Leading Source

Hope and hardship in Maplewood, Mo. — in the 1930s and today

Editor’s note: The following piece was sent to NSBA staff by Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy, whose mother passed away on Sept. 12. A native Missourian, she was a graduate of Maplewood High School, near St. Louis.

My mother, Eleanor Collins Hardy, was born in 1916 in Kansas City but spent most of her early life in St. Louis. Her father, a civil engineer, died of tuberculosis when she was 3, and as a result, my grandmother had to struggle to support her and her older brother. Not able to afford their own place, they lived with my great grandmother and other relatives in what must have been a crowded apartment over a drug store in Maplewood, a close-in, working class suburb of St. Louis. My grandmother worked at the drug store with the pharmacist, another relative.   

While others certainly had it worse during the Great Depression — witness the homeless families living in “Hoovervilles,” the makeshift campsites that sprung up downtown along the Mississippi River — my Mom had to forgo a lot of material things. She loved music, but had to quit piano lessons when my grandmother could no longer afford them. When walking to school, she was instructed by my grandmother to walk on the grass, not on the sidewalk, so the soles of her shoes would last longer. When she graduated from high school in the early 1930s and my grandmother started talking about college, one indignant relative would respond: “Eleanor can’t go to college!” (presumably, because there was no money). And my grandmother, a wonderful, kind, and deeply religious woman, would say in a strong voice, “Eleanor’s going to college.”

She did go to college, too, earning an associate’s degree from William Woods College in Fulton, Mo.  In later years, my Mom would tire of my grandmother repeating that story, but its lesson meant so much to her — that with hard work and the support of others, they could find a way.

This summer, for a story on community Involvement for September’s ASBJ, I interviewed Linda Henke, the recently retired superintendent of the Maplewood Richmond-Heights (Mo.) School District. Maplewood, as you recall, was a Grand Prize Winner of this year’s Magna Awards for districts under 5,000 enrollment. They won for a most unusual initiative. Struck by the number of homeless boys in their small district – boys who tended to show up in Henke’s office after school (perhaps because of the crackers, peanut butter, and frozen dinners she kept there) – Henke and the school board decided not to wait for the city, or the state, or someone else to face the problem of homelessness in their community: they bought a house themselves, formed a coalition, and turned the house into a homeless shelter for teenage boys.

Henke, a truly buoyant personality, told me of how she was walking around Maplewood one day and saw the big yellow Victorian with the “For Sale” sign in front.

“I thought, ‘Wow,’ she recalled. “That must be the house we’re supposed to buy.’”

It was an audacious move that took courage, hard work, and quite a bit of faith. As of this summer, of the 14 boys enrolled in the program 13 have graduated or are on the graduation track. College, once out of the question, is no longer a fantasy.

I told Henke I that had a connection to St. Louis, to her still-working class town, and to the castle-like fortress, not far from her office, that is Maplewood High School.

“I grew up in St. Louis,” I said, “and my Mom graduated from Maplewood High.”

Lawrence Hardy|September 27th, 2012|Categories: American School Board Journal, Dropout Prevention, Homeless People|Tags: , , , |

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