‘We saved the school in our hearts, didn’t we?’

The old Edgartown School location is honored with new memorial.


The front entrance to the Edgartown Public Library was full of onlookers last Sunday afternoon — alumni, students, and teachers — craning their necks to finally get a peek at a commemoration of their treasured past: a memorial to the old Edgartown School building, in the form of a compass rose. 

The event was the culmination of three years of fundraising, design draft after design draft, and nostalgic conversations,; all spearheaded by the grand master planner, Edgartown resident and former language arts teacher Doris Ward. The old school was closed in 2003, and the new public library was opened in 2016. 

When Ward learned that the Edgartown School, her workplace of 15 years and “home away from home,” was to be demolished, she was upset, but in denial. She dreamed about all the different things they could turn the old red brick building into, instead of tearing it down. “It could be a small university, a center for English or Portuguese language learners, a retirement home for former teachers, and I could live in my room forever and watch the sunset from where I used to grade papers until late into the day,” Ward said at the dedication ceremony. 

Ward taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, and adored her job. “I loved junior high because the clay is still soft. You know, they’re so impressionable at that age,” she reminisced. “They were like, ‘Ms. Ward, can I do my homework three times?’ ‘Ms. Ward, I won’t go to the bathroom until Christmas!’ ‘Ms. Ward, I’m dying to know what an adverb is!’” she chuckled. 

In her classroom, her students read “Of Mice and Men,” “The Great Gatsby,” short stories, wrote a poetry anthology, presented four different speeches, and learned grammar, spelling, and penmanship. “I was the hardest teacher they had, but their favorite, because I could make them perfect,” she said.

It wasn’t until she drove past the construction vehicles and saw them demolishing her classroom “like a huge dinosaur munching on his dinner” that reality set in.

“I was just plum hysterical,” she told The Times over the phone. “This is where my babies were born. Where an opera singer was born, lawyers, oyster farmers, Realtors, moms and dads, actors, car mechanics, writers, teachers, firefighters … I was in anguish.” 

She felt desperate to do something to preserve the place that she cherished. When she saw them carting away the bricks, she knew what she had to do. She made arrangements to save 100 of the bricks, and set out to create a memorial. 

She knew it would take a lot of charitable people to raise the funds needed for the construction of the memorial, but she was averse to the idea of starting a GoFundMe, opening it up to the whole world. Ward wanted the project to be wholly supported by people “who knew the school.” 

She raised the $10,000 needed by going to alumni and faculty, as well as community members who loved and remembered the school. “I would just talk to people in the streets; it was all word of mouth, and the response was good.”

Alex Morrison, her former student and owner of Alex Morrison Landscaping, partnered with Ward on the project, and helped her brainstorm the idea of a compass rose as the symbol of the memorial. Melissa Nellis-Patterson of About Signs rendered the concept through graphic design, and after trial and error, and engraving help from Alan Gowell, owner of Martha’s Vineyard Memorials, every part of the memorial was tinkered with and thought out, right down to the positioning of the needle to point to true north. 

The compass rose represents the sailing heritage of the town, and the role of the school and the library as guiding forces. The words “Knowledge is the compass that guides the heart and mind” are inscribed around the perimeter of the compass. The rose part of the memorial is a double-entendre: as a compass rose, and to symbolize the iconic flowers covering Edgartown. And finally, the bricks of the old Edgartown School were integrated in the interior of the design. 

Eventually, Ward said, there will be a plaque installed nearby explaining its significance. 

Over the past few years, she was met with many complications and minor setbacks. “The mechanics of it were so involved,” said Ward. The bricks were relatively soft, and had to be set in at a certain height and prepared in a certain way, and Nellis-Patterson had to make tweaks to compensate. 

Ward acknowledged the generosity of some of the largest benefactors to the project, including Martha’s Vineyard Bank, the Friends of the Edgartown Public Library, and the town beautification committee. 

Never having constructed a memorial before, Ward found the whole process to be educational in itself. She mused how appropriate it was that the creation of a memorial to the school turned out to be a learning experience in itself. 

The ceremony on Sunday was Ward’s way of “thanking the people who helped and supported me.”

The ceremony began with a moment of silence for Ed Jerome, the principal of the school from 1979 to 2005, who died last year. During his tenure, Jerome was awarded the National Distinguished Principal Award in recognition of his leadership.

The history of the old Edgartown School, as compiled by Marilyn Wortman of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, beginning when it first opened in 1925, was read aloud by Ezra Sherman. The reading of the timeline was followed by an interview with Tommy Teller, who attended the school in its early years. 

Representatives of the old guard, like kindergarten teacher Mary Gentle, and the “new old guard,” like science teacher David Faber, along with their former students, reminisced on their favorite memories at the school, telling stories and thanking the teachers, whose knowledge they use to this day. 

The afternoon was filled with melodies; former student Joanne Cassidy performed “Your Song” by Elton John, and a group of adult former students read the e.e. cummings poem “maggie and milly and molly and may” in unison. Bruce McNamee, chief of the Edgartown Police Department, played bagpipes as he led the procession outside to the unveiling. 

Ward and Morrison each took a corner of the tarp covering the memorial on the ground, and lifted it together to thunderous applause. 

Ward said to the crowd, a mix of all ages and backgrounds, “We saved the school in our hearts, didn’t we?”