Emerson School

By Barbara Dickensheets

“You can tear the building down – but some of us will remember what happened there. Emerson School Forever!”

–Dr. Phil Ball, a prevalent writer and resident of the Riverside Normal City neighborhood and former Emerson School student[1]

If an individual were to visit Emerson Dog Park today, they would be able to walk the patchy grass grounds, made as such by the energized activity of running, furry, four-legged friends. They could watch as people enjoy a crisp, fall day, playing fetch with their dog and supervising social interactions between their dogs and others. Large, tall, link fences separating two sections labeled “big dogs” and “little dogs” divide up the park. It can be difficult to imagine that a school ever sat here. Emerson Dog Park, Emerson Park before it, and Emerson School before that, have lived many social lives in the Riverside Normal City neighborhood. The Emerson School that no longer stands, and the land now used as a puppy playground, are just two examples of how spaces are given meanings by the people that use them and establish them as places. The school has transformed into a new kind of place and space today, though the large stone steps left over from the Emerson School serve as a standing reminder of the place that once was.

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Emerson School in 1981 before its demolition. (Photo courtesy of: Jeff Koenker, Lost Muncie, Facebook.com, posted: November 27, 2016.)

A set of stone steps, signs reading “Emerson” and “1923”, and a plaque in dedication to Emerson School is all that remains of the old establishment. Emerson School was built in 1922 and opened in 1923. Imagine a three-story tall, brick building surrounded by the cheers and joyous exclamations of children; inside filled with rooms upon rooms of desks, chalkboards, books, and more. And imagine as you enter, many friendly smiling faces of teachers greeting you to join them in the wonderment of learning. “Until 1939, Emerson housed grades K-8. When the McKinley Junior High School opened in 1939-40 school year, Emerson became K-6. A building addition of a gymnasium was made in 1953 and named after Bertha Covalt, who taught kindergarten for many years at Emerson.”[3] Emerson School was an energized center of learning for the Riverside Normal City neighborhood. The school resided in the Riverside Normal City neighborhood until it was demolished in the summer of 1981.

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“Shirley Wampler moves a box of books in her now-deserted classroom at Emerson Elementary.” (Photo taken by: Terry L. Clark, “Auld Lang Syne’ to Emerson School”,  Sunday’s Feature, The Muncie Star, 14 June 1981. Section D.)

Prior to 1981, some knew Emerson School would be closing and others were unaware until much more recently. There were many mixed emotions over the loss of Emerson School in the Riverside Normal City neighborhood. Mary Neff, a former Emerson School student and lifelong Munsonian stated, “I hated seeing it torn down, but it is what it is.”[4] Carol Smith, a fan of Dr. Phil Ball and RNC resident, agreed Emerson was a “great school and should have never been torn down.”[5]Many have wondered what prompted this school closed, and an article by The Muncie Star from June 14, 1981 can shed some light on the subject. According to the article the school was closing because “declining enrollments and the fact that capital improvement maintenance costs are deemed out of proportion to further utilization of the building.” In simpler terms, the school was becoming too expensive to keep up for the amount of money that was being lost from decreased enrollment rates.

Wampler, a former Emerson teacher, told the Muncie Star in 1981, “My whole life is in this building…. Seven years ago, I started having grandchildren (of persons who had attended Emerson) [former students] in my classroom’ she said, ‘In fact, I’ve taught seven of them.”[6] For many of the neighborhood residents, Emerson was a building that had been around in their childhood and had grown with them.

When the school year starts in the fall Emerson students will scatter to attend classes at West View, Washington-Carver or Anthony elementary schools. In addition, 77 students presently attending Washington-Carver Elementary School will be bused to Longfellow Elementary School to make room for Emerson students to attend Washington-Carver. Last month, about 280 Emerson students toured their new schools to prepare for the next school year. The 13 full-time Emerson teachers will receive new assignments when corporation vacancies occur, said Carl Cauble, Emerson Principal. In addition, he said all school materials will be tagged and principals at West View, Anthony, Washington-Carver, and Longfellow schools will have the opportunity to select items they want for their school buildings. Remaining items will probably be auctioned during a summer sale[7].

