School on a Hill: A more congenial time
Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of the ongoing “School on a Hill” series detailing the history of the recently demolished Morris school building and the development of education in Morris. For prior stories about the school, please visit www.morrissuntribune.com/tags/school-hill
MORRIS -- Memory. Our memories and experiences shape our lives, especially those from the early days of school. Happy or sad, the memories of school are etched into the mind, vivid and permanent.
The School on a Hill series is set to finish next week with its seventh installment. Each of the people interviewed took time out of their busy schedules to speak with us and shared many more stories than space allows. The following are a few of those stories we want to share before the series ends.
The classroom is generally a place for books and tests, but what is school without fun? The variety of traditions and shared memories of homecoming, field trips, sports games, theater performances, and teenage romance pulse within those interviewed for this series.
Many of these favorite memories come from the 1950s, a time that seemed simpler compared to today: saddle shoes, poodle skirts, brill cream and swing music.
“It was a more congenial time. More innocent time,” said retired teacher Darleen Ross, who graduated from Morris in 1954. “A real 1950s kind of time, you know?”
One favorite shared memory from the 50s was of a “progressive dinner” that accompanied homecoming. The entire senior class traveled from one set of houses to another eating several courses cooked by the parents. That tradition stopped when a student died in a car accident.
Other traditions not found today included giant senior class bonfires on school grounds, as well as a tradition where the students would hold hands and wander through town whipping around like a giant conga line.
Many other memories revolve around the old winters famous for high snow, whipping wing and bitter cold. Several interviewees recalled times when students and teachers alike became stranded in town.
“In the winter of 1968-9 we had so many blizzards that we had almost no school for a month and a half,” said Dave Holman, a retired teacher who began his time at Morris in 1963. “Every time there was a puff of wind it would blow the snow and close school for a few days. The students had to walk on snow banks up over garages. The drifts were beyond belief.”
Retired Kindergarten teacher Sylvia Yarger shared a similar memory: “Sometimes we had storms and the little kids would have to stay at other people’s houses. One time I had a boy stay with me. He was a little unsure about staying in town without his mom and dad, but once he saw it was my house, he felt ok.”
Other memories focus on classroom interactions with students.
“To celebrate the 100th day of school the teachers would get together and put on a silly play for the students,” said retired 3rd grade teacher Linda Retzlaff. “The kids just hooted. One year we put on a play of “Sleeping Beauty” and had 100 cupcakes.
“Something else we did in class was hatching eggs in an incubator. We’d hatch chicken eggs or duck eggs and candle them to learn about how the birds developed. The kids were pretty good about not touching the incubator—especially the thermostat because it needed to remain at 100. Well, one day some troublemaker turned up the temperature until they cooked the eggs. So we didn’t have chickens that year.”
The stories and memories revolved around everything from sports to war. In the 1940s students did both. Bob Stevenson, a noted athlete of his generation, said he served in World War II for two years, which delayed his graduation.
“I went into the navy in 1945 and I think we had five veterans who would have graduated in 1947. I was 17 when I went to war and my parents signed for me since I was underage. I flew observation flights and reconnaissance over the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific.”
The war interrupted Stevenson’s studies, making him graduate two years later than he would have otherwise. Without that delay, he might have not married his wife, Harriett. Bob and Harriett dated for about 5 years before marriage. When they were newlyweds, Stevenson supported the school as a kind of 1950s-era “IT guy”.
“When I was in the service I started repairing typewriters and adding machines,” Bob said. “The school had typewriters and adding machines which had to be sent to St. Cloud to have repaired. So after the war I helped fix them for the whole school.
“I could fix TVs and change picture tubes,” Bob continued, “now you can’t find anybody to fix that. We just have now a throw-away society. It was different from how it is now, that’s for damn sure.”
Back in his prime, as he likes to say, Bob was a serious athlete in a number of sports, especially track.
“I set the school pole vault record 1947. That record stood for 17 years, until my brother David broke it. When we went to track meets I had to bring my own pole—and they weren’t real flexible like they are now—it was heavy and aluminum. We had such hassle tying it to the top of the car.”
Saturday football games provided a community locus of fun and fellowship. Each generation of students held unique and favorite memories of the football games. Harriett said that she and her friends loved cheerleading and participating in the games. She said that after the games the students sometimes held dances in the school.
“Oh those were the days. I just loved it. I loved being a cheerleader and dancing,” She said. “I wasn’t a good student, but we had such good friends. We’re still friends. We’ve known one another forever.”
Retzlaff recalled the noise and fervor of pep fests before games. “The whole auditorium would shake with the sound of those kids. Many kids also remember rolling down the hills at football games. And in the past the teachers worked concessions at the games.”
Jo Solvie, a graduate of the class of 1954, also recalled rolling down the hill and added: “Those were Good times with good laughter, despite the ups, downs, and emotions teenagers have.”
All these years later the interviewees laughed and smiled at these memories. A sense of joy at teaching and learning resonates in their lives today. Soon this series will come to a close, but the stories continue to be told. The decades pass and traditions change, but the importance of such memories never will. Now that the old school is physically gone it remains whole in our memories, unchanging yet alive.