Maple School, Mr. Howard, Kemp’s — and the bully


A postcard showing Maple School in its earlier days.

WNLP editor’s note: We’re delighted to present here the second of La Porte native Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall’s memoirs of growing up in La Porte. On Jan. 5, WNLP posted the first of her remembrances,  focusing on her childhood in the Niles Street area. WNLP readers’ many responses added more sweet stories and details to her story. Arlene grew up in La Porte and now lives in Del Mar, Calif. She graduated from La Porte High School in 1949 and earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana universities, and also studied in various European countries. Look forward to her third memoir soon on WNLP. To read her first memoir, click on this link:  Native La Portean writes of her childhood “on Niles Street in the early 1930s” | What’s New LaPorte?

Now, here is her second:

By Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

In the 1930s, Maple School was an aged, two-story brick box landscaped from its foundation to the sidewalk in gravel. If any architect was involved in its construction, I am sure it was merely to make sure it was on firm ground, not to aesthetically enhance it in any way. 

Arlene (Ahlgrim) Lighthall

This facility occupied all of an extremely small block at the edge of a middle-class residential neighborhood. Perhaps somewhere not far off were homes of a few poor people, but they must have  been on the other side of Lincoln Way, a major east-west national highway that might have taken drivers from California to New York. But for me it was east to South Bend or west to Gary. 

The  school was only a block from Lincoln Way to the north, and all my  school friends lived south and west. In fact, just a bit more than a  block east, the country began – that is, undeveloped land behind a  single row of houses on the east side of Lawrence Street.

Zoning ordinances obviously didn’t exist in our town of fewer than  30,000 people, and that was OK. We liked the convenience of  neighborhood stores. Just a block from Maple School was the Scott  Street store, where we could stop and shop for penny candy  cigarettes after school. If I could wait, my homeward walk could  have been down Rumely Street to the little store just before I  turned onto Niles, my street. 

I could take either street to get home, but never would set foot on one certain block between the two, for that meant passing the house of a bully who was in my class but never appeared in class pictures. Somehow he sprinted the block home before any of us got near his place, which was in the middle of three houses in another small block. From his front sidewalk he terrorized from one street to the other and in between. I can still see him now: much taller and older than  classmates because he had been held back to repeat grades he didn’t pass. A large clump of dishwater blond hair always nearly hid one eye. At some point in those six years of elementary school, he disappeared. 

Kindergarten was in the basement of Maple School, and the first and second floors of the school building each had three classrooms and an office, one for the part-time nurse and one for the principal, Mr. Howard, a bachelor, who taught sixth grade. His job included ringing a loud handbell to summon us to line up outside double doors before  school and after recess. I used to stay after school to talk with him  when he was my teacher. Grades 4 to 6 home rooms were upstairs, perhaps because we could climb faster than the younger kids. I say “home room” because we never left that room. 

Each grade teacher taught all subjects except for our weekly instructions in art, music and physical education, when an outside  person came to our room. When Mrs. Vawter – a short woman with white hair swept in a loose bun – visited, we sang. Worn green books were passed out for us to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “This is My Country,” “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” etc. Those songs gave a sense of belonging to this country. When our family had road trips, sometimes we sang them in the car, for even my parents knew the words. American folk songs – a sadly missing part of contemporary curricula. But nowadays many of our school communities are composed of students from a myriad of countries and ethnic backgrounds, so the old songs could be fairly  meaningless. Anyway, I didn’t like the singing class. 

Mrs. Vaughan, the teacher for watercolor painting, had a large bone structure. Her pale, reddish gray hair framed a wrinkled Scandinavian face with a prominent jaw. She definitely was much taller than either Mrs. Vawter or Mrs. Lutmann, a short, stocky woman with straight, gray hair who made us do exercises. No one organized games for us at recess, but we had to be active and took turns on the swings. I must have been an awkward child in whatever I did because my knees were constantly in bandages from gravel cuts. 

Periodically, Mrs. Lutmann brought in a scale to weigh each of us, an opportunity to whisper amongst ourselves while waiting our turn. But the room became dead silent when it was Marie’s turn to be weighed. She was the tallest and heaviest child. We listened intently to hear Mrs. Lutmann call out Marie’s pounds to our regular teacher for recording. I didn’t especially like any of these three enrichments. 

What I did like was whispering, because the conduct sections of my report cards were always checked “whispers too much.” And I was punished for that vice, often being kept after school to write 100 times in my Goldenrod tablet, “I will not whisper so much.” The teacher was always busy with her own after-school work and didn’t supervise my penance, so I developed the skill of grasping in my hand three pencils to align with the lines on the paper, thus writing only 34 promises. 