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“During the last day of classes on June 4, Mrs. Wampler gets a hug from Kim Dyer.” (Photo taken by: Terry L. Clark, “Auld Lang Syne’ to Emerson School”, Sunday’s Feature, The Muncie Star, 14 June 1981. Section D.)

The closing of Emerson School has been bitter for some, but others have tried to see a more positive outcome. Mary Neff said though she was sad the school is now gone “at least it’s not something sitting, deteriorating.”[8] Some residents were aware and upset by the later decision to turn the Emerson Park into a dog park, such as Dr. Phil Ball, a prominent community member and local writer. Paul Zedekar, whose father was Emerson School’s fondly remembered Principal “Mr. Zedekar” in the 50’s, mentioned in a research interview November 15th, “My dad was probably rolling over in his grave. The tearing down of the school accelerated his death. It was his baby for 40 years.”[9] But others believed it was a positive, welcome change to an “old building.”[10] Dave Wilson, who once lived in the RNC and went to Emerson School said, “I’m glad they’re doing something positive with the area.”[11] Through the mixed emotions and views of Emerson School’s demolition, Emerson Dog Park seems to have been received as a positive addition to the community.

Glen Sulanke, who grew up in the Riverside Normal City neighborhood and attended Emerson School, recalled a typical school year lasting from the middle of September until the middle of June, without air conditioning or lockers. The Emerson School was known to have a good reputation, as well as caring teachers and a variety of students. For Glen Sulanke, Emerson School was a good neighborhood school, with involved parents, several of which were employed by Ball State or other upper-middle class employers. Bruce Geelhoed, a current resident of the RNC, said Emerson Elementary was important to the neighborhood, not just because it brought people in because it was a good school, but also because it has a park that would bring the neighbors and other community members in.[13]

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“Emerson Kindergarten 1923-1924” One of the first classes of Emerson School kindergarteners gathers together for a photo. (Photograph courtesy of: Ball State University Archives and Special Collections, Digital Media Repository, found in Muncie and Delaware County Historic Photographs.)

Many of the people we interviewed had lived within walking distance of Emerson school. Mary Neff, who attended kindergarten in 1929 through sixth grade at Emerson School, recalled walking to school from her home on Bethel.[14] Glen Sulanke could remember being “only 4 blocks away” from his home near the former Kitselman Fellowship mansion, which at the time had become a part of Hazelwood church where Glen’s father was the pastor.[15] Carol Smith and Nancy Atkins, who attended Emerson School in 1950s, remembered there being a “Kiddyland” by the school where children would play, when Mr. Zedekar was principal.[16]

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Mrs. Heller’s 2nd grade class of 1954-55 takes a photo with  Emerson School’s Principal, Mr. Zedekar. Peggy (Stockton then), who provided the photo on Lost Muncie, can be seen pictured second from the left in the front row. (Photo courtesy of: Peggy Garner McClelland, Lost Muncie, Facebook.com, posted: October 15, 2015.)

James Zedekar, known as “Mr. Zedekar,” was the principal of Emerson School for several decades. In our research, we were fortunate enough to be able to meet Mr. Zedekar’s son, Paul. Paul grew up two blocks from Hazelwood, where we conducted our interview. The family moved from the country, nearby where his father was a teacher at a country school, to the city where his father would become the iconic and long-term Principal Zedekar of Emerson Elementary School. “A lot of people pronounced his name “Mr. Z” because they couldn’t pronounce Zedekar.”

 

Emerson has totally changed and not necessarily for the better, Paul said. It was a solid neighborhood, a desirable neighborhood with working, socially-advantaged white people. There were lawyers, bankers, CEOs, and professors. Emerson School was compared to Burris, second only to Burris. All of the student were Caucasian, all working parents – actually, working fathers as mama fixed you lunch.[17]

 

Dave Wilson, who grew up “catty corner” from Emerson School when he went in 1953-1960, could remember they would return home for lunches (which were an hour and a half long) because the school did not have a cafeteria. He also said children were not allowed back on the playground or school grounds until 30 minutes before school was back in session from lunch.

