Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

June 16, 2013

Fond farewell

A community says goodbye to Washington Hunt Elementary School

BY JOE OLENICK joe.olenick@lockportjournal.com
Lockport Union-Sun & Journal

Lockport Union-Sun & Journal — It sits there quietly, nestled between a park, a neighborhood and a hospital. It may not be a huge structure physically but to the families who’ve dropped off children to 50 Rogers Ave., the building is enormous.

Washington Hunt Elementary School has played a significant role in the lives of its 250 or so students and their families. There’s also the dozens of faculty, staff and administrators who have spent countless hours in the building.

But after 83 years of children running down the halls and parents gathering outside to drop off and pick up kids, the school will close its doors for good at the end of the month. Thursday is the last day of school.

For Christopher Arnold, principal at Washington Hunt, the school is family business. The cafeteria has the desk of Arnold’s father Wesley, who started teaching in Lockport at Hunt.

Among the memories that stand out for Arnold is one that he saw just about every day. The sight of families walking their kids to the school, parents on foot or in the vehicle gathering together out in front of the building.

And after spending 11 years, including the last nine, as principal of Washington Hunt, Arnold said he has seen students return to Hunt with children of their own.

“It’s a close knit community,” Arnold said. “So family-oriented. It’s something that I’ll miss.”

For Craig Bacon, his earliest memory of Washington Hunt dates back to September 1979 when he began kindergarten.

“My mother walked me to school that morning where I made friends that I still have today,” Bacon wrote in an email. “Several of us all lived on Walnut Street and we’d walk to school together.”

The most wonderful thing about Washington Hunt was that all of the parents knew each other, Bacon said. They knew better than to act up because it was almost certain that parents talked to parents.

“It also meant that if were doing bad in school, not only would we hear it from mom and dad, we’d also hear it from our friends’ parents,” Bacon said. “Even today, we know a lot of the parents of our kids’ friends and help each other keep tabs on what’s going on in their lives.”

Almost a year ago, Lockport Board of Education members voted to close Washington Hunt due to the costs of maintaining the building. Making improvements to the school would be a challenge, as nothing could be done before Hunt became ADA-compliant. To make Washington Hunt compliant would cost at least $1 million.

Hunt was one of three Lockport schools that were not ADA compliant, the other two being DeWitt Clinton and John Pound. Clinton was closed three years ago and is now owned by Head Start of Niagara County and Pound became the district’s early childhood center.

The roughly 250 kids who attend Hunt will be transferred for the fall, not including the ones who will move up to fifth grade at Emmet Belknap Intermediate. Most are expected to attend Roy B. Kelley on East High Street.

At that meeting a year ago, Hunt parents aired concerns about the effect the closing would have on their child’s education or on the community. District officials, some of which are Hunt alumni themselves, shared the difficulty of making the decision.

One thing that everybody seems to agree on is that Washington Hunt is important to Lockport. And that includes people who haven’t been in the school for decades.

Andy Robinson attended Washington Hunt in the 1950s. Fresh in his mind is the smell of coal smoke from the tall chimney which occasionally wafted in an open door or window and the cologne particular to the principal Margaret Spaulding.

“Her ‘cheerio’ was famous,” Robinson said. “The basement was the belly of this beast and during Eisenhower’s term we spent time drilling there “covering up” in case of nuclear attack.”

But it was the teachers who made Robinson’s time at Hunt especially memorable. There was Miss Mae for kindergarten and Miss O’Brien in first grade. Miss O’Brien once repremanded Robinson for calling out “Hey teacher” instead of using her name respectively. 

“What more could a kid ask for except great teachers who were there in abundance?” Robinson said. “Teachers may never know the profound impact they have on each of us. It will be sad to see the school go. Even the memory of the custodian Mr. Burns brings a smile.”

Eugene Young sent an email to the Union-Sun & Journal from his home in Ljubliana, Slovenia, where he works at the U.S. Embassy. Young attended Washington Hunt from 1968-75. He remembers watching Hubert Humphrey concede the 1968 election on a big television on a cart in the auditorium, which was also the cafeteria.

