Back to the old (school)house after nearly 70 years

The first time I walked into the attic at Maryland Avenue Montessori School, I was wowed by the amount of graffiti. Rendered in pencil, pen, chalk, carved into the wood, painted, there were names dating back to when this part of the school was built — 1893.

I’ve been in many school attics since and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in town.

Though Jack Pettey’s name isn’t the biggest, for some reason it — and the date, 1946 — jumps out at you. When I snapped some photographs, Pettey’s distinctive scrawl naturally made it into the frame and his name was etched in my memory.

Last June, while helping to clean out an office at the school to accommodate staff changes — I’m chair of the school’s governance council — I came upon a couple class photos that appeared to date from the ‘40s. I slipped one out of the frame and there it was, staring back at me among the list of names of the students pictured on the reverse: Jack Pettey.

I flipped it over and sitting in the front row, arms crossed, was smiling Jack Pettey, right in front of the teacher, Mr. Todd. I pictured Jack sneaking up into the attic, a smooth stick of chalk clutched in his hand.

The interval between the moment I typed Pettey’s name into Google and when I received a response from his daughter on Facebook was amazingly brief.

Yes, Priscilla was Jack’s daughter. Yes, that’s clearly her dad’s handwriting. Yes, Jack’s still in the area, living in West Bend. Yes, he’d love to come see his alma mater.

Last week, I met Jack and Priscilla at the entrance to the school he attended for almost all his K-8 years (there were a couple years at Holy Rosary mixed in there). Yes, the place looked the same and yet different.

After leaving Maryland Avenue, Pettey went to Riverside High and then joined the Marines. Returning home, he studied chemistry at UW and briefly worked at St. Mary’s Hospital across the street from Maryland Avenue School, but he’d never been back inside since the day he finished eighth grade, nearly 70 years ago.

Jack couldn’t remember in which classroom the photo was taken — I’m sticking with 24 — nor could he recall writing his name upstairs, though it all started to come back as we walked into the spacious Maryland attic.

He marveled at all the other names up there and he smiled and pointed to his name as I photographed him standing where he stood 68 years ago when he wrote the inscription that remains so vivid that it looks as if it could’ve been chalked last week.

On the way back down we peeked into the library and Jack quickly remembered it as his kindergarten classroom. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was conjuring in his mind a picture of how the room looked more than 75 years ago. And I’d venture that he was feeling at least a little emotional.

Maryland Avenue has been open since 1887 — and there were two schoolhouses before it on the site, dating back to 1866 — making it one of the longest-running uninterrupted school sites in the city.

It has been a major part of the lives of countless thousands of Milwaukee children like Jack Pettey. As Jack and Priscilla departed, I was surrounded by some of the kids who attend the school now and I wondered which of them will be back 70 years from now to see how their school has rolled with the times.

Today, I joined a group of current Maryland Avenue students on a visit to the MPS Facilities and Maintenance building where they got a peek into the archives with MPS’ Manager of Design and Construction John Linn, who showed them the original drawings for the school and answered their many questions about blueprints, the design and history of their school, how schools are planned and designed and more.

One asked copious questions because she wants to design a school herself. Another asked about the draughtsman’s skills and job. They oohed and aahed over photographs tracing the construction of the school’s gym and cafeteria in 1951-52.

Linn printed copies of the school’s site plan for the students, who will use them in a series of projects they’re working on in their classrooms.

I only wish I’d thought to invite Jack Pettey to come along to see the kids that are following in his footsteps.

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