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Issue 652

08/08/2013 at 2:26pm

Beach Elementary 1948Beach Elementary Turns 65

When island native Jo Hughes entered first grade at Beach Elementary School, the year was 1937 and the school was actually a rented beach house where Miss Lois Alexander taught 23 kids in grades 1-3 in the living room of the Mayhew Page Cottage that was located right on the Gulf a block south of Chapel by the Sea. 76 years and several generations later, 140 beach kids started school this week at the current building on School Street that is celebrating it's 65th anniversary this year. In honor of that prestigious achievement and to herald the start of another year at our beloved island school, the Sand Paper interviewed three of the many proud Beach School alumni to offer our readers a unique perspective on school life over the last 65 years.

Jo (Canady) Hughes, 1937-1942

"I mainly remember how much fun we had,” Jo began, eyes sparkling as she went back in time. "We played so many games but we learned a lot, too. Mina Geddes had a store that was cut out like one of those old dollhouses. There were tiny sacks of groceries, a cash register and money - that's how we learned math. We also had real Halloween parties.”

Hughes told us that the school's 'cafeteria' was actually an enlarged shed out back where picnic tables were placed.

"We would bring our own lunch, though sometimes they had milk for us,” she said. "On cold days, the mothers would bring us soup. I remember her spaghetti was always a big hit. In the classroom, there was a cloakroom where we kept our coats and if anyone was bad, they got sent there. We had a cast iron stove, too.”

Hughes told us that after one year at the rented cottage, the students moved to a new building on Sterling Avenue, built on donated land with money raised by the parents. Now kids in grades first through sixth could attend the beach school.

"In 1942, my friend A.J. Bassett's mother - Mildred - became our principal,” Jo told us. "She'd gone to college at Bryn Mawr, and she taught us older kids about 'May Days'. It was so much fun making baskets out of woven strips of construction paper, which we filled with periwinkles. Then we'd leave the baskets on the front steps of the nice houses in McPhie Park (located between Sterling and Flamingo Streets). The beach wasn't crowded then, and there was no traffic. It was wonderful.”

Ted Reckwerdt, 1949-1950

In 1948, the building where Beach Elementary is located now was built, and the little schoolhouse on Sterling was given to the Beach Improvement Association for use as a community hall.

"My brother and I both went to Beach Elementary, and the biggest thing I remember is that every morning - rain or shine - the entire student body stood outside and pledged allegiance to the flag,” Ted told us. "Mrs. Dennis taught 5th and 6th grade then - she lived on the corner of Jefferson Street - and Estero Boulevard ended at Flamingo. After that, you had to go out to the beach to make it further south.”

Reckwerdt said that the school's back field had no fences then, and pretty much ended where the pavilion is now.

"We were always being told to watch out for poison ivy when we played out there,” he said. "We had a cafeteria and a little band, but I didn't play anything. When I got out of 6th grade, we had to take a bus all the way to Fort Myers High School because there was no middle school. We had to go to school with 12th graders! That was rough.”

Cathy Goodacre-Lee, 1956-1961

Cathy Goodacre-Lee is the one of the Beach Elementary alum lucky enough to return - she currently teaches kindergarten at her beloved school.

"When I first started here, there was one class for each grade, 1-6, and the class sizes were much larger,” she told us. "There were more kids here, then, too - about 220 - but we only had the main building, two classrooms and the cafeteria was half the size it is now. We had a big auditorium which is where the media center is now, and it served as community center for the whole town - that’s where I got my polio vaccine. There was no air conditioning and no breakfast, though we did have lunch.”

Goodacre-Lee told us that the lunches were all cooked from scratch then.

"They were so good!” she said. "I remember my favorite was chicken with yellow rice and the fresh-baked cookies - yum.”

Kathy also remembers that the amount of kids at the school fluctuated with the seasons.

"There were a lot of shrimpers and fisherfolk living on the island, then, and their kids would always go to Texas in May when the fleet left,” she said. "There were also kids that came from up north with the seasonal families in winter. One year there were so many that they had to hold classes in the Methodist Church across the street - which was much smaller then.”

While Bay Oaks Recreational Campus was still nearly two decades in the future, beach kids did play Little League, Kathy told us.

"Soccer wasn’t even heard of then, and there were no official teams for girls, but the boys played baseball in the dirt field next door,” she said. "We also had a school bus, which was driven by Mrs. Anderson. The bus ran three runs - north to Pink Shell and then to the south end. If you were on the 3rd bus, you just played outside until she got back. The bus picked up kids all the way from Iona then, too - but no black kids, as we were a segregated school until 1968. The black kids had to go across town to Franklin Park Elementary as Heights wasn’t built yet.”

What Kathy remembers most is the sense of community she felt at Beach Elementary - a feeling she says remains to this day.

"Growing up here - it was the best place in the world,” she said, tearing up at the memory. "When I got done with 6th grade, I hated leaving here. This school is still so community-oriented because - since we are on a barrier island - we don’t participate in School Choice, meaning that all the kids who go here either live on the island or have parents who work here. Seven years ago, I was lucky enough to come back.”

"They say you can’t go home again...but I did.”

Principal Larry Wood has been at the helm of Beach Elementary for the past eight years. Much like Goodacre-Lee, his passion for his students and his school burns in his eyes as he speaks of how proud he is of our little community.

"We are going to hold a celebration on November 17th, and we want to get the whole island involved,” he said. "People always come back here - it seems like everyone has some kind of connection with this school. We are doing great and every year we get better. Six years ago we got our beautiful new stage, and we now have ‘Smart boards’ in every classroom. Our building supervisor, Michael Cribs, has done a wonderful job taking care of everything that we don’t even need any major renovations - astonishing in a building that’s so old.”

"We are in great shape and we look forward to everyone celebrating with us!”

Keri Hendry Weeg