A GROUP OF GRADUATES gathered for lunch in Montclair Park the other day. Like most classmates, they laughed and shared memories of their school years. But much time has passed since these kids were together. They were students at Montclair Grammar School (now Montclair Elementary School) during the 1930s and early 1940s.
My connection to this group came in a very strange way. I met one of these “youngsters,” quite by chance, in the northernmost part of Finnish Lapland last winter. There I was, in a cold, dark place near the Russian border — on a tour with a man who’d grown up in Montclair.
Dick Winterhalder has colorful memories of his childhood in the Oakland hills. He remembers how the train would rumble past Montclair Grammar School at least twice a day. “Everything stopped,” he recalled. “We’d all wave at the conductor and he’d wave back.”
Alma Rulofson remembers her acrobatics on the monkey bars.
“I would wrap my legs around the bars and twirl and go round and round and round,” she said.
Pat Blesse and her sister Barb used to climb over the fence for a moonlight swim at what was then Forest Pool on Thornhill Drive.
“We never got caught,” boasted Pat with a smile. Back then, the pond in Montclair Park was more of a swamp, Barb recalled, and their parents told them it was full of quick sand. But the girls still caught frogs on the bank, and in a rare snowstorm around 1935, their brother was one of the boys who tried ice skating on the frozen pond.
Beverly Byron remembers walking with her friends to the corner drugstore for sodas. She was a bit of a tomboy, changing into her jeans and her dad’s long white shirt after school to play touch football with the boys in the Montclair field.
The school, at the time, was a mixture of portables and an old red brick building. The brick schoolhouse was demolished because of earthquake fears. Don DeLong and classmates Don Sloan and Byron Schroeder remember the portables being heated with pot-bellied stoves, and each desk had an ink well.
“It was a great school with good teachers,” Schroeder said, “although some of them we didn’t like at the time.” One scary teacher had arms as big as tree trunks — or so he remembered.
But then everything seemed bigger when these grads were small. DeLong said the pond (lake) was bigger and so was the old firehouse. He and his buddies, including John Brodie, who later became a star quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and a Senior PGA Tour professional golfer, used to play ball on the old baseball diamond and had some rousing games of pingpong.
“Brodie was the champion of everything,” DeLong recalled.
As the group gathered for a photo, Pat Blesse broke into song. A rah-rah song about their great little school that she still recalled after all these years. Classmate Donna Oehm (a well-known activist in Marin) made a pitch for her classmates to join her in working toward peace.
“For your grandchildren” she urged. They smiled for the camera, again and again — posing for posterity.
As I stood there soaking up the sweet memories of a simpler time, I realized the things they did as kids in Montclair were not so different from what kids do today. Catching crawdads in the pond, swinging on the monkey bars and trying to hit baseballs over the fence. It’s what makes Montclair special to those of us blessed enough to spend time here. And with a little imagination, you can almost see the bright-eyed children waving at the train as it passes the old brick school.