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Emerson School’s former playground a buzz with activity of children. (Photo courtesy of: Jeff Koenker, Photo by: Bill Jamieson circa 1962, Lost Muncie, Facebook.com, posted: July 3, 2016.)

Many of the people who went to Emerson School mentioned the good times they had making friends and playing in the school yard with friends. Glen Sulanke met most of his friends at Emerson where they would play cowboys together. Glen even went on to say his childhood was like “Charlie Brown times.”[18] Dave Wilson and his friends enjoyed playing basketball, football, baseball, and kickball in the Emerson school yard. Dave said he felt “very safe, at 10, we could ride our bikes anywhere!”[19] Some former students mentioned having to wear a uniform, and others had not, showing the wide range of policies that changed over the years.

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brewer1-2 Top Left Photo: The Emerson School yard is transformed with rows of tables to seat the hungry ice cream social attendants. Top Right Photo: More food is being set up near the merry-go-round outside Emerson School. Middle Photo: Trays of cakes and pies are set up in the basement of Emerson School to be sold. Bottom Photo: Children and parents enjoying the activities and treats at the Emerson Ice Cream Social in July of 1973. (Photos courtesy of: Ted and Shirley Brewer, Interviewed October 29, 2016. Photos from: July 1973.)

One thing, however remained the same, the Emerson School Ice Cream Social. Dave Wilson called it “the single greatest event in the area every year.”[20] The Emerson Ice Cream Social was recalled by some as the largest single social gathering in all of Delaware County. Carol Smith mentioned the ice cream socials were a “Muncie thing” everyone would go to.[21] Parents would make cakes and pies for the social and, of course, ice cream! Mothers of the Emerson students, like Nancy Elliot, who raised her family in the neighborhood in the 60s, baked pies and cakes to sell.[22] Children sold tickets for the event for 10 cents apiece, according to Ted and Shirley Brewer. Ted and Shirley Brewer are longtime residents of the Riverside Normal City neighborhood, having raised their children here, all of which attended Emerson School. During their son’s last year at Emerson he won an award for selling the most tickets to the social. The child who sold the most tickets won a prize, but there would be other games the children could enjoy as well. Ted Brewer had been in charge of planning an ice cream social one year. He said they had good help with the socials, setting up tables and other work in the basement of Emerson School, where the socials took place.[23]

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Ticket from Emerson School’s last “Ice Cream Social” event. (Photo Courtesy of: Ted and Shirley Brewer, Interviewed October 29, 2016.)

Ted remembered this started because one year they were setting up outside in “beautiful” weather and then the minute the social started to begin it began “pouring down rain.” Laughing, Ted describes everyone “scrambling” to take items inside to continue the event.[24] Nancy Atkins remembered some kids being in charge of wearing sashes to stop traffic for other students to walk home from socials. Dave Wilson thought of Emerson school as being like the “neighborhood association back then because of the active P.T.A. and ice cream socials.”[25] While parents like Nancy Elliot sold pies and cakes, she mentioned Emerson School parents were also involved in other ways. Nancy had been a Cub Scout Den mother and her daughter participated in Brownies and Girl Scouts. Nancy and some other mothers of Emerson School would play volleyball one night a week at the school, “We were hoping they would keep the gym.”[26]

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“Kindergarten-Jane-M.L.” Mary did not explain the caption written here, but this photo is from Mary Neff’s kindergarten class trip to the Firehouse. Mary is pictured seated upon the front wheel of the fire truck. (Photo courtesy of: Mary Neff, Interviewed November 15, 2016.)

Emerson held other events in the basement as well. David Kepler remembered movie night events in the basement where he had his first kiss with Carol Smith.[27] Mary Neff showed us a photo from her kindergarten class field trip to the firehouse, and the whole class is posing with the firetruck as Mary sits on the front wheel.[28] She told us how exciting it was to watch them use the fireman pole to come downstairs. Ted Brewer said, “Nearly every house had kids then.”[29] Dave Wilson described the neighborhood as being a place where all the people had lots of kids who went to the same school the neighborhood formed a “bond” during his childhood in the 50s and 60s.[30]

