Ode to Miss Gladys Evelyn McCormick

scylla and charybdisSometimes, upon an older person’s extending his hand, in greeting, I inwardly hear Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“He holds him with his skinny hand/’There was a ship,’ quoth he./’Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!’/Eftsoons his hand dropt he.”

Little do these people know I associate such high drama with mere extension of a hand.

My association comes unbidden, arising from long-ago memory of being in the class of a remarkable teacher.

To her students, Miss Gladys E. McCormick was ever “Corky,” a term we never used with her directly.

As teacher, she was both quirky and brilliant.

And since she taught college-prep English classes at West Warwick Junior High, no fewer than 60 years, her legacy is profound.

How’d she teach so long? The town could never verify her age, since her birth certificate was destroyed in a fire at Town Hall years earlier. I suspect “Corky” never facilitated them in discovery.

And in the same manner as ‘vintage’ anything, her reputation improves with the years.  That’s why, whenever we Baby Boomers share memories at class reunions, we sing her praises. Our only regret?  We never told her how much we valued her.

She was about 5’ 2,” matronly, with corkscrew, blue/grey hair that never bowed to control. Oh, she tried, as when she ducked into her walk-in, supply closet, at the front of the room, where she’d quickly run a comb through the thatch. She’d come back out, looking the same.

While there, she’d reach into her blouse and hoist up a bra strap charged with holding up her ample bosom. Then, she’d make a final check of her appearance in the little mirror hanging on the door and end with a spritz of “Evening in Paris” from its cobalt-blue glass atomizer.

We students committed her rituals to memory.

One recalled her lunging out of that same supply closet, brandishing the janitor’s wet mop she’d accidentally released from its pail, uttering the Shakespearean: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.”

“Corky” loved high drama.

On occasion, she’d shake her head, mumbling “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” whenever we’d fail at something we should have known.

Each day we’d be charged with solving a brain teaser she’d written on her blackboard, such as “What does ‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ mean?” Since it was before Google answered everything, we students searched encyclopedic texts for answers.

She became our portal to literary greats like Shakespeare, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and a host of others.  That was important for we were milltown urchins who never enjoyed automatic exposure to culture. But many of us would go on to become our generation’s doctors, scientists, church leaders, teachers.

Miss McCormick was a fervent believer in something educators would sadly disavow in later years:  rote memorization of important literary works. As such, she had us internalize whole passages of great works.

That’s why today, I never witness Memorial Day services, without silently quoting “In Flanders Field:” “We are the dead, short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow./Now we lie in Flanders Field.”

As a parent reading stories to my own children, at bedtime, I’d recall Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s: “Between the dark and the daylight/ When the night is beginning to lower/ Comes a pause in the day’s occupation/ That is known as the Children’s Hour.”

And in times of dissidence and national conflict, I hearken to words in President Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” “Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and  dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…”

We former students note that we can still deliver, verbatim, whole passages we internalized.

And, in the process, we internalized our teacher.

Today, “Corky” rests in a modest gravesite in Coventry, aside her parents, with the simple identification on her marker: “GEM.”

We who had her as teacher are not surprised.

To all who teach, today:  Be the “Corky” for your students.

Your legacy will be assured as your students carry you with them, forever.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.

How West Warwick Kids ‘Did’ Summer:

 

camp ayoho now a campgroundCrompton ‘Free’ Library…Camp Ayoho…Vacation Bible School

She’d been really sweet—the reader, that is. Telling me I ‘made her smile,’ with my accounts appearing here, each Saturday

She said I stoked her own memories.

We chatted back and forth on one of West Warwick’s Facebook pages where I post these articles and she mentioned the Crompton Free Library (libraries are never ‘free’ to me; I always owe money for late books.)crompton library

But I digress.

Donnalee Garofalo is a woman who grew up in the same time period and part of town as I. That makes us kindred spirits.  And when she told me how she used to sit in a corner of the old library in Crompton (did it really have only 2 small rooms?), reading Nancy Drew Mysteries, she transported me back in time.

I was probably in another corner reading “Little Women” or “Five Little Peppers.”

I remember the pleasant smell of books in that library.

Now, psychologists say smell is the one sense of five that stays with us longest. A sudden whiff of a flower, perfume, or after-shave can blip us back to a familiar scene/person from long ago. How do I know? The men’s cologne, English Leather, transports me back to a Paul Newman look-alike guy I dated but never married, when I was in my 20’s (don’t tell my husband.)

Pungent day lilies remind me of too many funerals in my younger years.

Donna’s memory of the library prompted other recollections.

For instance, we kids all gathered, on summer mornings, in the small field outside the library, awaiting the bus to Camp Ayoho, in Coventry.

My two older brothers and I walked the mile from home to that field, to get the bus.

When we arrived at camp, girls and boys separated and went to two big tents where we stashed our towels, lunches, and changed into bathing suits.

