Beyond Park Hills Elementary School

It was a grand pilgrimage.  We came into Spartanburg to meet up with other baby-boomers back at the trunk of a tree whose branches had reached out far beyond the scope of its sapling years.  The trunk was now thick and the bark scarred.  But a change was in the wind that would not be kind to that tree.  Word was that the old facility would no longer function as it had since 1954: Park Hills Elementary School was to be no more.

The parking lot filled up, and the parade began.  Many of the folks were still quite attractive, but you could hear bones creaking as some of us old people filed towards the school house.  We moved at a pace that would not in any way be mistaken for a track and field event, and no doubt it would’ve made a herd of turtles laugh.

I’m sure most of these geezers were full of anticipation, as well as wheezes, coughs, grunts, groans, and God knows how much prescription (and perhaps non-prescription) medication.  Wheel chairs, oxygen tanks, canes, and crutches were all over the place.

I saw one toupee, but tried not to stare.  To do so would have been rude, and us graduates of Park Hills are far beyond such a capability.  I felt no covetousness for the rug, as such a thing as that on me would look like a squirrel trying to have its way with a bowling ball.

But the commonplace handicap noticed once they began to speak was–mind-slippance.

Questions like: “Am I supposed to know you?” and “Now, who did you used to be?” were interjected between remarks such as: “I thought you wuz dead!” But beyond all that, there were many magnificent smiles and very warm embraces from old friends.  The trip was well worth the time.

A hundred songs come to mind, but the lyrics are likely to take on esoteric meanings for each individual and certainly for each generation that would hear them.  But for the memory of Toy, Tommy and Timmy Caldwell who walked those halls with us back in the day, I’m sure any tune by The Marshall Tucker Band would be appropriate.

A scholarship fund has been started in the honor of our old principal who was famous for saying: “Remember that a principal is a prince of a pal.” He was also noted as often saying: “Hey!  Hey, hey, hey, hey!  Get your fist out of his nose, and don’t run in the hall!”

Well, the old tree had produced many leaves.  We were the leaves that had gathered the nurturing light from the sun a half century ago. As leaves, some of us had blown away; others raked into compost heaps and still others had been pressed into the pages of memory books.

It was into those pages we would now look, but also at the memory pages of the enormous root structure that had worked so well to keep the tree alive for so long: Park Hills Elementary School enjoyed having a fine staff and faculty.  Several of their names came up in conversations as we toured the building and grounds: Ms. Hertzog, Ms. DePass, Ms. Stroud, Ms. Scott, Ms. Gray, Ms. Zula Lee Wood, and so many others.  And of course our guest of honor that weekend: our physical ed teacher and coach of the most formidable football team to ever take the field– Coach Radford.

We were a tough squad–had to be back then!  Besides helmets and shoulder pads, memory serves that (I think) we were allowed to carry at least a knife and brass knuckles with us into the game.  One time Johnny Hauser threw the ball and I caught it.  The crowd on both sides stood up and cheered as I ran towards the goal posts.  That they were the wrong goal posts didn’t matter: folks were excited to see us carry the ball in any direction: possession being nine tenths of the law.  It’s much like politics and business are today.

A quiet and devout lady commented outside the lunchroom that perhaps a few (and only a small few) of our old teachers didn’t quite fit the bill as kind and venerable mentors to our eager young minds, but in quiet vespers she had more than once prayed for them to be let out of Purgatory.  I told her she was magnanimous, but assured her that what goes up must come down: in a sense of proper balance, I’d always pray ’em back in.

Back then, we were a part of a huge experiment carried out from expectations of a new hope for the world beyond the dark times of a long economic depression and then World War Two.  But it was more than that.

An armistice in Korea had been signed the year before, and there was no imagination in our heads for what was to come in Vietnam.  Now America was to teach their children how to find their place in a world forever changed from what it had been before and with hope, never to be that way again.

A new plan was needed to prepare them (us) for a different kind of systemic linkage than the one that held together the previous generation.  Suburbia was spreading, and pulling with it new industry and business, and newer technology–some of it slowly developing, and some of it abrupt.

Telephones and television were commonplace in our homes, whereas most of our parents had grown up with neither.  But it was still even more than that: social change brought about with our generation would prove to be more than the world had ever known before–far more than our parents and even the new age teachers we had could dream of at the time.

A new generation of teachers had emerged more open to innovation than the traditional roles that for so many years defended a status quo that was forever gone.  They would be the roots of the tree tapped into deeper springs full of various and sundry minerals that would help form the shape, size and color of the new leaves emerging for each season–hopefully brighter and better developed for facing so many new challenges certain to come from our rapidly changing world.

