Sept. 8, 1953, is a notable date for several different reasons. It is the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the 53rd anniversary of the 1900 Storm. It also marks the day that 60 precocious children began their kindergarten year at Sacred Heart Elementary School on Galveston Island.
World War II had been over for eight years. The Daily News featured stories about Harry Truman giving hell to President Eisenhower, Lana Turner marrying Tarzan Lex Barker and the Miss America Pageant. The paper also advertised that organdy Priscilla curtains were $3.98 a pair at Penney’s, Nathan’s Salon was offering the “Italian Boy” cut for $1.50, Motorola television sets were on sale for $229.95, Buster Brown shoes were $6.95, Schreiber & Miller was selling a GE refrigerator with “rotocold” and automatic defrost for $249.95 (with trade-in) and Sam J. Williams men’s store was offering suits for $5.
The headlines also proclaimed that the summer holiday was over; Sept. 8 was the first day of class for all island schools.
Ball High School administrators predicted the largest enrollment of students in its history. According to The Daily News, “Catholic school administrators have also predicted an increase of 250 over last year.” Some attributed these increases to new arrivals in Galveston, but others ascribed the cause to war babies.
As evidence of this baby boom, 60 boys and girls arrived at Sacred Heart Elementary School to begin their kindergarten year.
Bishop Nicholas A. Gallagher, third Bishop of the Diocese of Galveston, established Sacred Heart Elementary School to serve the East End of Galveston.
Sacred Heart School had its beginnings in 1854, when land was donated for an educational institution for boys. The Jesuits held Sacred Heart Parish Mass from 1884-1892 in the University Chapel of this institution.
An impressive structure for the parish was built during this time only to be destroyed by the 1900 storm. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1904. The Chapel would later become the fourth grade classroom.
At the request of Bishop Gallagher, Mother Mary Agnes Magevney brought the Sisters of St. Dominic of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart to Galveston in 1882, and opened Sacred Heart Academy there.
This group of 20 Dominican Sisters (Order of Preachers) was to serve the Catholic Church in Texas. Sacred Heart Elementary School, the successor to the Academy, held classes for boys and girls from kindergarten to seventh grade.
The kindergarten classroom was in a two-room wooden building, separate from the impressive main elementary school that had been rebuilt after the 1900 Storm. The classroom was large enough to house 60 students.
Instead of desks, the students sat at long or round tables. The floors were wooden. They windows were large. A piano stood in the front corner of the room. The cafeteria was directly connected to the classroom.
The kindergarten teacher was Sister Mary Ernest (Elizabeth A. Schwerdtfeger). She graduated from Notre Dame and went on to obtain her doctorate in music from the Sorbonne in Paris and her doctorate in Sacred Liturgy from the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome.
In addition to being an accomplished musician, an excellent teacher and a woman of great patience, she was beautiful.
More than one of the children fell instantly in love with her. Some of the girls decided they wanted to become nuns because of her. Even the parents were impressed with her charm and grace.
Cynthia Wilkinson remembers her father commenting: “Sister is so beautiful; I’d like to come to class with you.” Not recognizing this was dry humor, she related her father’s comments to Sister Ernest. “Can he, Sister?” Her mother was mortified.
It was this sainted nun to whom the care of 60 4- and 5-year-olds was given. Most of the students were BOIs. Some were from old Galveston families, descendants of the American Revolution, and the children of recent immigrants. They were children of Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Germany, Yugoslavia and countless other nations.
Their parents were architects, salesmen, fishermen, grocers and electricians. Many of them lived on the East End, but not all. Most of them were 5-year-olds.
The school required students entering the kindergarten to be 5 by the first day of class — the day after Labor Day. Some were older, having missed the deadline the year before; some were younger, having parents who convinced the Sisters that it was in the best interest of their child.
In anticipation of the start of the 1953 school year, the Sisters sent out letters to the parents of the incoming kindergarten class with instructions on how to behave. However, it was the parents, not the students, who were being schooled about appropriate behavior on the first day.
The letter said: “Tuesday will be a great day for your ‘Little One’ who begins a school career. For some, it will be an easy break from Mother and home; for others it will be quite difficult.”
The sisters recommended that the parents leave the child at the door of the kindergarten classroom.
“Please do your part in helping the good Sister (Sr. M. Ernest) to care for these sixty or more children without difficulty, by trusting her. This you’ll show by leaving immediately and by not returning until 11:45.”
Based on reports, not all the children had an easy “break.” Robert John “Bobby” Babcock remembers: “I am an only child so going to school was very traumatic to me. I was also newly five and, therefore, a lot younger and smaller than most of the kids. I did cry a lot initially, but overcame that.”
Phyllis Meier did not know about these instructions: “I thought my Mother had deserted me; I hung out the window crying.”
For some the trauma of the “break” continued into the school year. Paula Denham Jones, still a Galveston resident, recalls: “My birthday should have put me in the next year class, but my Mother talked the nuns into taking me early. I was always the youngest in the class. All I can remember about kindergarten is that I was so overwhelmed; I would escape and run all the way home — many times.”
For others, the earliest memories are less traumatic. Donna Krc MacDonald says she doesn’t remember much of those days. But as it sometimes happens, our memories come from other senses. She says: “I was in awe of everything, even the smell of the mimeograph paper that we colored on.”
Each day had a certain rhythm and a routine including prayers, reading, coloring, music, resting, snack, recess and maybe standing in the corner.
After Sister Ernest had assessed the ready skills of each student, they were divided into groups: bluebirds, yellow birds and blackbirds. Whenever a student advanced from one level to another, Sister would “fly” them around the room. She would pick them up in a prone position and fly them to their new group. Flying around the room like Peter Pan was a great incentive to do well in reading.