Our parents could buy the Goldenrod tablets for us at any little  neighborhood groceries-sundries store, often just the converted  front room of a house. Of course, we were thrifty and wrote on both sides of the paper. In pencil. Ballpoint pens had not yet been invented, so for handwriting we used pen points and pen holders and little jars of ink that fitted into a hole in the front of our desks. Boys liked to dip the ends of girls’ pigtails into the pots. One of those boys also used to punch a hole into the palm of his hand with the pointed end of his dividers, an obligatory school tool, as was a ruler.

Another school expense, much greater than tablets, was textbooks, new or used. Only Kemp’s store on Lincoln Way sold them. I believe they gave away protective covers to keep the books in pristine condition so they could be returned and repurchased by Kemp’s. I don’t know what the punishment would have been if a book at the end of the year had evidenced greasy fingerprints, exposure to rain, or having been dropped in a  sidewalk puddle. We guarded them like royal jewels. And we didn’t own backpacks to cart our supplies to and from school. We kept them in our school desks, never harboring the slightest thought of theft. 

I assume the school was locked whenever classes were not in session. Who would want to go back inside once we got out? The 12 and 1 o’clock factory whistles framed the lunch hour. We could recognize their several sources. Everyone ran home to eat. The second midday whistle instilled in us fear of being late for afternoon classes. Luckily they were not coordinated, and each blast lasted about a minute, giving us time for a final sprint. 

8 Responses to “Maple School, Mr. Howard, Kemp’s — and the bully”

  1. Lloyd C Cooper

    Jan 18. 2021

    Went there in the early 40’s.Lived on the north side of Lincoln Way and remember being a ‘Patrol Boy’ allowing the younger kids to cross Lincoln Way safely, Mr. Howard had a stern look but was well respected. This article well reflects those simpler times..

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  2. Jerry Gray

    Jan 18. 2021

    “Perhaps somewhere not far off were homes of a few poor people, but they must have been on the other side of Lincoln Way.” It’s true, at least in my day. We were not allowed to walk to school along Factory Street. New York Blower, Whirlpool and Modine. We walked along Lincoln Way, instead, four lanes of busy traffic and railroad tracks. We’d hold our nose when we walked past “the foundry” and fathers who worked in there walked home with soot covered faces. There were low expectations for “east side” kids, literally the wrong side of the tracks.

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  3. Darlene Jesch

    Jan 18. 2021

    What an interesting story considering I lived on Lincolnway but did not attend Maple School because I went to Sacred Heart School. My sister, who was 4 years younger than me, did attend Maple School only for kindergarten. I believe her teacher’s name was Mrs. Nelson. I also remember Wayne Graffis as the principle there for some years. Thanks, for the memories.

    Reply to this comment
  4. Rick Slater

    Jan 18. 2021

    Does anyone remember if Maple had a gymnasium. I think I recall playing basketball there in early 1960’s but don’t know for sure.

    Reply to this comment
    • Lynda Schultz Sardeson

      Jan 18. 2021

      A gymnasium was added to the East side of the building in the 50’s. I remember getting my Polio shot in the gym. Mrs Nelson was the Kindergarten teacher and we also met in the basement as Mrs Lighthall discribed.A new kindergarten was built on the West side of the building after the gym. Miss Wilson was the 3rd grade teacher, Miss Knight was the 4th or 5th grade teacher and Mr Graffis was the 6th grade teacher. MrFrank McCullough was the principal. .My grandfather owned the Scott Street St (Schultz’s Grocery) in the 1920-30’s a block to the West of Maple School. Thanks for bringing back memories.

      Reply to this comment
    • Paul W Gliva

      Jan 19. 2021

      yes they have gym there.St.Peter school playing basketball there.

      Reply to this comment
      • Toni

        Jan 20. 2021

        I am intrigued, as you described everything about growing up in and going to school in Laporte during those time’s just exactly as my Dad would when I was a teenager. Though not born in Laporte, he moved there as the youngest of 5 when my Grandfather got a job at the KOP. My Dad at a fairly young age had a job setting pins at the bowling alley and his reward was a bag of peanuts and a coke and he would give the rest of his money earned to my Grandmother. His brother who was the oldest went off to war and even though my Dad was the youngest of 5 it was his responsibility to help earn money rather than his older sister’s. He also talked alot about what it was like being in a ‘gang’ in the 50’s called The Kool Kats. Not much of a gang name in these time’s but I have alot of pictures of him in his black leather coat, hair slicked back and a cigarette behind the ear just exactly like the movie Grease! Thank you for writing this as it made me miss my Dad a little less today.

        Reply to this comment
  5. Bob Caddy

    Jan 19. 2021

    I certainly remember Maple School, Mrs. Nelson, Miss Miller and
    Mrs. Schaeffer and Mr. Howard. Walking to school and home for
    lunch and frequently stopping at the “Coke Plant” and watch
    the 5 cent cokes coming down the line. My brother Dick and I
    were often bothered by a bully until one day Dick had enough
    and took care of him right in front of his mother. No problems
    after that. These stories bring back memories – will be watching
    for the third one..

    Reply to this comment

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