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Memories of College Heights School: Where We Learned All We Really Need to Know

by on October 13, 2016 9:19 AM

I never fail to turn my head to the left when I’m driving into State College from the north and crest the hill on Atherton Street.  My favorite Happy Valley educational center — no longer in use — sits there within a hop, skip and jump of the highway. No, I’m not talking about Penn State, although I certainly do bleed blue and white. I’m talking about College Heights Elementary School.  

College Heights Elementary was something special, a jewel of a school that served up heaping portions of warmth and security to the neighborhood’s little Baby Boomers. And that’s why five of us alums, all now in our 60’s, recently sat in The Corner Room to reminisce about the place. Three were the brothers Krauss — my boyhood buddy, Ron, and his older brothers, Dan and Meyer —together with Meyer’s old classmate, Tom Renehan, and me.

Our recollections of the quaint old schoolhouse were overwhelmingly positive. Sure, some knees were skinned on the College Heights playground and some feelings were occasionally hurt in its hallways — especially when a boy accused a girl of having that horrific condition known as “cooties.” But as we ate our lunch in The Corner Room, all of us used words like “secure,” “comfortable” and “homey” to describe memories of the red brick structure on Atherton.

SECURE AND VERY COMFORTABLE

“You really felt protected there,” noted Ron. A 1974 graduate of Princeton and of NYU Law School, he gained a strong and secure foundation at the College Heights School. “The building was part of that,” said Ron, “the teachers were part of that, Mr. Earhart (more about him later) was part of that.” Added Meyer, “It was secure, very comfortable. You just never worried about anything.”

College Heights School, a structure of some 14,000 square feet, was built in 1931 at a cost of $18,031. Maybe the taxpayers of that day felt concerned about that cost. But, hopefully, any complaints were silenced when the school’s staff members began to do their thing. Among the notables were:

  • Miss Elizabeth McDowell.  I can’t remember anything too dramatic about Miss McDowell, but who wants a dramatic kindergarten teacher? She came across with a kind, low-key manner that helped a bunch of hyper five-year-olds to calm down and begin to relate to others. Author Robert Fulghum must have met her before he wrote his 1986 classic, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. If you know someone who grew up in College Heights, just mention Miss McDowell’s name, and I think you’ll get a smile in response.  

  • Mrs. Esther Denniston.  Mrs. Denniston wore two hats, serving as school principal and as first grade teacher. She was someone who could make learning fun, and that’s why she let a student ring the school bell each morning to announce the start of the day. Back then, my buddy Ron would walk to school with his neighbor and classmate, Cathy Carruthers, and he says they often heard that bell from a couple blocks away. “There was no panic,” recalls Ron, “but we just knew we needed to hurry.” Today, that same bell sits inside the neighboring College Heights Exxon, serving as a reminder of bygone days and the excellent teacher who did double duty as principal.

  • Miss Betty Springer.  Miss Springer was the school district’s roving instructor for physical education at the elementary level. Now, I’m here to tell you that if any little boys thought that females couldn’t play sports, they learned the truth at an early age. Miss Springer had a hop in her step and she could demonstrate all kinds of athletic skills. We loved her as a person, and we loved it when she would bring her set of “scooters” — small wooden squares with wheels on each corner — and allow us to play tag or dodge ball while scooting around the classroom.

  • Mr. Earhart.  Custodians don’t often get much attention, but this man is enshrined in the hearts of former College Heights kids. Not only did Mr. Earhart keep our building clean, but he served as the crossing guard for children who lived on the west side of Atherton. I never knew his first name — but that didn’t keep him from saving my life. One day, my friend had crossed the highway just as Mr. Earhart was putting up his hand-held stop sign. Trying to catch up to my buddy, I ignored the “stop” and went darting across Atherton. Mr. Earhart grabbed me and held me as cars zoomed by. I gained respect that day not only for the power of the automobile but also for the strength of this fine man.