Cynthia Wilkinson remembers that she was put in the blackbird group because she did not know how to read when she entered kindergarten.
“I waited and waited to be flown up to the bluebirds. It seemed the day would never come when Sister would pick me up and fly me around the room. I worked and worked, and then one day it happened. It was the highlight of my kindergarten year.”
Coloring might not seem like an important lesson, but Grace Patane Mansfield remembers it as being most instructive. “There I was at one of those long tables (we called desks) waiting for the midmorning snack (my favorite part of the 1/2 day). We had to complete one more coloring assignment before the snack. Thinking I could get to the first of the snack line if I finished quickly, I held up my completed work and admired it completely. Then, I looked at Barney Rapp. He was totally focused in his methodical and perfect style. Sr. Ernest put his picture on the ‘BEST’ bulletin board. I don’t know where she put mine. It did not measure up to Barney’s, and to my horror, we lined up by table for the snack. So my art was bad, and I didn’t get at the head of the snack line. That was a start to brilliant and great academics, Mr. Salutatorian!”
Barney was Salutatorian at Kirwin High School in 1966.
One of the main features of the class schedule was music. Sister could play and sing beautifully; her skills were really beyond the needs of a kindergarten class. Every day, you could hear the sounds of “The Music Goes Round and Round,” “Three Little Fishes” and other childhood songs floating out of the large windows to passers-by.
In order to get the students to settle down and perhaps take a nap, Sister established a prize for the student with the reddest mark on their cheek (showing that they had indeed napped). Susan Hieronymous Rains remembers: “One thing really sticks in my head. We had to lay our heads down on the table for a nap and the person that got the reddest cheek got a holy card. Jendell Combs won because she colored her cheek with red crayon. Although the good sister knew what she did, I think she appreciated the ingenuity … so did I, as a matter of fact.”
Ironically, Jendell had red hair and fair skin so the crayon wasn’t really necessary.
Grace Patane Mansfield recalls: “I never got the ‘best’ rested red mark on my cheek that would get me the daily lollipop. I definitely think olive-skinned kindergartners were at a disadvantage in the best red cheek mark contest.”
The cafeteria was down the hall from the kindergarten classroom. Each day at break, the students went there for their milk or chocolate milk and snack. Some children had an account while others paid their nickel or dime for their treats.
Gayle Byrd Lacerda was fortunate in that her grandmother, Mrs. N.L. Henry, worked there. Gayle remembers one incident when this may not have been such a blessing.
“We would be given new crayons when ours got too short. I just LOVED new crayons and proceeded to break a couple of mine so I could get them replaced. Much to my dismay, Sr. Ernest caught me and quickly called me on it. Then she called my grandmother into the classroom from the cafeteria and told her. I was so embarrassed!”
Sister Ernest had only one assistant in managing her class, and eighth grade student at Sacred Heart, Edna Patane Grillo, would come to the kindergarten to help with the children.
When asked what it was like to take care of 60 children in one class, she responded: “You were no trouble at all.”
This may be true, but the first thing that most of the class of 1953 recall about those days is getting into trouble.
Cathy Atkins Pugh blames her encounter with kindergarten discipline on Frank Fabj (Father Frank Fabj, former pastor of Sacred Heart Church). She recalls getting sent to the corner the first day of kindergarten.
“Frank brought a ballpoint pen to school that day. I was sitting next to him, and he kept clicking that pen on and off, on and off. I guess I had never seen a ballpoint pen before, so I asked him if I could hold it. He gladly handed it to me, and just about the time I started clicking it, Sister Ernest grabbed me up and stood me in the corner of the room with my face to the wall. I promise you she left me there for over an hour! I cried the entire time! It’s a wonder I wasn’t scarred for life!”
Some of the other students found mischief outside of the classroom. Susan Gould Salisbury remembers it this way.
“I remember Kinder because Pat Fant (who later owned the 101, KLOL radio station) kissed me on the cheek behind the kinder building. I told my mom (and of course that was a stupid move because she talked to Pat’s mom.) Sister Ernest told Mom she’d keep an eye on me ... so I suppose that was the end of my ever having a chance to be the ‘Scarlet Woman’ of our class.”
The class of 1953-1954 would remain close over the ensuing decades. Most of the group went on to make First Communion and Confirmation together.
In 1962 they graduated from seventh grade, and the boys and the girls were separated. Many of them attended high school together at Kirwin, Dominican and Ursuline; some gravitated to the same colleges.
Shortly after high school graduation, a stalwart group of Galvestonians formed an ad hoc reunion committee that ensured gatherings every five to 10 years. Even before the advent of email and cellphones, the majority of the class of 1953 remained close in spirit if not in proximity.
Since their children have left home or they have retired, they have found time to gather for “any excuse.”
The girls gather for periodic luncheons, and the boys go to the ballgame. Most every Christmas now, the class of 1953 which became the class of 1966, has dinner together somewhere on the Island.
Over the years we have lost an inordinate number of our classmates, many dying very young, but we remember and cherish them: Jendell Combs, Dickey Coffey, Albert Ibanez, Pat O’Hara (a Vietnam casualty), Gary Negrini, Skippy Padia, Lawrence Nieves, Richard Pierson, Herbie Seale and Jerry Marza.
Cynthia Wilkinson is the daughter of the late Frances Wilkinson, who had Wilkinson’s Grocery.
The class of 1953 will gather once again in Galveston to celebrate 60 years of friendship on Oct. 25-27. The activities include a golf outing, dinner, Mass, and, of course, a trip to the Pleasure Pier.