A curriculum of disciplines was intense and diverse: what we were expected to be exposed to and accomplish in a half dozen years amounted to a level somewhat afar from what was expected out of eight years barely a generation before.  We would go on to become hippies, yippies, yuppies, neo-cons, cons, ex-cons, elec-trons, protagonons, neurons, and morons mirroring the tapestry of our generation all  across America.

After a tour of the school, we all gathered at The Beacon Drive-In to get our oil changed.  They still pile on the mountain of (delicious-but-greasy) fried onion rings on top of the sea of French fries on top of the Ham-A-Plenty; Steak-A-Plenty, Slice-A-Plenty(BBQ), or whatever you ordered (key word here being “Plenty”).  There was, and still is, enough iced tea available on the premises to float a battleship or two, and everything is served now in a clean environment where “no smoking is allowed”.

Back in the day, we stood on sawdust-covered floors at counters right up where they were cooking, and I’m pretty sure smoking was required.  Much has changed except they still take orders from thousands of people and never write anything down.  I love that place!

Most of us met that evening at the pavilion in Cleveland Park.  It was a grand social.  I thought the appropriate band to perform for such a crowd would’ve been: “Geriatric and the Pacemakers”, but I think they were booked at a retirement center down in Florida somewhere that weekend.

But the DJ was sufficient and fun.  He opened with a “Marshall Tucker Band” piece that helped set the mood among the eclectic memories saturating the room.  Later, there were a number of speeches–quite well done and quite funny, too!  We were reminded of the pragmatically regimented  way were taught so many skills by coach Radford, and others.

One particular memory was pointed out that faced universal recognition: With each new skill, Coach would tell us how it was done and then he would demonstrate.  I always got a kick out of how his face would turn beet-red after showing us how to do a double forward roll on the tumbling mat. But with that, and with the systematic procedures of all the sports, he would end with the emphatic expression of:

“…and THAT is the manner in which it is done!”

Well, it was, and it is. I saw so many faces of men and women who had been such fine children full of energy, enthusiasm and wit. I noticed that they are still full of the same although the energy knob has been turned down a notch.  Some that I would have loved to see were not there, but isn’t that the way of school reunions?  I remember so many, and often wonder if they would remember me at all.

The whole event was wonderful, and for days, the opiate of nostalgia sent me to many locations searching for old pictures, and of course the inevitable stream of memories always associated with such a journey.  I thought about how we had been, and what I would do differently if I could (God forbid) go back and start it all over again.

Most of it I wouldn’t change for anything: I’ve had a good life.  But if I could change just one thing, I believe it would be to simply have been much nicer than I was to so many of you.  Bob Hope sang: “Thanks for the Memories”. Well, I say it bigger.

Those yesterdays were what they were, and we cannot change them now except as for how we think about them.  While it is good to be able to remember (a skill that diminishes with time), it really isn’t healthy to live in the past.  So I live today, and should tomorrow come, it will have become the “today” in which I will live.  I kinda hope you’ll be there, and wish you well.  In the meantime, “…it’s a good time for me to head on down the line.”  If that sounds a bit sappy, forgive me.  Maybe, just maybe… I “heard it in a love song”.*


* “Heard it in a Love Song”

Written by Toy Caldwell

Performed by The Marshall Tucker Band

copyright-Spirit One Music


31 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mickey on September 25, 2010 at 3:59 am

    (from e-mail) I attended Drayton School and then Houston, but I enjoyed your account! The Drayton School reunion is next weekend- I’ll be there! They tore down the old school after my 1st grade year and we all went to Houston.


  2. (from e-mail) I particularly liked the part about the Beacon Drive-in, and “getting the oil changed!” You have missed your calling!!


  3. (from e-mail) Hey you went to elementary school with The Marshall Tucker Band??? How cool is that???? I LOVED them and still love that music! So sounds like you had fun! I love the Beacon too! Went to Cleveland Park many times too and loved riding that train there. I am sure none of that is still there but those were the days!!!
    I have many fond memories from elementary school and I will never forget one incident. One of our favorite cooks in the lunchroom was a lady named Verdi. We all loved her. Well, one day we saw her walking through the halls crying and as little compassionate children, we were very worried about her but no one would say what was wrong. When we went home that day we discovered that President Kennedy had been shot and that was why she was crying. I will never forget that day.


  4. This was a fun weekend, and a good story about it. It’s so wonderful that you have good memories from childhood – a testimony to your family and to your school.