In our research of Emerson School we noticed some gaps during our timeline. While we have data from at least 6 former students, 3 parents of students, and 2 children of Emerson School staff through interviews we conducted at Hazelwood Church, we are still missing much information from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 70s and 80s regarding Emerson School’s history. Emerson had been a school institution in the neighborhood for nearly 60 years, and while we have been able to compile much information about the 50s and 60s, and even some information about the early establishment of the school in the 20s; the time frames of the 1920s-40s and 1970s-80s is still unclear. Future research groups and investigators should pay special attention to these areas left unaddressed in this version of Emerson School’s history. The Emerson School was a place and space which many of the people we interviewed regarded as something special to them. The place which once stood is gone, and the space that remains is not exactly as it was. The new space is a place where neighbors, or outside community members, come to Riverside Normal City neighborhood to allow their pets a little freedom from the house. You can see people gathered on these stone steps and signs, talking with one another, about each other, about their dogs, and about things they enjoy. You can hear laughter and mumbles of conversation, along with excited barking as you can watch a pack of dogs run along the park fences. Emerson School, a place where children once all gathered together to learn, play and eat ice cream, is now transformed into a new space-place for people and their furry friends to gather and enjoy the company of others.


Notes

[1] n.d. “Dr. W. Phillip Ball papers.” Archives and Special Collections. Ball State University Libraries.

[2] Neff, Mary, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (November 15).

[3] Mason, LuAnn. 1981. “Auld Lang Syne’ to Emerson School.” The Muncie Star, Sunday’s Feature. Muncie, June 14. section D.

[4] Neff, Mary, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (November 15).

[5] Atkins, Nancy, David Kepler, and Carol Smith, interview by Abby Clark and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[6] Mason, LuAnn. 1981. “Auld Lang Syne’ to Emerson School.” The Muncie Star, Sunday’s Feature. Muncie, June 14. section D.

[7] Mason, LuAnn. 1981. “Auld Lang Syne’ to Emerson School.” The Muncie Star, Sunday’s Feature. Muncie, June 14. section D.

[8] Neff, Mary, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (November 15).

[9] Zedekar, Paul, interview by Chelce Carter, Jen Erickson and Alexis Smith. 2016. (November 15).

[10] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

[11] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

[13] Geelhoed, Bruce, interview by Mia Nickelson. 2016. (October 24).

[14] Neff, Mary, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (November 15).

[15] Sulanke, Glen, interview by Jen Erickson, Babs Dickensheets, Kathryn Powell and Leslie Thomas Jr. 2016. (October 19).

[16] Atkins, Nancy, David Kepler, and Carol Smith, interview by Abby Clark and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[17] Zedekar, Paul, interview by Chelce Carter, Jen Erickson and Alexis Smith. 2016. (November 15).

[18] Sulanke, Glen, interview by Jen Erickson, Babs Dickensheets, Kathryn Powell and Leslie Thomas Jr. 2016. (October 19).

[19] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

[20] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

[21] Atkins, Nancy, David Kepler, and Carol Smith, interview by Abby Clark and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[22] Elliot, Nancy, interview by Chelce Carter, Jen Erickson and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[23] Brewer, Shirley and Ted, interview by Chelce Carter, Babs Dickensheets, Savannah Myers and Kathryn Powell. 2016. (October 29).

[24] Brewer, Shirley and Ted, interview by Chelce Carter, Babs Dickensheets, Savannah Myers and Kathryn Powell. 2016. (October 29).

[25] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

[26] Elliot, Nancy, interview by Chelce Carter, Jen Erickson and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[27] Atkins, Nancy, David Kepler, and Carol Smith, interview by Abby Clark and Alexis Smith. 2016. (October 29).

[28] Neff, Mary, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (November 15).

[29] Brewer, Shirley and Ted, interview by Chelce Carter, Babs Dickensheets, Savannah Myers and Kathryn Powell. 2016. (October 29).

[30] Wilson, Dave, interview by Babs Dickensheets. 2016. (October 29).

Header image of Emerson School, 1962 courtesy Kevin Bair, Emerson Elementary School in Muncie, IN, originally found by Kevin on Lost Muncie n.d., Facebook.com, posted: November 11, 2009.