By Len Chapel
Special to The Dagger
The recent passing of a friend, Victor “Vic” Leonard, got me to thinking about our first meeting, and that was on the playground at the “old” Bel Air Elementary School on Gordon Street. Somehow, my memories of the school are nearly as vivid today as they were when they were being etched into the gray matter within my head.
Prior to becoming an elementary school in 1950, it served as the home of the Bel Air High School. When a new high school was built on Heighe Street, the 1924 building began housing the students that had been housed in the building at 45 E. Gordon Street. That building became the Board of Education.
Mornings at the school meant one thing, the usual game of ‘rollie-pollie’ that took place on the playground, weather permitting, before classes began. It didn’t matter what grade one was in, it was a morning ritual enjoyed by many…well, many fellers that is. The girls were sort of relegated to the swings, merry-go-round and sliding board because the ball field was off-limits to them, so to speak.
The tall, brick building housed the first and second grades on the first floor, the third and fourth grades on the second floor, and the fifth and sixth grades on the third floor. The ground floor also had the cafeteria and steam plant/boiler room. The auditorium was at a right angle to the main building, and while the stage was at the same level as the first floor, the floor of the auditorium was three to four feet lower.
The rooms had high ceilings to help with the sweltering heat…no air-conditioning in those days. Our air-conditioning was to open the windows and the doors and pray for a breeze. The heat was provided by steam-heated radiators. I can remember when the lights were changed from the globe covered incandescent bulbs that hung down several feet from the ceiling to the florescent tube fixtures that replaced them. However, every now and again a ballast would malfunction, and when it did hot, black tar would ooze out. You could only hope none of it got on you or you would soon become the first half of ‘tarred and feathered’.
The northwest end of the building exited towards Gordon Street; the southeast end exited to a few steps, across a macadam driveway, and then down a wide set of cement steps to the playground/track/baseball field.
The office was on the second floor facing a set of doors that exited to the flag pole area situated between the school building and the Board of Education building. I remember the ‘older’ students ‘wrapping’ the flag pole on May Day when I was in the first grade, and not to let a good opportunity slip by, several of us decided to toss some small stones at those doing the wrapping. We got caught so it was off to the office for us…Mike Johnson, Ron Hooper, Alan Sutherland and myself. The principal, Mr. Sutherland, grabbed his personal ‘board of education’, a yard stick, and laid it on us, breaking it in two while spanking HIS son, Alan. And to be honest, I got to visit the office a few more times prior to 1958.
I remember quite well my teachers from the first to the sixth grades; Mrs. Bales, Miss Holley, Mrs. Waters, Miss Maisenholder, Mrs. Scarff and Mrs. Fitzgerald. There were two classes for each grade, but I remember just a few of those teachers’ names.
The principal was Hunter C. Sutherland, my band music instructor was Rufus Hedrick and the head of the cafeteria was Eva Choate. The janitor was Mr. Connor. (His wife went to school with my mother at Jarrettsville High School.) He had two sons that attended school at the same time I was there. Wonderful folks, one and all, and I would be amiss to not provide some of my memories of the very ones who helped create many of my early memories.
Mrs. Olivia P. Bales was a wonderful and gracious lady!!! She was born circa 1910 in Birmingham, AL, and in 1952 the 42 year-old red head seemed to be three days older than dirt to me. She taught hundreds of Bel Airians to count, the letters of the alphabet and how to read. I still recall the toy cars and fire trucks we used in honing our math skills. She also played a lively version of “Dixie” on the piano. After lunch we would return to our room, lay our head down on our desk and she would read a chapter or two from a book. It was also in the first grade that a ‘field trip’ meant a short walk to the post office to purchase saving stamps. Who would have thought that we first graders were helping fund the Korean Conflict/War. I last saw her one evening at the Red Fox restaurant in the late ‘80s, and she remembered me. I wonder why.
Miss Holley was a fairly tall and slender, dark-haired lady. She was the teacher who taught me/us how to write cursive. I remember sitting in her class December 1953 when the whole building shook from an explosion that occurred high above Bel Air. A Glenn L. Martin B-57, with two aboard, blew up, spewing wreckage all over the area. The main fuselage crashed into the field behind what is now the John Carroll School. The two managed to bail out, but one died and the other was critically injured. After school, my mother took my brother and me to the crash site, and he and I walked up to the corner of the woods where it hit. The wreckage was still smoldering. (I had a small piece of the plane for years, but eventually I somehow lost it.) Well, sometime after mid-year, Miss Holley left us. It seemed the gentleman in a blue uniform who visited every once in a while, married her and took her to England where he was stationed. I remember the day she brought him into the classroom and sprung their wedding plans on us. I have often wondered how she and her Air Force husband did over the years.