And I wasn’t the only one who was saved by Mr. Earhart. Ron tells the story of how he was quickly pulled out of the road by the custodian/crossing guard when a motorist tried to hit the brake but instead hit the gas pedal. As for Ron’s brother, Dan, he experienced a different type of Earhart deliverance. “I’ll never forget the day he saved me from abject humiliation,” said Dan. “It was a day when we had to get dressed up to go to school — third or fourth grade — and we had to go with a tie. I could not tie my own tie.  So before my dad went to work that morning, he tied my tie and off to school I went. But while sitting in class, I must have done something because the tie came unraveled. I excused myself and went into the restroom and started crying. So Mr. Earhart came into the boys’ room and he said, “Danny, what’s the matter?” And I had to tell him that my tie had gotten unraveled and I didn’t know how to tie a tie. And Mr. Earhart just looked and said, “Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of this.” He tied the tie for me, did a great job — a Windsor knot. I’ll never forget that act of kindness.”

So was everyone on the school staff a superstar of kindness? Actually not. There was a teacher who came as a mid-year replacement, and Ron and I both had trouble with her. The fact that I clashed with her doesn’t mean so much. But Ron Krauss was, and is, one of the kindest people I have ever known — though perhaps a little too smart for his own welfare on one occasion.

A WHALE OF A DISPUTE

This woman whom I’ll call “Miss Mistaken” was discussing ocean creatures one day and she talked about all the fish in the sea — including whales. At that point, fourth grader Ron put up his hand, and I can still picture the events that followed. In a most cautious and respectful voice, he said, “Ummm, a whale isn’t a fish, it’s a mammal.” Alas, Miss Mistaken wasn’t used to being outsmarted by a nine-year-old, no matter how respectful. So she said, “Well, it lives in the sea, so it’s a fish.” Perhaps the future lawyer was now at work in Ron, for he said, “No, mammals are different from fish.” So how did the story end? The angry teacher couldn’t send Ron to see the principal, since Mrs. Denniston was teaching her own class.  So she sent him to Mr. Earhart’s custodial closet. And that was just fine since Mr. Earhart was our old buddy. “Oh yeah,” said Ron, “he was very understanding.” Sadly, the incident marred fourth grade for my friend, and he’ll never forget the comment on his report card that said he was a “hothead.”

As for me, there was this day when the weather kept us from going outside during recess. Miss Mistaken then asked us to vote between having a square dance and playing indoor dodgeball. As I recall, there were 14 girls and 14 boys in the class — and the vote went according to “party lines.”  No fourth grade boy in 1961 was going to vote for a square dance, that’s for sure. Well, Miss Mistaken voted to break the tie — and she cast her “ballot” for square dance. Whereupon I said to another boy, in a voice that was a bit too loud, “She just voted for dancing because she’s a girl.” The situation could have been funny, but the teacher freaked out with rage, and soon I found myself out in the hall. Actually, that was okay. I didn’t have to participate in the square dance at an age when I may have feared an outbreak of cooties.

Ron Krauss takes a peek at the school he attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Photo: Bill Horlacher

*          *          *

It has been many years since College Heights School has been used for student instruction. Recently, it was purchased by Penn State from State College Area School District to serve as the eventual headquarters of Penn State University Press. Although printing of books will not take place in the building, all kinds of editorial, marketing and administrative functions will. Because the vast majority of University Press staff members will work together in one building and because they will be in close proximity to campus, it seems likely that the move will provide a boost. Perhaps more journals and books — most of them quite scholarly — will be produced than ever before, and that would be an ironic achievement for the old building where we learned our ABC’s.

Patrick Alexander, the director of Penn State University Press, is genuinely excited about the new location. Although he’s unsure of the date when repairs and renovations will be completed, he sounds more than willing to wait for such an ideal facility. “One of the things I know,” says Alexander, “is that there is a really great emotional attachment to College Heights Elementary School. For the Press, it’s just a wonderful opportunity for us to be under one roof and to have a building that represents the kind of aesthetic quality that we like to display. It’s really, really great.”

*          *          *

How fitting that the red brick building along Atherton has such a bright future. But to thousands of kids from the old College Heights neighborhood, that future will never match the school’s stellar past. We can still hear the old bell summoning us to a wonderful experience with outstanding teachers and a life-saving custodian/crossing guard who we’ll never forget.

 

 



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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