Alumni return after 70 years

As the bell clanged outside the one-room San de Fuca school house Sunday afternoon, it almost seemed as if class were back in session — after a 70-year recess.

The school’s students were a bit older. The school had a new coat of paint. But beyond that, little had changed.

And those who attended the alumni reunion were glad of it.

“It looks very familiar,” said Beverly Williams Jaeger as she stood near the school’s front door, glancing through old photos and recognizing old faces.

Jaeger, now 83 and living in Marysville, was one of about 75 people who attended the reunion for families and friends. It drew close to 20 former students who went to school in San de Fuca throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Closed in 1933, the school once served the rural and decidedly Dutch segment of Whidbey Island, just north of Coupeville. Built high on a bluff overlooking sparkling Penn Cove, the school was a focal point in the community of San de Fuca. It wasn’t too hard to imagine students making their way from area farms to the tidy little school, with the two-story windows and the corner, wood-burning stove.

“In the winter we’d have hot cocoa,” remembered Jaeger, who, like other folks her age, walked several miles to school when she was a child.

Dressed in a bright red blazer, her gray curly hair in place, Jaeger said the early 1930s was a happy, if frugal, time for those who lived in San de Fuca during the Depression era.

“It was long before the Navy and there wasn’t a lot of people here. Everyone knew everyone pretty much,” she said.

After the school closed, San de Fuca students boarded buses bound for Coupeville Elementary School. The shift wasn’t too tough. Many were excited about getting to ride a bus, former students recalled.

Their older brothers and sisters were already bused to Coupeville High School because the old San de Fuca school stopped at sixth grade.

Fittingly, Coupeville Superintendent Bill Myhr was on hand at the weekend gathering, his pocket stuffed with school district pins to hand out to the crowd.

“This is part of the school system. If this school was still running my two girls would be here,” said Myhr, who lives just north of the school and is the father of a 10- and 12-year-old.

Hanging above the school’s old-fashioned chalkboard was a picture of George Washington. Sun streamed in through the high windows, washing over the handful of wooden desks and the long wooden floors. Daydreaming students would have been able to gaze at Penn Cove and the narrow curve of the island as it bends back around toward Coupeville.

Molly Van Dam, an Oak Harbor fourth-grader whose grandfather and uncle both attended the school, hunkered down at one of the desks with a book.

“It’s very, very small,” she said of the one-room school.

And being a modern nine-year-old she didn’t romanticize it much.

“Older people would have been learning some of the stuff the younger kids were supposed to learn,” she said.

But for the former students, the school brought back bright memories of childhood. Many recalled filling tin cups with a dipper of water from a bucket that sat near the school’s front door.

The school’s teacher stoked the wood-burning stove each morning. Recess was spent running around outside or playing on the swings.

Some recalled the whap of a ruler spanking an errant hand, but most declared it was never used on them.

“I was so good I don’t remember,” said Jack Van Dam, 78, of Oak Harbor with a hearty chuckle.

Friends and relatives snapped pictures in front of the blackboard and chatted and laughed with one another.

Sally Hayton-Keeva, who restored the old school with her husband, Joe Keeva, grew emotional at times.

“I’ll try to talk without crying,” she said, as she assembled the former students in front of the black board, which proclaimed in thin lines of chalk, “Welcome Back.”

Hayton-Keeva wanted the alumni of the school to get a first-hand look at the restoration the school has undergone since April.

She and her husband, a retired financial planner, managed to bring the old school back to its original condition through a faithful restoration project totaling $60,000.

The couple, who moved to Whidbey Island six years ago, are long-time land conservation advocates and are active in Whidbey Camano Land Trust. They live on Penn Cove in an historic home built in 1859 by a sea captain.

Although the school had sat empty for several years and had fallen prey to occasional vandalism, all the original wainscoting, floors, doors and windows remained.

“It’s very unusual that so much of the original fabric is here,” she said.

Hayton-Keeva thanks Marguerite Walker for that.

In 1962 the Coupeville woman bought the school and the surrounding property with its enviable views. Before that, the school had been used as a church by a Seventh-day Adventist congregation. After Walker bought the property, she rented the school over the years to a few hardy people. One woman, a writer, wrote her book there, Walker said. While living there, she painted the walls a Pepto-Bismol pink.

Although many would have liked to build houses on the bluff, Walker wasn’t interested in selling the property. She wanted to protect the old school and was happy when the Keevas bought it.

“Everything has been done very thoughtfully,” Walker said. “It makes me want to cry. It needed somebody to love it, although it’s been loved all the time.”

When some furnishings were missing, the Keevas scouted them out. The blackboard, for instance, came from a Bellingham area school.

The school’s bell, which clanged many times during the two-hour reunion, was loaned to the Keevas by Daughters of the Pioneers of Washington. Interestingly, it was Coupeville Elementary School’s old bell.

What happened to San de Fuca’s old bell is a story in itself. When the school closed some pranksters loaded it up on a Model-A Ford and leaned it against the door of a Coupeville drug store, Hayton-Keeva said. But it went missing soon after and has not surfaced in 70 years, although Hayton-Keeva said there are persistent rumors about its current whereabouts.

“I have a suspicion we won’t receive the bell back. Wherever it is,” she said.

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