Mrs. Grace Walters was a rather old, grandmotherly type who retired shortly after I left Bel Air Elementary. I can remember her always having a smile on her face. I wonder what, other than her impending retirement, she was thinking about. Other than that, she made no lasting impression. Maybe some of her other students can remember more.
Miss Kay Maisenholder was from the old school, and by that I mean the days when female teachers didn’t marry. She was rather tall and very strict. I remember the glasses she wore, thick lens and all. She was a great instructor, and it was her first year of teaching…something I didn’t know back then. She was respected by all. I spoke with Ms. Maisenholder (I have a problem referring to her by her first name) recently, and she is still living in Bel Air. She retired in 1986 as Principal of Joppatowne Elementary, after which she cared for her elderly mother on a full time basis. I have plans to visit her sometime late this summer.
Mrs. Myrtle Scarff was born in 1903. She and her farmer husband lived in Fallston, MD, on 152 close to Pleasantville Rd. She was 53 when I was in her class, and at that time she, like most of the other teachers, seemed so very old. Today, that is not so bad seeing I’m knocking on 65. Like the others, she was a wonderful teacher. She had two sons older than me and my fellow classmates, so she knew all the tricks of the trade. It always amazed me how she would know exactly who in the class threw a spitball…and that was with her facing the blackboard. Go figure. She also loved dragging her fingernails down the slate blackboard to make a blood-curdling sound that still echoes in my memory. That, along with her pounding her diamond ring on the blackboard, she got our attention when necessary.
Mrs. Theda Fitzgerald was probably the most unlucky teacher in all of Harford County, maybe the entire State of Maryland. Here she was, fresh from a divorce, two young children to care for, and lo and behold she gets stuck with me and a few mischievous kindred spirits. There were probably twenty-some students in the class, six of which were named ‘Nancy’, so last names were often used. Theda lived with her parents on Route 1 just north of the old Bel Air Skating Rink. She often brought her son and daughter to the skating rink of Saturday afternoons, just as many parents did. I saw her a few times in later years, the ‘70s and ‘80s, but never after that. She passed away in 2008.
Rufus Hedrick was the school’s instrumental music teacher. I had him for three years as I learned to play the trumpet…one that I still have, I’d like to add. If he had a cigar in his mouth, he was a dead-ringer for Groucho Marx. He passed away in 1991.
The school secretary was Martha Yelton Wright. She was a nice lady. Maybe that came from all the ditto machine fumes she had to work around for so many years. She was residing in Fawn Grove, PA, when she passed away Christmas Day 1999.
Hunter C. Sutherland, the principal was born in 1911 and passed in 1991 at the age of eighty. He was commonly referred to as ‘Old Marble Head’ due to his hair…or lack thereof. He was extremely strict and had no qualms whatsoever about pulling out the paddle…not that any of us ever deserved it. Later in life, he became quite interested in The Society of Friends (Quakers) and Civil Rights, writing books on both topics. He also became a Quaker. Much can be found regarding him on the Internet. FYI: It was during the sixth grade that Harford County began testing integration in the public school system. Stephen Moore came to Bel Air Elementary in September 1957 and was assigned to Mrs. Edwards’ classroom. It was uneventful. He and Joan Carroll were the first two Black graduates from Bel Air High School. It was the Class of 1964.
Eva M. Choate ran the school cafeteria when I began school in 1952. Her husband, Clarence Choate, was Superintendant of Mail at the post office just up the street at the corner of E. Gordon and N. Main. I often visited with Eva and Clarence at their homes in both Bel Air and N. Fort Myers, FL. Clarence was a cousin via the Fender clan out of the NC mountains. Eva was a fine lady, a wonderful cook and learned to love orchids in her later years. She passed in 2009; he in 2003.
We moved from Bel Air to White Hall in March 1958 and began attending Jarrettsville Elementary, but after spending the seventh thru tenth grades at North Harford High School, it was back to Bel Air for my final two years.
I still see and/or correspond with several of my classmates from elementary school, although many miles separate most of us. It is enjoyable to exchange phone calls or emails, and more than likely somewhere along the way, the topic turns to those early school years spent in the ‘old’ three-story brick building on Gordon Street.
I miss the school, and whenever I’m visiting Bel Air, I can’t drive down East Gordon Street without thinking about those impressionable years spent there. I, as well as so many others, owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who educated and guided us along our early pathway of life. I wish to thank them, especially those still with us.