“But what I really remember are some of the terrific, dedicated teachers I had,” Young said. “Mrs. Leitner in second grade, Mrs. Hawkes in fourth grade and Miss Ludwig and Mrs. Bohm in fifth and sixth I think. The first two were old school teachers who really, really cared about their little kids, all of them and ran a very tight ship. The latter two were young, enthusiastic teachers who eagerly taught us and took care of us. The school was always in good shape — but with no doors on the toilet stalls! Brutal for a little kid.”

Along with four siblings, Patti Dohring Stuart attended Hunt in the 1960s. Her son went for fourth and fifth grade in 1993-95.

While in first grade in 1961-62, Stuart said around March, she was walking to school and slipped on some ice on the sidewalk. Even though she wore rubber boots and snow pants over her dress, when Stuart got up and continued to school, her snow pants and the skirt of her dress were soaking wet.

“The school was having a clothing drive for the Salvation Army at the time. Paper shopping bags of clothes were lining the halls outside of the classrooms. Miss Madeline O’ Brian searched through the bags and found an adult size green sweater for me to put on,” Stuart said. “It fit me like a sweater dress, with my white petticoat peeking out at the bottom for a frilly decoration. I was able to wear that while my dress and snow pants dried out, hung over the radiators that lined the window wall of my classroom.”

Stuart added that Miss O’ Brian was known for helping kids finish pulling out their loose teeth when they were too squeamish to do it themselves. Other teachers in the building even sent their students to her.

Stuart said she remembers reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and the 23rd Psalm before every school day, prior to the Supreme Court banning organized prayer in schools. She also remembers third grade, 1963-64, when Mrs. Dockery came back from the teacher’s lounge and announced that she had heard on the radio that President John F. Kennedy had been shot.

“(Dockery said) that we should all bow our heads and say a prayer for him. And we all did. I remember being very sad and upset,” Stuart said.

For Wayne K. Linderman, who now lives in South Carolina, growing up near Lockport Memorial Hospital and going to Washington Hunt Elementary in the late 50s and early 60s was a great experience loaded with lots of fond memories. 

“The teachers and staff have always been caring and outstanding professionals,” Linderman wrote in an email. “Sliding down the double hand rail and getting into trouble, playing my first trumpet solo on stage in the cafeteria/auditorium and qualifying to represent Washington Hunt as the best in throwing the softball led to a city wide competition which are all memories that come to mind right away.

“This all led to my best memory of becoming an administrator in the Lockport school system whereby I become the interim principal and worked with all the wonderful staff at Washington Hunt. It is a great loss to have the school close, but you can never take away the great memories.”

Rosemary Pascarella attended Hunt in the 50s. She remembers her teachers, as well as some of the events held at the school.

“I remember all my teachers, starting with Miss May. As I think back, She was like a wonderful grandmother to all of us who were experiencing being away from home for the first time. (They didn’t have preschool back then.) Walking to school with neighborhood kids was the norm, then we all walked home for lunch, as we only lived a few blocks from school,” Pascarella said. “Every year, every class put on a play, lots of work, but lots of fun too. Spring concerts and class picnics or outings of some sort was always fun to end the year. On the last day of class everyone would gather around to make sure we were all going to be together again the following year. All in all, I would say it was a great time.”

Those who attended Washington Hunt will never forget the building, but more importantly they won’t forget the people they encountered . Because you don’t forget family.

Bacon, 30 years after his first day of kindergarten at Hunt, he walked his own twin daughters to the school for their first day.

“My mother walked with us, repeating the same journey she had undertaken three decades previously as her eldest child found that first taste of freedom in school,” he said. “I have revisited the same halls that I once wandered. The building is the same. The rooms have been changed around. But the memories are all still there... I’ll miss that old building.”

SAYING GOODBYE • The Washington Hunt's Parent Teachers Association will be sponsoring a celebration from 6 until 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Rogers Avenue school. • People can bring old pictures, newspaper articles, yearbooks and other mementos of the school's history, as many will be on display • The school will be open and a guestbook will be available for people to sign and share memories

Contact reporter Joe Olenick at 439-9222, ext. 6241 or follow him on Twitter @joeolenick.