Periodically, a few boys bent on mischief would sneak over to the girls’ tent, and lift up the canvas flaps, in hopes of catching us, unaware…and naked.

We’d howl our protests, until an adult intervened.

Recovering shattered dignity, we went down to the water where lifeguards taught us to swim. I learned wrong and continued to contort my neck from side to side, while swimming, all through life.  I hated burying my face in the water.

On rainy days, we sat on the floor of the big recreation hall and watched movies.

Or we girls went to the crafts tent where we made countless gimp bracelets (do kids still do this?) or scores of multi-colored pot-holders.

I don’t recall my brothers making any crafts while they were at camp.  Maybe crafts was considered a less-than-masculine activity in the day.

We kids brought bagged lunches and bought candy or ice cream on rare occasions Mom gave us spending money.

When Camp Ayoho wasn’t our destination, my sister and I went to St. Mary’s Vacation Bible School which was run by my church, supervised by parish nuns, and held where the old Crompton Elementary School used to be, before it was demolished and built anew as an apartment building.

At these two-hour morning sessions, the nuns gave us tear-out’s of “Moses and the Bullrushes,” “Joseph and His Many-Colored Cloak,” or “Noah and the Arc,” to name a few, from coloring books, and we happily colored them in (today, adult coloring books are considered a serious de-stressor.)

Then we discussed the morals of each story.

Whenever I see Vacation Bible School on church marquees, today, I smile, for it evokes fond memories.

Except for the day an older driver almost killed my younger sister. She alighted from the bus at our stop, following the day’s session, and raced across the road to our driveway, without looking. He was coming from the opposite direction, did not stop for the bus (as the law requires,) and ran over my sister’s foot.

I followed her up the driveway, screaming to all:  “Sharon’s been hit.”

I considered her survival a true miracle, most probably owing to our being in a state of grace…

After all, we’d just come from Vacation Bible School.

Now, what are your childhood memories of summers in West Warwick? Did you go to Vacation Bible School…Camp Ayoho? Another Camp? Or fashion your own recreation?

Post answers on the Kent County Daily Times website or to the several West Warwick sites aligned with Facebook or right under my column here.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker, freelance writer, and author to children’s books “Grandpa and the Truck” (grandpaandthetruck.com). She is also a regular commentator in the Providence Journal,  Wall St. Journal, etc. 

P.S. Today, Camp Ayoho on Johnson’s Pond, in Coventry, is a campground for RV’s; Crompton Free Library is Pawtuxet Valley Preservation and Historical Society museum.

 

The Day of Yellow Rain

hoechst chemical“My cats came in covered in yellow,” one person stated. Another said her mother saw barrels of the Crayola-yellow stuff positioned against the fence that separated the neighborhood of Windsor Park from the Hoechst chemical facility.

I posted a shorter version of this story to several Facebook pages dedicated to West Warwick, and I got a ton of reaction, for most of us remember the day(s) when a yellow dust fell from the sky and coated everything, at least in my neighborhood of Crompton.

Something went woefully wrong, for we recall waking up to neon yellow all over hedges, cars, yards. It mimicked an eerie scene from “The Twilight Zone.”

My father who had chemistry/physics background did some checking the next day and told us  “nothing harmful happened”—the company had assured him.

Of course, that was before all of us of a certain age recall Love Canal in New York where the Hooker Chemical Company gave similar assurances to its neighbors.

In the summer, during a dry spell, kids playing on the athletic fields were suddenly ankle-deep in sludge rising from below, wicking its way up through the ground, a chemical wash that was toxic indeed. Next it was found coming through basement walls, all owing to the way Hooker was indiscriminately disposing of its toxic waste, sending it out, onto the land where it filtered down, creating an underground plume that knew no bounds.

As a result of the suspected poisoning, there was a virtual abandonment of the community and inability for homeowners to sell but a greater toll remained:  cancer cluster groups developed and people succumbed at a far more alarming rate than was average.

It was a lesson for all of us in mill towns across America.

Nine years ago, my husband and I zeroed in on the idyllic community of Asheville, North Carolina, a town set in the Blue Ridge Mountains, on everyone’s short list of preferred retirement communities. With that, we went on a shopping spree, with a buyer broker realtor, to identify our home.

There, sitting at the top of a gorgeous expanse of mountains, was a home we could love…if not for the two factories below. One sprawling building was defunct and I knew that would predict dire consequences in future when upkeep would become non-existent. It would crumble and decay and become an eyesore on the otherwise pristine horizon.

The other factory was still active, suggesting worse problems. A pond nearby had signs posted “No swimming…no fishing.”

My husband, a good ol’ boy from rural Arkansas (where there were no factories or industrial waste), suspected the admonition was due to the fact there was no lifeguard and the company didn’t wish to be liable, while I believed otherwise. Then again, he’s the one who asked if the trout on the menu at a North Carolina restaurant in a small local town was ‘from a nearby stream’ to which the waitress answered “No, it’s farm trout. You wouldn’t want fish from a nearby stream.” She knew what he didn’t know.

