Above: The mural recently brought back into the light after several years in the Swift basement.
In the midst of little Rhody
Guarding Narragansett Bay
Stand the halls
We love so dearly
Vine-clad walls of E.G.A.
E.G.A. our Alma Mater
Every loyal will we be
To the red and white forever
Waving o’re in Victory.
The mural pictured here is now on display. Otto resurrected it from the cellar of Swift Community Center and hung it on a newly painted wall upstairs in the old gymnasium’s main hall. I admit to being a bit surprised seeing it. A very odd piece but it reminded me of the time I too went to the old Greenwich Academy. It was the town high school by 1956 but the mural brought back feelings and warm memories. It was an old-time campus. At the time, the old main building in the center was 100 years old and bearing the weight of the use and neglect. The floors sagged, the third floor was off limits, condemned – safe enough but it was an auditorium and not much use anyway.
It was the traditions attached that made the school special. Every Ivy Day, every academic step up to graduation since 1802 had taken place there. The original 1802 main building had been moved across the campus and became the town’s Spring Street School when the building in the picture went up mid-century.
When the town’s new high school at Cedar Avenue (the site of the middle school now) opened in 1956, the old campus closed for good and was razed a few years later. Only the gym and the boy’s dormitory survive. I spent two years at each school and the one thing I feel today, more than anything else, is that these are only buildings. School buildings! Without teachers and students, they are nothing. It is with teachers and students that they come to life. They matter! The fact of the mural is a testimonial that the students in 1937 had warm affections for their experiences there. My time at Cedar Avenue was okay. Hey! New school! But I recall my time at the old Academy being much closer to my heart. I understand the creators of that old mural, what they felt.
There is nothing sadder than an old building sitting vacant after decades as the center of activity. I recall with sadness the closing of Potowomut School and seeing it sit there, falling into disrepair, ready to be razed for a fire station. My kids went to Potowomut School. It was a neighborhood school and they did well there. Now students have to be shipped by bus to Warwick proper.
And that’s why I feel so strongly the James H. Eldredge School should not cease to be a school. It is only a building. Like the Greenwich Academy, it sent students out into the world with a first-class basic education, ready to venture forth into life’s universities well equipped to deal with them. No prerequisite courses needed, they were ready.
In the early days of the Greenwich Academy – before it was bought by the town – students came from all over the world. Elites to be sure, but they got a good solid Classical education with all the liberal arts courses needed to face what comes after graduation. Be it music, art, literature, even, ugh, sports, graduates of Greenwich Academy entered life with the tools needed to face the next step. Local children could go to the Academy or they could attend out-of-town schools, fees paid by the town. I credit Otto for bringing it up so we can see it and remember that school buildings are nothing without the teachers and students, the classes and activities that make pre-college education not just a learning experience, but an experience in its own right. A friend recently told me that he didn’t learn a thing at East Greenwich schools, that everything he learned in life to become what he is, he learned since then. I sorta agreed with him at that time but in thinking about it, the one thing, the one power I have had as an adult when working with editors and reporters is that they would holler for me to spell words for them. And I could and can do it because at Eldredge, I was constantly one of the winners of the spelling bees.
I admit I was a lazy, day-dreaming student most of my school years but somehow those old teachers of yore got through to my noodle and I learned stuff even though I didn’t want to. The three-Rs I learned at Eldredge against my will serve me well to this day. Even though my memory is fading with age, my ability to select the one correctly nuanced word from a dozen possibles – and spell it – means that I can still compose these wordy diatribes with ease. I did learn something in East Greenwich schools but I remember my Academy days better than the days at Cedar Avenue and I remember my days at Eldredge as being more important than any of the high school years.
The people of 1920s East Greenwich proudly erected Eldredge on the site of an old dump and they honored a much beloved town doctor by bringing his name forward. That it hasn’t cracked, settled, and fallen into a hole means that they did it right and they did it with pride.
Eldredge is only a building. It only comes to life when it is being used as intended. And it lives long in our hearts, after we graduate and move on. Please! Return to the basics and give the gift of a good, solid elementary education back to the youngsters who will have to face the difficulties of a very interesting but strange and testy future. Stop the nonsense courses and activities that have nothing to do with being school-age children. They will have to live here after we’re gone. Give them the tools we had.
Let them live and experience their childhoods. Let them discover for themselves the things that make common sense common. For without common sense, they will float through life as if dangling from balloons.
Alan F. Clarke, a lifelong area resident, is an East Greenwich historian and columnist.
Here, here Alan!
Eldredge School is a special place and deserves to remain a neighborhood school for the benefit of the local children and their families!
Wonderful memoir, Alan. It brings the Academy back for me, though I was there only for the last half of my eighth grade year. Then went to the “new” high school on Cedar Avenue. Our paths did cross there.
Bravo, Alan. As someone who spent many years in East Greenwich, including 7th and 8th grades at Eldredge, I cannot believe the town is considering deschooling it. The town lucked out after its wayward decision to tear down the old town hall (for a parking lot) in favor of that uberbrickhouse on Peirce Street, when it picked up the Courthouse from the state. Losing Eldredge as a school would be an even bigger shame, given the legions of kids who spent time there.
Amen, Alan! Thank you so much for your personal reflections, juxtaposed against EGA’s history, and Eldredge Elementary, still occupied by students obtaining their own educations, and gathering memories that will be shared, decades to come.
As some know, my late mother was the first class to enter kindergarten at the ‘new’ Eldredge School in September of 1928, where she studied through 9th grade, moving from there to East Greenwich Academy to graduate in 1941. Those memories and connections stayed with her, shared and treasured, all her life.
I do think that, even if unoccupied and sadly abandoned, those buildings echo with the voices of those who moved in its halls and classrooms. There are still stories to tell, and to record, as long as there are folks, like you, who care, and who keep the memories and images vibrant and pertinent to those who follow.
Even while it’s too late for the vanished Academy buildings, along with the old Town Hall, the former OLM church, and too many other structures gone, the Eldredge School still stands, serving its original purpose. What it may become in times to come is uncertain, for so many reasons. However, I suspect that its namesake, James H. Eldredge, – lifelong resident, doctor, Town and school administrator, State legislator, and parishioner, – buried in St. Luke’s churchyard, adjacent to the Academy property, would applaud, if not its continuation as a school, but its useful preservation to educate, honor and inspire all that is best in our Town, past, present and future.
The solution for childhood isolation is community. Neighborhood schools is the solution because it creates community. More teachers in the classrooms, less administrators, more schools that are built in neighborhoods. These ideas will only happen if we make changes to state and federal mandates. For example, it is a state mandate to have a subcommittee on the school committee to address health and wellness. 16-21-28. Health and wellness subcommittee. For the health of our children we need neighborhood schools grade K-6. Jr High 7-8 and a high school.