  5. Posted by Robin on September 25, 2010 at 8:09 pm

    I loved your story. You know, I was always jealous that you got to go to Park Hills, because–unlike my elementary school in Gaffney–your school had a LIBRARY! I think about that whenever I despair because now I have to live in a library….But it ain’t all bad. I ran across a biography of General William T. Sherman, published in 1932, and since all I learned about him in U.S. history in SC was that he was the devil’s spawn, I thought it might be interesting. It was, and there is a lot about the man and the soldier to admire. Who knew? But I digress. Thanks for the link. And the memories.


  6. Neat Van. Thanks for sharing. My old elementary school, like many, many others is no more. All torn down in the name of “progress”. But they can’t tear down the memories!!!


  7. Posted by little d on September 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    (From e-mail) Hey Van, glad you enjoyed your trip back down memory lane…You pressed together some great reflections of your trip and there was of course Iron in your words for all to hear…Thanks for sending me the link so I could come along, even if it was true I was not there.


  8. Posted by betty on September 25, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    All the schools I attended are still standing, but none of them are schools, now. Office spaces and “stuff” are in them.
    I do, like you, have memories. Mostly good ones!


  9. (From e-mail) Great. Thanks.


  10. Posted by Susan J. on September 26, 2010 at 2:11 am

    I thought it interesting that your teachers were Ms.- mine at Kennedy Gammar School (not Elementary) were: Miss Anderson, Miss Walker, Miss Jones. I’ll never forget Miss Jones telling us that she has never missed voting (note that she was around when she couldn’t – because she was a woman). Miss Jones continued saying that we should always vote because other died for our priviledge to do so. Strong words for an 13 year old to handle. But, that is what I have done. God Bless you, Miss Jones, where ever you are. Nice journey back to happy memories.


  11. Posted by Dan Thurmon on September 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Nobody reminisces like you, Van! Wonderful and engaging prose, my friend. You had me at the “squirrel/bowling ball” analogy. Laughing out loud, that is!


  12. Posted by Dave Strickland on September 26, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    That was great reading and thinking material. As mentioned by others previously, all of our teachers were “Miss” and some of them were memorably pretty. Even though I grew up in a small town I managed to attend two different elementary schools. The one I remember most was T.G. Ritch Elementary. Brand new when I first started there, it was close enough for me to walk or ride my bike, just about 4 blocks away. Built of brick, it is one of those low and long buildings that have wings, or branches that spread out in parallels, actually a series of individual buildings connected by one long, covered walkway. The only building that was higher than one floor was the auditorium / gymnasium. That was where we had mostly things like plays, recitals and assemblies; I don’t recall having any sports teams there at all. I did perform several recitals there (I studied piano there under the tutelage of the one male teacher in the entire school: Mr Beavis. He was famous for teaching piano by standing over the student and whacking the knuckles at the offense of every wrong note that was played. Piano lessons were not much fun there.
    Just a few blocks in the other direction from my home was the Junior High School. I was soon attending that institution. It was the old, original High School and was quite interesting. Going from the brand new, all brick elementary school to this facility was a drastic change because these buildings had a historic feeling. Constructed of wood and standing on brick supports raising them off the ground by a couple of feet they had architectural interest and elegance. Going inside them one could smell the years that had seeped into the woodwork; and beautiful it was too. It was like going back in time. We had those old built in desks that had the lids that lifted up and each row was all one long piece of intricate wrought iron with wooden seats and desk tops. They were all bolted to the floor, keeping order and precision to the arrangement. There was also a coal fired stove in each classroom, for warmth during the winters. Summertime meant open windows, and recess outside playing in the yard, including sometimes under the buildings because it was shady and cooler there. We had sandspurs there, in copious quantities, so you had to be careful where you ran. Then somebody found out that you could pick a cluster of them and fling them onto the back of an unsuspecting victim, sticking them with a bunch the prickly little spheroids. The only way to get relief was to find a good friend who was willing to risk pricked fingers to pull them out. Nobody liked that game very much so its popularity waned quickly.
    We never had an elementary school reunion exactly, but since we all started together in kindergarten and went through high school and some of us even through college together, our reunions kind of cover the full spectrum.
    Thanks for your excellent writing and reminiscing, it is always a pleasure to read and ponder.


