PENDLETON - A young man who became a teacher only after a friend convinced him during a trip to the movies that he should try college instead of the military will soon retire after more than 30 years in the classroom.

Charlie Birrer has spent 26 of those years teaching the third grade in Room 7 at McKay Elementary School.

"See that pine tree out there? I could walk past it and hold my arm out and it would pass right under it," he said. "It's about 30 feet tall now."

Birrer was born in Yellville, Ark., but moved west when his family came to try their luck in the shipyards of Vallejo, Calif., in 1942. Later the family made its way to eastern Oregon.

Birrer graduated from Pendleton High School, and before entering college he took an aptitude test that singled out his best career choices as either farmer, salesman or teacher. He settled on the teaching profession, receiving his bachelor's degree in elementary education from Eastern Oregon University and later a master's degree in special education from the University of Oregon.

"It surprised me and everyone around me how much I loved it," Birrer said of teaching. "I can't think of any other way I would have spent my life."

He spent several years teaching sixth, fifth and fourth grade in Springfield, but it was when he returned home to the eastside of the state and began teaching at the third-grade level that he found a home.

"When I got to third grade I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Birrer said.

Birrer's familiar cry of "Third grade - I think I love you" has become a fixture at school assemblies, and he can rarely complete the sentence without being drowned out by the shouts of students finishing the sentence for him.

For the past two years, Birrer has been assisted in the classroom by his wife, Electa, who also is a qualified teacher but serves as his assistant in a voluntary capacity. After completion of this school year, the couple will embark on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

They also plan to spend time with their nine children and 13 grandchildren.

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