Outside the town of Asheville sits an upscale housing community of homes priced at $500,000+, which has painfully learned the lessons mill town residents know for, at present, a toxic underground plume grows and creeps towards them, affecting a nearby stream, air, and well water. It comes from an abandoned former metal plating factory nearby.

Their home value has plummeted; they cannot sell; they cannot leave.

Their retirement dream has turned to a nightmare.

In my book, “The Asheville Experiment” I show how I protected us against the possibility of buying in an out-of-state community whose toxic dump sites we couldn’t know.

But it is my heritage as a mill town girl, coupled with my training as a professional realtor, that taught me such.

For that, I am grateful.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker, freelance writer, and author to children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com). She is also a regular commentator in the Providence Journal and the Kent County Daily Times.  She currently completes “The Asheville Experiment,” about her husband’s and her nine years in the trendy retirement town of Asheville, NC.

She’ll also tell why they returned to live in Rhode Island (This book’s a manual for all those who contemplate a move–anywhere– but who like their non-fiction laced with humor.)

West Warwick Produces Champions

newspaper photo of us kellys on dockWe got the news in the winter of 1960, that our family from West Warwick would represent Rhode Island in a national contest to be held in the spring.

We were Rhode Island’s candidate for “All-American Family.”

This was no small honor, for families all over Rhode Island competed to represent our state.

It was 1960, when Wheaties ‘Breakfast of Champions’ sat on tables across the land,  a time when America boomed along,  post World War II; President Dwight D. Eisenhower  (Ike) was in the White House.

My generation of kids was the product of renewed faith.

My father had entered the statewide contest. It made sense, for he loved contests of all sorts. That’s how I got my first roller skates, the ones with the key. He’d solved the jingle leg lampand won.  Instead of the crazy leg lamp the Dad won in “The Christmas Story,” my Dad won a pair of girl’s roller skates. Now, I skated up and down the sidewalks in our neighborhood, one of the few girls with skates, skurr…skurr…skurring  for hours.

But since the All-American Family contest was big, we’d get far more than skates if we won.  We’d be semi-famous and we’d become owners of a brand new, modern ranch home in the recently-built development of Lehigh Acres, Florida.

The contest sponsors flew us to that southernmost state, where we checked in, met others, and began the week long elimination process.  There was interviewing and a talent contest.  Here, we Kelly’s had the advantage, since my family was used to on-the-spot questioning, for Dad had us kids compete, in yearly science fairs, from a young age.

Each morning, we fifty families filed into a big auditorium where we breakfasted with Don McNeil of “The Breakfast Club” radio show.  He was joined by former beauty queen/TV star, Anita Bryant,  who sang “Come to the Florida sunshine tree,” in TV commercials seen all over the United States. An outspoken Christian, she’d get in trouble, years later, for her homophobic commentary. But during the period we met her she was one of America’s darlings.

Our disadvantage in this contest (according to Mom) was the fact we lacked an important family member.  West Point wouldn’t allow my older brother to join us, for he was in his first (Plebe) year and the Army didn’t think vying for America’s top family spot was valid enough reason to release him.

On one occasion, each of the “Fab Fifty” ( a name I gave) families  stood aside a water hole, pretend-fishing, dangling poles at the same spot over the side of the dock, smiling for the camera. It was a silly photo-op in that Mom wore a dress and heels (who does that while fishing, except maybe Barbara Billigsley of “Leave It to Beaver” fame?)

Those photos were sent to all state and hometown newspapers for publication (copy of newspaper photo is above.)

For one solid week we were on our best behavior which meant that on Sunday, we Catholic families traveled by bus, over a hundred miles, to church, since none were in our area. What do I recall of this journey? Passing miles of palm trees, barrenness and Seminole Indian villages alongside muddy canals in  a seemingly-blighted territory.

Finally, at the end of the week, it was announced:  Our neighbor to the north– the Massachusetts family– took top prize and the house in Lehigh Acres.

Ten years later, another West Warwick-ite’s family would win. Andrea Peterson had married Michael Mucha and they’d go on to have four children. They lived in Coventry but Andrea had been raised in West Warwick. Now, in 1970, her family was crowned Rhode Island’s All- American Family. They, too, went off to a week-long competition in Lehigh Acres, Florida.

Apparently, our little town produced champions in more areas than sports.

West Warwick native, Colleen Kelly Mellor (ckmellor@cox.net), is a motivational speaker and freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Wall St. Journal, Scripps-Howard, and many regional newspapers. She is author to the children’s books Grandpa and the Truck (grandpaandthetruck.com) and is regular commentator in the Providence Journal. Her website is colleenkellymellor.com.