State Street School

A crowd watches as State Street School is demolished to make way for the Gateway Connector.

For 14 years, the laughter and whispers of thousands of school children have echoed in the empty halls of State Street School.

Once a vital part of this East Side neighborhood, the building has stood at times forgotten since it was closed in 1993.

A few weeks ago, those voices were silenced as the school was torn down, one more step in the mass demolition that’s making way for the Gateway Connector road.

A crowd gathered across the street that day, sitting in the shade, watching as brick by brick a piece of Fairmont history disappeared. Some recorded the demise of the place where they’d learned to read and write. Others just watched from curiosity.

Tom Rise, who now lives just a couple of blocks away on Guffey Street, started first grade at State Street in 1967 and went on through the eighth. Then he and his family lived on Carter Street.

“My grandfather, Clarence Thomas, was janitor there. He used to take me there on weekends to tend the furnace, even before I started school.

“He lived on State Street and walked me to the school to help him.

“I was very fond of that school,” he said wistfully. “I still have all my report cards, believe it or not.”

Some teachers and principals he remembers very fondly.

“Mr. Staley was principal for my first and second grades. Everybody was scared to death of him, but he was a nice gentleman.

“Mrs. Bunner, my second-grade teacher, showed us how to make apple butter. We actually made apple butter.

“Miss Ball, who later became principal at Watson, was my third-grade teacher. She made us Christmas stockings with our names on them.”

And then there was Mr. Huffman, principal while Rise was in grades 4-8.

“He was more involved with the kids than the other principals. He would lead us in prayer at lunch in the lunchroom. At that time, you do could that (pray).

“And he actually played volleyball during recess. He’d do his victory dance. He was pretty good about that.”

Rise said his most memorable year was in seventh grade, when he received the Woodmen of the World award for history after having been recommended by his teacher, Rosemary Fantasia.

“I was very interested in American history at the time, and my grades were very good. I didn’t know about the award. They presented it to me in class. It was a shock and a surprise.”

He also changed history for the school at that time.

“We never had a West Virginia flag. So I wrote a nice note to Gov. Arch Moore and requested one. And he did ship one to me to present to the school. This was the first time we had a state flag.”

One of the school’s charms was the fact that it was a true neighborhood school, he said.

“Most of the kids walked to school. That was one of the big deals. We were all neighborhood kids, although a few kids were bused in from the Pleasant Valley area.

“And a lot of the teachers lived around the school. My mom went to the school in the 1930s, and so did my uncle and my sister. It was a family thing.”

State Street was also special because of its smallness.

“All the teachers knew who you were. Everyone knew your name. When you were in fifth grade, you had four teachers below you who knew you, still remembered you.

“I probably had more close friends there than at high school,” the 1980 East Fairmont High School graduate said.

“It was more fun there. We were closer. When you’re taken from a school where the classrooms have at the most 25 kids and the school from 200-250, and you’re thrown into a larger school where there are 30-35 in a class and more than 1,000 in the school, you get lost in the shuffle.”

State Street closed as a school in 1993.

“The board of education had a meeting about what to do with the building,” Rise said. “I was pushing to keep State Street open at least for grades 5-8 as a neighborhood school.

“They wanted to close Central and State Street schools. I wanted to keep them open for the kids’ sake. This was a great building, more sound than what is the junior high now.”

Over the years, thousands of school children and their parents have entered and exited the school. But how many noticed this little tidbit of trivia?

“In the name of the school in concrete, the ‘S’ in ‘School’ was backward,” he said. “Not too many people noticed. And this was since 1912.”

Watching his first school being torn down filled him with sadness, he said.

“What a waste. There go years of my childhood memory ... reduced to rubble. If I could turn back the hands of time ... . I had a very great time at the school.”

He realizes you can’t stop progress.

“I was hoping someone would purchase the school and do something with it. For a while, I thought they were talking about getting the health department over there. Get something in there rather than let it deteriorate like it was.

“But nothing ever did.”

In a way, the demolition was a mercy killing, he said.

“I would rather see it gone than what it looked like. It was a great school. I was hoping something would actually go in it.”

After the school had come down, Rise joined other spectators in picking through the rubble for mementos.

“One of the contractors said he didn’t understand why people were so interested in these bricks. I said, ‘This was our school.’

“We lived here. Our friends were there and we played there. It was a neighborhood school. It was the beginning for some people to go on to great things.

“It’s a shame that sometimes progress has to take place. I know there’s a reason, but they say the ends justify the means. They’re tearing down a whole neighborhood. It will never be the same.”

E-mail Debra

Minor Wilson at dwilson@timeswv.com.

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