  13. I assume you celebrated with a good-ol’ fashioned fist fight.


  14. Posted by Rhonda on September 26, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    As I walked through the halls of Park Hills Elementary School during the reunion event, I remembered how proud I was to be the little sister of my big brother walking down those halls as a child. He was well known, well liked, smart and everyone that knew him remembered him. I could always tell that the faculty were watching me to see if I would be like my brother. He was a celebrity – for goodness sakes, he was a crossing guard!! He had the power. He wore that white vest (or whatever it was with straps and shiny buckles) and could literally go out in the middle of the street, throw up his hands and stop traffic. The world was a safer place for me when my big brother was around, and I was very proud of him. Still am. I felt insecure when he moved on to junior high school. But, then I quickly settled into being Bonnie’s big sister, hoping that she was having to determine if folks watched her to see if she acted like me.

    Those were years when we went to sleep without locking the doors. I think we only started latching the screen door to keep Bonnie from sleep walking out the back door and falling down the stoop. I thought that living directly across the street from Park Hills School was probably the luckiest thing in the world. I could point to my house and to my mother washing dishes at the kitchen sink seen from the window on the front of the house. Actually had a second grade teacher one time ask me to run home across the street to borrow something from my mother. Can you imagine the security nightmare that would cause in this day and time?! However, my mother was at work and I totally ticked the teacher off by telling her I couldn’t take anything from the house without my mother’s permission.

    During the school tour I had the fun of reminding Sara Jean Pettit that she had brought pictures cut out of her father’s Playboy magazines to show us in the girls’ restroom, and also that she brought pictures of men in underwear from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Sara Jean was shocked and appeared not to recall something that obviously was worth remembering to me. I still remember how very old and grown up I felt standing in that restroom at the end of the 5th/6th grade area sneaking peaks at the pictures. Old and grown up – I wore ankle socks at the time.

    Van, thanks for writing this blog.


  15. (from e-mail) Nice..very, very nice.


  16. (from e-mail) …a darn good read! Thanks!


  17. Posted by cheri lasher on September 27, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    Hey Van,
    Great story. But there is no way on God’s earth you could have ever been any nicer to me than you always have been. You have ALWAYS treated me special and kind and with respect, and I can’t think of a kinder person than you. Thanks for the story, you are one of the best story tellers I’ve ever known.


  18. Posted by Wayne Casasanta on September 27, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    Van, I often do a double forward roll, as I enter the Beacon. No, wait, it is when I eat so much, I have to “roll” out of the Beacon.

    I am glad that your reunion was a good experience for you. I went to Fremont Elementary School, which is not an apartment building. At one time, it was used as a Thrift Store for the Downtown Rescue Mission, so I went in and “toured” the school. It was amazing to see the “coat rooms,” as you entered the classrooms. I could remember several of the classrooms and the lunch dining room. I also remember a place in the parking lot, where a young lady and I hid behind a car, as we kissed, during recess.

    You mentioned your “Coach.” My coach was Jimmy York, who later taught at Spartanburg Junior College. When I was in the 4th or 5th grade, Coach York took our football team to play at Cooperative Elementary on Union Street, near Hwy 295. Apparently, school buses were not invented or not available, so some of us rode in the Coach’s car; however, there was not enough room for all of us to ride in the front or back seats, so 2 or 3 of us rode in the trunk of his car to the game. I am not sure that met with any “official safety rules” of that time, but we did arrive safely, even though I probably had tire treat marks on my face, which was the beginning of eye shadow for professional football players.

    The Spartanburg High School Class of 1966 is having lunch at the Beacon this Saturday, so I will charge my food to your account.


  19. Posted by Shaun on September 28, 2010 at 1:42 am

    This past weekend I made a trek to Ohio on a busman’s holiday to bury two very special people in my life. As I drove down Deo Drive I looked over at North Elementary School (my elem-mater) and to my surprise and sadness found a large empty field of green grass. NES was no more! My mind was flooded with memories of this great institution that fueled the minds of many of Newark’s finest. On the way to the parlor that night I zipped down English Avenue to show my daughter the home of Coach Starr. Coach was close to retiring way back then and he enjoyed whittling away at a wood duck and smoking his pipe more than entertaining us kids. His catch phrase was “stop dickin’ around or I’ll board your ass!” Of course nowadays in government run schools, this behavior would not be tolerated. I’m sure it didn’t hurt us none. The likes of Ms. Chapman, Ms. Griffin, Ms. Markle and Mrs. Shuman are now just memories…but such good ones they are…thanks for th memories NES!


  20. (from e-mail) This made me cry….it was just beautifully written.


  21. Posted by Gayle on September 28, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    (From e-mail) Thanks Van. I read the blog–very funny. Loved Rhonda’s comments too. I was on a “Park Hills” high for a few days after the reunion. It turned out better than I could have imagined.


