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School on a Hill: Demolished elementary leaves enduring legacy

MORRIS, Minn. -- Last week, demolition began on the old elementary school at 600 Columbia Avenue. Since its founding in 1914, the school has stood as a symbol of community solidarity, civic engagement and the absolute value of a good education. The building was like a second home to many, and its destruction affects everyone.

"We had such a wonderful time in school. When you see that heap of brick and mortar that's left, it makes you just want to cry," said Harriett Stevenson, a graduate of the class of 1947. "My father graduated from Morris schools in 1912, so that makes my granddaughter a fourth generation Morris graduate."

These deep family roots, Stevenson said, make the demolition of the building especially difficult.

Though the building was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 2004, destruction of the building recently became inevitable. No matter how significant and beloved, the presence of asbestos and the needs of a modern educational environment necessitated that it be vacated and a newer building constructed adjacent to Morris Area High School in 2005.

"You know it's a shame they couldn't preserve the building in some way," said Mitchell Grussing, class of 2004 graduate. "I remember really liking the building itself. I thought it was fun to wander around the various additions and think about it as a 'freak' of engineering. At the same time, though, I think the demolition is good because of the safety aspect. When I was younger, I had sinus problems, but they cleared up when I left the old school for Jr. High. So I don't think it was that healthy to be there," he said.

Even though the building is being knocked down, everyone interviewed for this article—former students and teachers alike—expressed a sense of enduring appreciation for their experiences at the school. They all shared the feeling that the school was more than a collection of buildings and classrooms: to the people who passed through its doors every day, the school seemed a living, breathing thing.

For the next several weeks the Sun Tribune will be featuring a series of articles about the school's social and historical legacy. This series seeks to utilize the experiences and memories of Morris' citizens to tell the grand story of education here and in the world.

"I can admit to having the best job in the world for 40 years," said Darleen Ross, a beloved first grade teacher whose career spanned from 1958 to 1995. "For me and my life, there could be no better job. My colleagues and I had a very congenial relationship. We were quite different, but we shared the goal of supporting our students. They're like my sisters."

Those "congenial relationships" among the teachers resulted in a culture of learning that fostered successful sports teams, academic excellence, and artistic expression.

"We've had a great variety of people graduate from Morris. Our students have gone on to do very well," said Dave Holman, who served as elementary librarian for some 18 years. "Among the grads are lots of professionals, doctors and such, but also many people who work regular jobs and contribute much to their communities."

Grussing shared that his teachers at Morris schools deeply affected his personal and professional path in life.

"I found school to be a nurturing environment that encouraged creativity, which has heavily influenced my career as piano teacher and composer," he said.

"My memories center on the gym-auditorium where we had band concerts. I really liked the music and arts activities I got to do in school. When I started band in fifth grade, I developed an interest in music. Before then I'd had piano lessons, but band class introduced me to playing with others, whereas before I played alone.

"When I'm teaching now, I can still hear my band teacher Wanda Dagan's voice in my head. She taught me: 'Don't settle for mediocre. Always do your best.' When I unwittingly find myself not doing my best, I hear her encouraging me to do better all these years later."

A sense of appreciation for teachers underlies every conversation about school, but good teachers are only part of a successful school.

"We thought the world of the custodians, cooks and the people in the front office. Those folks make the school run," said Jean Hollen, who began teaching music in 1961 and served in Morris from 1971—1999. "They completely supported the teachers. I think it's very important to include them, as well."

For a century, Morris' school on a hill served as the soul of a fledgling frontier community. During its 99-year history, thousands of students, teachers, parents, and school employees helped create and re-make the school to fit each era of modern American history.

Many important national reforms in education were mirrored in the creation and development of the Morris school. Each of these improvements allowed the youth of Stevens County to engage fully and completely in their community. Over time, the improvements of the school led to improvements in Morris.

"I'm a superintendent's daughter and I remember my father always stressed that education is the most important thing," said Jo Solvie, daughter of long-time superintendent Frank Fox, who oversaw the school in the early 1950s. "Any time he talked to young people in counseling or in a restaurant, he'd say the most important thing you can do in life is to get a well-rounded education. Not just in academics, but with extracurriculars, too."

Shirley Tomlin, who graduated in 1952 and taught at Morris school 1963-1993, echoed Solvie's sentiments: "School is so important because it allows children to learn social and personal relations, how to listen, and academic skills. Everything you need to be a human being."

Today, all these years later, the school symbolizes who we are as a people—our past, our present, and our future. A new school has replaced the old and a new generation of students is contributing to the progress of Morris. Today, we continue to passionately debate and grapple with the education of our children, but that's because we collectively feel that education is of paramount importance.

"Education, in order to accomplish its ends both for the individual learner and for society, must be based upon experience—which is always the actual life-experience of some individual." The great American educational philosopher John Dewey wrote these words in 1938. Today they are no less true. Our stories and voices define the school and its place in history.

In the end, buildings and policies change over time, but the goal of education hasn't: Fostering a just and equitable society through the transformative power of human relationships. The little school in Morris is our link to the great project of creating a modern society. It is what makes us human. It is what makes us who we are.

If you have memories of the old school you would like to share, please send them to Morris Sun Tribune editor Kim Ukura at