Thursday, May 26, 2011

A farewell to schoolmarms...

By Jim Heffernan

1914 picture courtesy of Northeast Minnesota Historical Center
The Duluth school now known as Lincoln Park School is closing in June. Parts of the school have been on the site in what was once known as the West End since 1889, but only small parts of the original building remain.

The Duluth News Tribune gave fine coverage to the impending demise of Lincoln in its May 23 edition, including a photo of the school as it looked in 1914, with a tower, slanted roof and ornate architecture similar to Historic Old Central High School – now housing central administration – downtown.

Lincoln hasn’t looked anything like that since 1950 when the front of the original building was shaved off and the two wings of the “new” elementary were attached to part of the old structure. I went to the original school through 5th grade, so the picture brought back a lot of memories to me.

Old Lincoln had received an earlier addition in 1915 when they built Lincoln Junior High right behind it in the square block bounded by 24th and 25th Avenues West and West Fourth and Fifth Streets, connecting the two buildings with one hallway. I went to the junior high too. We lived just two blocks away. That building disappeared in the 1980s.

Along with its coverage of Lincoln’s history, the newspaper ran a sidebar on a legendary Lincoln Junior teacher, Petronella S. Murphy. Many faculty passed through Lincoln over the years, but Mrs. Murphy was a worthy teacher for singling out, if for no other reason than her odd first name. I’ve never known another Petronella.

She was definitely older when I entered her 7th grade classroom in 1951. I’d guess around 60. With gray hair and matronly figure, she was a classic “old maid” schoolteacher, although she was married, earning her the then-rare Mrs. honorific at the school. A high percentage of the teachers then were women close to her age but unmarried, addressed as Miss: Miss Shong, Miss Carlson, Miss Hanson, Miss Gleason, Miss Merwyn, Miss Gilmore, Miss Bahnsen, Miss Anderson (known to kids as “Daffy”), Miss Swayze, Miss Page, Miss Paulson.

(One of the Misses actually got married while I was there, to a Lincoln janitor, imbuing with irony the old schoolyard year-end cry, “School’s out, school’s out, teacher’s wore her bloomers out, sliding down the banisters, kissing all the janitors.”)

But back to Mrs. Murphy. She was firm but nice as long as you were nice, and as long as you tried to understand the 7th grade arithmetic she taught. But nobody fooled around in her classroom, or, if they did, there were consequences. I witnessed her wrath once when a troublesome boy acted up. She marched over to his desk and grabbed his shirt so forcefully she tore the front off his body. What was almost as bad, he had to wait until the end of the school day for a relaxing smoke to calm himself down.

The newspaper recounted a time in the 1930s when, for an unexplained reason, the students had gone “on strike,” and were congregating outside the school. They ignored the principal’s orders to return, but Mrs. Murphy, witnesses said, marched out, grabbed two boys by their ears and marched them back in. The others followed.

People interviewed recalled her love of baseball, as do I. She would discuss it in class during the World Series in those pre-Minnesota Twins days. I hope she lived long enough to see pro baseball come to Minnesota.

To the students, at least this student in those times, teachers seemed like omnipotent rulers, not fully human. Their lives outside the classroom were a mystery. No one even thought they had lives outside the classroom.

One time, while waiting for a bus downtown, I spotted Mrs. Murphy among the dozen or so others waiting on the corner, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was the only time I’d ever seen her outside the school, part of the regular human race, waiting for a bus just like everyone else. Unbelievable.

It hasn’t been decided what’s to become of the Lincoln building after the school district moves out. I have no nostalgic stake in it, having attended classes in only one part of the often-updated remaining building – the old industrial wing of the junior high where we took woodworking, printing, electricity, metalworking and music.

I never excelled in any of those disciplines. Nor in math. Sorry, Mrs. Murphy, wherever you are. If we meet again up yonder, go easy on me, huh?


Anonymous said...

I went to Lincoln Jr. High for my 8th grade year...(in between the closing of SS peter and Paul catholic school and twisting my moms arm to go to Cathedral for HS)...
Miss Hanson...was she by any chance the same Miss Hanson who taught 8th grade math in the 1968-1969 school year? If so, I remember her as a stern, white haired lady who wore wire rim glasses and taught me well what I needed to know about 8th grade math.
Thanks again for these prompted, guided walks down memory lane.

Jim Heffernan said...

Hello... I'm sure you're referring to Miss Hazel Hanson, who taught 8th grade math at Lincoln when I was a student there (1952-'54) and continued through your years there before she retired. She had a very active retirement of civic engagement before her death, quite a few years ago now. I never had her as a teacher but got to know her quite well in later years. Fine, handsome, smart woman who never married. Jim

Anonymous said...

4 years later, I am reading this blog as I did a search for Duluth Lincoln Junior. I also was in 8th grade 1968-1969 school year, and do remember Miss Hanson as my math teacher. I went to Piedmont Elementary, then Lincoln, then Denfeld. I wish I could remember more. I do remember the shop teachers: Mr. Skinner, and Mr. Wallburg. (not sure on spelling)