  22. Posted by Bruce Holland on September 28, 2010 at 9:56 pm

    Van, great article. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to attend but I had a conflict. I had to play in the member-member golf tournament at our club. In hindsight and in light of the fact that I really suck at golf, I shoulda been at the reunion. Take care, (Original class starting in 1954)


  23. Posted by Trudy on September 28, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    Van – nobody does it better…….
    While I was sticking my toes in sand and salt water that weekend, I thought about what a large time y’all were having…..and it seems you really did.
    You can bring it all back to life in a way that cannot be matched.
    (Several of my nurses have stuck their heads in my office to find out what was so stinkin’ funny….how can I explain it?)
    Thanks for being there.


  24. Posted by Trelle Lowe on September 29, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    Thanks Van for a poignant and fun account not only of a school and “our neighborhood” but also of a type of life we lived then. Who knew then…… grateful for innocence!


  25. Posted by SD on October 18, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    (From e-mail) Van: Wonderful writing and you have captured the spirit of an age! Save this one for the book!


  26. I so thank you for this article. The Wharton’s Supplied 5 of us to walk the halls.. My bones and meds were walking right down those halls with you..

    Bill, Marybeth, John, Steve and myself Barbara have many memories of those halls. I have a few teachers that I have fond memories of. We lived at 336 Ammons Road. I remember sitting in the backyard or in the field behind our house listening to the Caldwells and their band playing for the neighborhoods on the deck of their house trying out the sound that would appeal to all. Tim was a good friend of John and Steve’s and of course the whole family. It was not a week that went by that all the friends from the neighborhood would get together in our field and talk, laugh and plan whatever fun we could have. Our house was the norm for all to hang out at.

    My Momma and Daddy were the best when it came to our friends. There was usually extra plates at our Picnic Table that was used for our dining for anyone to join us. The house was never empty of laughing and good cheer. My mother lives at Eden Terrace Assisted Living and We lost Daddy or I should say He went home on December 2008 on Christmas day…

    I can always think about Momma and one of her many trips to deal with someone or something that she thought not right with the principle or any of the teachers…… I will always laugh when one of us would be starting to school and the general phrase would be Oh No another Wharton….LOL..well that was not a bad thing….but they knew not to be unjust with any of us or really anyone.

    John and His wife Linda, Marybeth and her husband Eddie, Steve and his children Jessie ( in College) and Josh (in the navy now) Bill and Cynthia and their Children Marcus and Ashely, her 2 sons all live in Campobello , Cowpens, Moore and surrounding area and I now Live in Raleigh NC.

    We all have our own memories of the day that life was so simple and for the most part up til the early 70’s that you could leave your door unlocked and have no worries. You could send your children out to walk to school without worry of anything bad happening to them or send them to Deal’s Market with out wagon to pic up the groceries. It is sad to say that is no more. The old neighborhoods are run down and do not even look the way we knew them.

    I wish I could have attended the reunion but between work and being not in great health I was not able..I look at all the pictures that so many I can connect with on Facebook that did get to attend and have enjoyed the memories.

    How did we get so old….It was just yesterday all this took place…. our ages range from 50-60 among the Wharton’s and friends.

    I could go on and on…but that will have to be in the form of a book to tell all the tales of love, laughter and yes high jinks ……

    Well, I raise my glass (slowly) to the age of innocence gone by…….

    Love to all and God Speed.


  27. Van, my friend, you write with wit and wisdom. This is a wonderful chronicle that most of us can share with our own memories, but few can express it so well.


  28. Posted by Ann H. McKinney on August 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Van, Thank you so much for sharing your article with me. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and all the other comments. My sisters and I really enjoyed the reunion and appreciate being included. Ann


  29. Posted by Freida on September 19, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Van, I loved your account of the reunion for Park Hills Elem. I did not attend there but most of my longtime friends did. However, I lived down the street for the past 38 yrs, until last year I moved to Simpsonville. I laughed myself to tears reading this. Great job!


  30. Hi Van, I love this piece. It resonates with me even though I’m Irish and living here in Ireland. So many things are universal ~ school re-unions; recognition that we really shouldn’t live in the past even though we can learn from it; and of course, the need to laugh! You’re the master when it comes to dressing the serious in humorous clothes.


  31. Posted by Sara newton on January 2, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Hello, Van! Thanks a million for sharing this! You really have a way of whisking us all back into time….and what an unusually wonderful time it was. Great piece!!!!


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