Column: Doors close — memories remain

BY BERNIE ANDERSON
GUEST COLUMNIST

Some school buildings, when they close, become apartment complexes. Others become school district central office buildings. People drive by and are likely to comment, “Oh, that must have been a school.” Buildings come and go, but the memories shared by those who attended and worked there always remain.

It’s not my intent to involve myself in the controversy regarding the closing of two schools I was privileged to serve but simply to share memories of my years there.

Due to a grandson’s graduation from high school in Dallas, Texas, I’m unable to attend the Oak Park Elementary open house on Saturday, May 20, so I’ll share my memories here.

How fortunate I was to be assigned to Oak Park Elementary School in the fall of 1967 as an intern teacher. When I arrived to meet the principal, an Irishman named John Hollander who was the school’s first principal and had been a football coach in outstate Minnesota, I was handed a class list and assigned to three fourth-grade teachers who would be my first mentors. One of my early memories is of Mr. Hollander telling a story that went something like this:

Down the hill where they make windows they use only the best wood, the wood that has no knots or blemishes. They control the quality of their windows that way. When they see a piece of wood that doesn’t measure up to their quality standards, it gets thrown in the scrap heap.

We work with people. Our job is to take childre from where they are, blemishes and all, and do our very best to help them learn and grow. We don’t throw any of them in the scrap heap. Remember, they grow at different rates. Some will mature later. Don’t give up on them.

The Irishman told that story with conviction.

Another favorite memory is of Ruth Swanson, one of my mentors. Children fortunate enough to be assigned to Mrs. Swanson received the gift of a master teacher who loved children’s literature. Her classroom was a treasure trove of children’s books, and it was her mission to ensure every child in her classroom learned an appreciation of literature and might come to love reading books as much as she did. As a young teacher I was taken by the fact that her eyes would turn misty as she read to her class, and I could see the intensity with which they listened.

Florence McLaughlin, recognized throughout the school district as one of the best ever, was slated to retire in February of 1968. It was my good fortune to co-teach with her for six weeks prior to her retirement and then teach her sixth-graders to the end of the year. I have always valued the six weeks I worked with her. I learned so much from her. Some of you might recall that her brother Jim was a sports writer for the Stillwater Gazette.

Ruth Swanson’s passion for teaching, Florence McLaughlin’s mastery of the art and science of teaching, and John Hollander’s insistence that, blemishes and all, we never give up on our students were part of an early foundation established at Oak Park School, and I trust will remain to the day it closes.

Hollander retired in 1968, and Bob Maurer succeeded him. A World War II fighter pilot, Maurer is best described in Tom Brokaw’s book “The Greatest Generation,” when he writes, “This generation was united not only by common values — duty, honor, economy, courage, service, love of family and country, and above all, responsibility for oneself.” A veteran industrial arts teacher from Bayport, Maurer would give his heart and soul to Oak Park students, parents and staff for the next 18 years.

As we entered the 1970s, parents began to demand a greater voice in the education process. Choice, with regard to space and program, were at the top of their list of demands. Maurer and the Oak Park staff entered into extensive study, and what resulted was a dual system.

Traditional self-contained classrooms would continue to function very effectively for a majority of students. For students, parents and teachers in search of what was then described as an open space, individualized, continuous-progress program, walls were removed and three multi-age programs were developed. They came to be known as MAG1 and 2, MAG 3 and 4, and MAG 5 and 6. As years passed, the multi-age, individualized continuous-progress program developed at Oak Park was replicated in other elementary schools in District 834.

Maurer was honored as “Boss of the Year” by a local Stillwater Lion’s Club the year in 1986, a fitting tribute to a man who had given so much of himself to the Oak Park students, parents and staff during his 18 years there.

Following my first five years at Oak Park (1967-1972) I moved on to other assignments in District 834. One of those assignments was as a teaching principal at Marine Elementary School. Proximity to William O’Brien State Park and Camp Wilder created an opportunity to involve students in a wealth of outdoor education activity, especially cross-country skiing. Bill Simpson will likely tell you a number of his state championship ski teams have been populated with a number of Marine students.

Young thespians in the sixth-grade class performed a spring play every year, and the school Christmas program included students, parents and staff walking down the hill to the large Christmas tree, singing carols as they walked hand in hand.

Most Marine parents will tell you that although it’s one of the smallest elementary schools in District 834, Marine students were always well-represented on honor rolls, as well as a number of extra-curricular activities.

In 1986 it was my good fortune once again, when Bob Maurer retired, that I was chosen to follow him as Oak Park’s third principal. What I found was a delightful student body ready to learn, teachers ready to give their level best to see that students were successful, and parents ready to support all we did.

While our National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award in 1989-90 was a highlight for all of us, in my mind it simply affirmed the fact that a total school community had come together to make Oak Park the very best it could be for its students. It’s small wonder that those 11 years as principal were among my best in District 834.

I moved on at the conclusion of the 1996-97 school year. Those who followed continued many of the traditions they found when they arrived and added their own traditions during their tenure there.

As the doors close, students will remember the day the doors opened each year and the excitement they felt on the first day of school. Teachers will remember greeting a new class of students with the promise of a new beginning. Parents will remember their relief when their children come home with smiles on their faces, happy with their teacher and new classmates. Office staff, cooks, custodians and other support staff will remember all the preparation that went in to being ready for a new start.

Doors close and memories remain, and I’m grateful for the memories I have of my years at Oak Park and Marine.

Bernie Anderson was a teacher and principal for Stillwater Area Public Schools 1967-2001.