honor Kuebel.
"I've always loved Ms. Kuebel," said Bruns, 42, who lives in Swansea and works for the Department of Defense.
Kuebel influenced Wiegers to go into teaching.
"She was a big influence on me to go into education," said Wiegers, 40, who works as a high school guidance counselor in Sullivan, Mo. Prior to becoming a counselor, he was a classroom teacher for 10 years.
The teacher Kuebel student taught under at Wolf Branch School District 113 -- Lynn Schott -- also surprised her Monday.
"It takes a special and caring person to teach young people as long as you have," she said. Schott described Kuebel as one of her "star student teachers."
Cathedral parent Peggy Herr praised Kuebel, who taught two of her sons. "Mary Pat your infamous laughs and giggles have always warmed our hearts," Herr said. "We will never find the right words to tell you how much you mean to us. You will be deeply missed by all."
Current Cathedral Grade School students also had the opportunity to honor Kuebel. Each grade level -- first through eighth grade -- selected an adjective to describe her. The adjectives chosen were as follows: patient, funny, devoted, caring, kind, thoughtful, cheerful and generous. Faculty members selected "popular" to describe Kuebel.
The tribute assembly also included a video of Cathedral students talking about their memories of Kuebel as well as a photo slideshow.
Kuebel may be missed most by second-grade teacher Bert Scannell, who started teaching at Cathedral the same year as Kuebel.
"Cathedral isn't going to be the same without you," Scannell told Kuebel.
Scannell said Kuebel is a "great person" who everyone loves and adores. "There's never an unkind word about her," Scannell said.
Cathedral Principal Linda Hobbs said it's been a "true honor and privilege" to work with Kuebel.
Kuebel was overcome with emotion by the end of the assembly Monday.
"I don't even know how to even start to say thank you," she told the crowd. "To all you students, you will forever be in my heart. To the parents, you've made my job pretty easy. Thanks to everyone."
In all, Kuebel, who earned her degree from McKendree University in Lebanon, taught 39 and a half years. Before coming to Cathedral, she worked five and a half years in Bartelso. She decided to teach closer to home when gas reached $1 a gallon.
Kuebel lives in Swansea with her husband Jack Kuebel.
Her 90-year-old mother Mary Elizabeth O'Donnell attended the retirement celebration Monday. "I'm very proud of her," O'Donnell said.
"It's just overwhelming," Kuebel said of the tribute to her. "It's bittersweet."
She said she's both excited and nervous about retiring. "It's going to be very different," she said.
Kuebel does plan to substitute teach at Cathedral Grade School next school year.