East Marion grads to gather at reunion

One of East Marion School’s classes poses with longtime principal George Morton (center), the man who alumni remember as strict but fair.

When most North Fork residents think about a two-classroom little red schoolhouse, they immediately focus on New Suffolk. But for a core group of graduates holding a reunion Saturday, Oct. 9, it’s the East Marion School they’ll be celebrating when they gather at the East Marion firehouse.

The school district was created in 1813, but the building alumni remember, on Route 25 across from East Marion Community Church, was erected in 1869 and remodeled in 1908. Today the building is a private house on a site reached by Kayleighs Court.

The homeowners have kept the blackboards in two rooms, where students from grades 1 through 8 studied. A cloak room at the front of the building retains its original look, right down to the hooks where students hung their coats. Original tin ceilings are still in place.

But the bell that beckoned students to class now sits outside the East Marion Fire Department headquarters. Alumni will get to visit the old school, but since it is now a private residence, organizers from the East Marion Community Association, who planned the reunion, didn’t want to impose by holding the event there. The firehouse community room is a place the students used to gather for special events, association member Ellen Zimmerman said, so it makes an appropriate reunion site.

Gordon Rackett of East Marion, now 83, who attended the school from 1932 to 1940, before it was moved and it was near the firehouse, remembers the excitement he and his classmates felt whenever the fire alarm would sound, wondering what crisis was unfolding.

“East Marion was a wonderful school to go to,” said Alice Cowan Jester, 66, who just moved back to the community after living in Groton, Conn. She studied at the school from 1949 to 1957 and said, “I wouldn’t give up that for nothing. It was great.”

Classes were small, with grades 1 through 4 in the “small room,” so called because it housed the younger children. Similarly, the “big room” to the west was where the older students studied. An average of nine to 12 students was in the tiny schoolhouse in any year. One major distinction between the two rooms was a sandbox in the “small room,” Ms. Jester said.

Students didn’t have bus service in those days and generally pedaled their bikes to school, she said. In the winter, they brought their sleds and, during recess, some recalled sledding down a big hill and right onto Marion Lake.

The person everyone remembers best was George Morton, who was principal from 1929 to 1960 and then returned in the 1961-62 school year while the hunt was on for a new principal. The first thing everyone said about him was that he didn’t believe in homework. He felt if students did what they were supposed to be doing in school during the day, they shouldn’t be expected to do more work at home after school, the classmates remembered.

“He was quite a strict teacher who did not spare the rod,” Ms. Zimmerman said. The principal and upper-level teacher kept a hickory stick in a hole in the floor next to his desk, she said.

Mr. Rackett said it was his cousin, Kenneth Ketchum, who once crawled under the building and cut Mr. Morton’s hickory stick. The next time Mr. Morton reached for it, he got nothing but a stub of wood, Mr. Rackett said. But Mr. Morton identified the culprit somehow and sent him out in the woods to get another hickory stick.

“He was strict, but he wasn’t mean,” Mr. Rackett said.

Alumni agree that Mr. Morton was fair and some credited him with inspiring them to become teachers.

Richard Cowan, 73, now living in Putnam County, attended the school from 1942 to 1950 and went on to become an elementary school teacher. In fact, in the early ’60s, he was offered the chance to return to East Marion as principal, but, he said, “I didn’t feel ready.”

His interest in amateur archaeology was also inspired by Mr. Morton, Mr. Cowan said. He would take Mr. Cowan along on some of his field trips.

“George Morton was a master,” Tim Morey, 59, said of the one year he attended East Marion School after moving from New York City for the 1961-62 term. “If you did your work and you were polite, he was the best teacher anybody ever had,” Mr. Morey said.

Karlo Salminen, 63, who went to East Marion between 1950 and 1958, remembers Mr. Morton taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves and pitching softballs during recess. Mr. Rackett remembers some of the older boys powering some of those balls right through school windows.

What Mr. Salminen, who now lives near Burlington, Vt., most appreciated about being in Mr. Morton’s class was that once he completed his school work, the teacher encouraged him to use extra time to explore subjects that interested him in the encyclopedia. And if Mr. Morton caught Mr. Salminen drawing pictures of baseball stadiums, the teacher would simply ask if his class work was done. As long as it was, Mr. Salminen was allowed to continue drawing.

“We had all of the basics, but we didn’t have frills,” Mr. Cowan said. The alumni agree that they were well prepared when they made the transition to Greenport for high school, except for the shock of homework.

“There’s something to be said about a little school,” Mr. Rackett said.

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