Page last updated at 07:49 GMT, Saturday, 13 June 2009 08:49 UK

'I read the first line and froze'

Cynthia Cowley
Cynthia Cowley says she is "over the moon" at becoming an MBE

Nearly three-quarters of this year's Queen's Birthday Honours List are ordinary people who make a big difference to the communities they serve, the Cabinet Office has said.

Among them is Cynthia Cowley who becomes an MBE for her long and dedicated service to St James and St John Church of England School in Akeley, Buckinghamshire.

It was an ordinary Friday morning. Cynthia Cowley was all set to leave the house for her job as caretaker and lunchtime supervisor at the primary school she had been working at for the past 33 years.

Before stepping out the door, she took a moment to glance in the letter box to check for morning post.

One letter, in particular, caught her eye.

I'm down-to-earth - I'm enjoying the fuss and it's nice to be special for a while
Cynthia Cowley

"It said Her Majesty's Service and I thought I haven't seen one of these since my son was in the Navy," she tells BBC News.

It did not take her long to read the contents, but it was much, much longer before she could digest them.

"I opened the letter and read the first paragraph and just sort of froze. I could not believe what I had read.

"I put the letter back in the envelope and I said to John [her husband] 'I'm going to work'.

"I said: 'I'll read this letter when I get back - you can read it'. And I just went out the house."

Her husband, however, knew what was coming.

Together with Cynthia's sister and the school's headteacher, he had planned and plotted to ensure his wife was justly rewarded for her dedicated service to the school, the same school that their children had attended some three decades earlier.

"It's all been very secretive," he said. "But I'm over the moon about it."

Mrs Cowley is one of 984 recipients of awards in this year's Queen's Birthday Honours list, yet she does not expect the letters at the end of her name will change her.

"I'm down-to-earth. I'm enjoying the fuss and it's nice to be special for a while," she said.

At Friday morning's school assembly, a time usually set aside for hailing pupils given gold awards, it was Mrs Cowley's turn to feel proud.

The headteacher explained to the young children, their caretaker had received an award from the Queen, prompting one of them to ask: "Have you been to London to see the Queen this morning?"

But that's for another day.

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