What the Maple Avenue School means to its graduates

Chester. The fate of the 1935 school hangs in the balance, with voters going to the polls on Feb. 25 to decide whether the school district should borrow $7.9 million to replace the building with sports fields and a new fieldhouse. Graduates look back fondly at their days at the old school, recalling the kindness of the teachers and staff, the beauty of the building, and how attending class there made them feel "all grown up."

| 14 Feb 2020 | 01:10

A high school building is more than just bricks, stone, and glass. It embodies the hopes of a community and the spirit of all the students who have ever walked its halls -- their triumphs and tears, their aspirations and fears, and the strong bonds of friendship forged in youth.

Debby Vadala-Adams, president of the Chester Historical Society, was a member of Chester's Class of 1974. At the time of her attendance, there wasn’t enough room at the Maple Avenue School for all the grades. The school rented space in various church halls and the American Legion Building, which stood on the site of the original Chester Academy (now occupied by CVS at the corner of 17M and Carpenter Avenue). She attended kindergarten in the American Legion Building, first grade in the Presbyterian Church Hall, and second grade in the Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church. In third grade she finally went to the Maple Avenue School. This arrangement continued for about five to six years.

Vadala-Adams’ most endearing memory is of the custodian, Mr. Prosper Vallet (father of the late Rudy G. Vallet, a longtime science teacher in Chester).

“He was just such a wonderful man, the nicest man," Vadala-Adams said. "Every year on the last school day before Christmas vacation, he would dress as Santa and deliver candies and coloring books for all the kids. You would be in fifth or sixth grade before you realized, ‘Hey that was the custodian!’ He was very caring. I will never forget.”

All the kids walked to school.

“And when you finally got to the third grade, you felt like you were one of the big kids," Vadala-Adams said.

Just inside the main entrance of the Maple Avenue School, on the right-hand side, was a little room, more like an alcove, which was the nurse’s office, she recalls. Directly to the left was the auditorium with its stage. Vadala-Adams remembers the high school drama club putting on plays every year.

“All the other rooms were classrooms, and you brought lunch and ate it in your classroom," she said. "After the new addition was added, they made a lunchroom. They bought folding tables with stools attached, and they put them in the auditorium.”

Vadala-Adams said she’s not partial to the 1968 addition, but thinks the original 1935 building should be saved.

“The Alumni Association found out in June that they were tearing the building down, and they had a walk-through of the building," she said.

The district put out 20 to 30 chairs for the visitors and had to get more chairs because of the numbers present.

'A beautiful school'

Marion Lupinski Cavallaro was the historian of the Chester Alumni Association for 30 years. She attended St. Columba’s elementary school and entered Maple Avenue in the ninth grade, graduating in 1954.

“I was afraid when I went to Maple Avenue,” she said.

In Catholic school, students stood up when answering a question.

“When I went to ninth grade, and the teacher called on me, I stood up and the kids laughed at me," Cavallaro said. "I wanted to quit school.”

But she came to love it.

“It was a beautiful school compared to St. Columba with its brown wooden floors," she said. The Maple Avenue School had terrazzo floors, the same kind she saw on a visit to the Hoover Dam.

"And now they want to knock it down," she said. "I’m not in favor of knocking it down. I don’t think they should make any more athletic fields. How many of these fields do we need? How many Derek Jeters did we get out of Chester? I wish I had some ideas what to do with the building. It’s all about restoring it."

Cavallaro's daughter, who lives in North Carolina, told her they turn unused buildings into businesses there. "But it takes money," she said.

Cavallaro remembers her prom, which was held in the gym. It was not an elegant restaurant but beautiful nonetheless.

“And students decorated the whole gym," she said. It looked like a lovely ballroom, hung with crepe paper to lower the ceiling.

"The boys cut down branches from white birches and fenced off the seating area with little archways onto the dance floor. It was three dollars a couple. We didn’t have a dinner. The girls would bring in crackers and cheese.”

'So grown up'

Lorraine Potter Hom entered fifth grade when the Maple Avenue School opened in 1937. Before that, she attended the Oakland Avenue School.

“It’s been so many years,” Hom said. “Charlotte Carmen was our teacher. I went there in the fifth grade and got scarlet fever. My friend Wanda Bliven, who lived in Sugar Loaf, also got it. We were quarantined for one month — at home in bed. All our toys had to be destroyed, unless they could be washed and boiled."

She said the Maple Avenue School "was so beautiful, all new and shiny, and we all felt so grown up going into a new school. There was no cafeteria -- I always took my lunch. We used to wrap our sandwiches in waxed paper bread wrappers and use again them again the next day. It was during the Depression.”

Tracee Strout, Class of 1998, said, “Growing up with a small school helped me become the person I am today."

She was part of the softball team that went to state finals.

"I can still picture all the students in the hallways with the lockers and the teachers coming out to talk to us between classes," Stout said. "The teachers knew everybody, whether they had you in class or not. They put our well-being first. I remember spending time in the gym. The auditorium brings back the best memories because of the concerts and plays, and I remember sitting on the wooden pull-out bleachers. That was my school."