- Cullman, Alabama


April 27, 2014

Romper Room days remembered

Most of us can remember the first day of school. Some can recall the first day of kindergarten. It was a little intimidating for most, overwhelming for a few, and downright scary for kids who didn’t know anyone there and had never been away from home much.

Seeing Mommy walk out that door was tantamount to being abandoned in a sea of strange faces. But for some Cullman youngsters, that first day of kindergarten was like old home week. That’s because they’d all been together since they wore diapers. No, they weren’t siblings; they were Romper Room boys and girls.

Romper Room opened in March 1963. It began as a way for Ollie Oden to make a living while being able to stay home with her three stair-step children. Upon learning that she was thinking about returning to work, a friend told her “Well, Ollie, there will always be children.”

So she enclosed her carport and Romper Room was born. At first, there were 10 children, but that number quickly grew to 22. Romper Room was eventually licensed for 48 children, and was usually filled to capacity.

The Odens’ home on Lakeside Drive made a convenient location for working moms and dads to drop off their children, and Mrs. Oden quickly developed a reputation for being an excellent caregiver.

For the next 50 years, children would think of Romper Room as their second home. For everything from runny little noses and lots of diapers, skinned knees and various childhood illnesses, Mrs. Oden or her daughter, Carmen, was there with a tissue, a band aide, a kind word and lots of hugs and kisses.

Those little ones went to 4-year-old kindergarten with Mrs. Oden, and then on to school, where there were familiar faces of other Romper Room kids to help adjust to the bigger building and strangers who took over their care for the first time in their lives.

Most of those children would go through the next twelve years together. They went on to become doctors, lawyers, judges, educators, policemen, politicians, and various other professionals, yet they always recognized each other as Romper Room kids, and still do to this day.

One of them, a certain city council president, remembers digging big holes in the play area to see if he could find the devil. “I also remember doing art work, although I didn’t realize that’s what it was at the time,” laughed Garlan Gudger Jr., who attended Romper Room along with his sister, Joy.

Mrs. Oden raised her three children, Sabrina, Bill and Carmen, right along with the rest. When Carmen became old enough to take over, she handed her the reigns and went back to school herself, attaining a master’s degree in education. She spent the next 21 years teaching at Welti School and caring for both her aging parents and in-laws.

Carmen, who graduated from Cullman High School in1976, took over the daycare and eventually, in 1990, bought it from her parents.

She, too, saw kids grow up and become pillars of the community. She even kept their children when the time came. Since she had virtually been caring for children since the age of five, when she helped her mother with the littler ones, she says that she has been working with children all of her life.

“After I took over from Mother, I became the teacher, owner/operator, and chief cook and bottle washer,” Carmen laughed.

Her days began, much as they had when she was five, with planned activities. “The children started off with teacher-led activities, like art, music, and indoor or outdoor play,” Carmen explained. “Then we lined up for a potty break, washed their hands and ate lunch.”

One little fellow described his day to his mom, “Well, first thing we do is get a million washcloths.”

As the little ones in her care drifted off to the sounds of soft soothing music, Carmen, or other staff members, Mary Allred, Margret Holmes or Christy Atchley, would read to them in a gentle voice until they fell asleep. “I’ve had wonderful staff members over the years,” said Carmen. “But those were with me the longest.”

At 3 p.m. they all had a snack, then had free play until time to go home. That was an eleven-hour day for Carmen, but she says that she had a break while the kids were napping.

She also made them good, nutritious lunches, such as Romper Room stew, “That was my version of Boy Scout Campfire stew,” she laughed. “They also loved my goulash and chicken and dumplings,” she laughed. “I made a lot of one-pot meals.” After Ross Henderson “graduated” to big school, he would still come occasionally. When he knew he was coming he would call ahead and place an order for Romper Room stew.

Cassie Sparks was also a Romper Room girl. “I even went there after school,” said Sparks. “I grew up and felt safe there.”

When the time came that her own children reached the right age, she says that she never even considered enrolling them anywhere else. “I walked in with my kids and there were the same toys I’d played with, and even the same smells,” said Sparks. “Rolls and a good, ‘clean kid’ kind of smell.”

 When her girls left to go to kindergarten, Sparks says that her heart was broken. “I had always known that they well cared for, well fed and safe. But it was time for them to go on to the next step,” she said.   

When Will Riley was ten years old, he came in with his mom to pick up a younger sibling. He walked into Carmen’s office and proceeded to place his “future” child on the waiting list.

As for Carmen, last April she met and married Jeffery Underberg, a fellow church member. She is happy and content, but she missed her little buddies. She made the decision to close the daycare in August. The last day was bittersweet for everyone…

“There were a lot of hugs,” Carmen recalls. “It was sad, but it was the right decision.”

“The best thing about my job was the unconditional love that the children showed me,” she smiled. “They always gave me the best hugs in the world!”

Text Only