On Sept. 30 former students of Stewart Training School will gather from all over the country to meet at the University of Utah Alumni Center for the first reunion in its 76-year history.
Even though the school closed its doors in 1967, the response to invitations has amazed co-chairmen Ann Wilkins Ellis and Pat Campbell Bevan."We hoped we might have 60 or 70 people come," says Ellis, "so we rented one room of the alumni house. With each mailing, we asked for another room until in August we asked for the whole building."
When Eudora Widtsoe Durham heard there would be a Stewart School reunion, she thought of her best friend, Christine Gossett Ames and called her in California. They graduated from ninth grade in 1927.
"We have to go," she said, "we'll be the oldest ones there." Ames agreed and will come to Salt Lake from her San Diego home for the event. Then Durham contacted her three children, Carolyn Person, Doralee Madsen and George H. Durham, who also attended Stewart School during the 1950s.
She and Ames will not be the oldest ones there, however, because that distinction belongs to Larena Crow, who finished eighth grade at Stewart in 1919.
When Crow heard the news, she, too, began letting people know. She called her brother Arthur in Boise, Idaho, her sister, former tennis champion Ruth Crow Nelson, her friend Mrs. Alice Sheets Marriott in Washington D.C., her neighbors, Homer and Phoebe Stringham - all alumni from the school. She also wrote to Franklin Forsberg in Connecticut, who was one of her classmates.
Watercolorist and art critic George Dibble, supervisor of art at Stewart from 1941 to1947, presented the committee a painting of the school for the cover of the reunion program.
Heber Hall taught at Stewart from 1949 until the late 1960s. He uncovered his collection of slides and found hundreds he had taken of his students on field trips and recreational activities while at the school.
Why all this reunion excitement for a school that has not even existed for 20 years?
Former students of Stewart School are bonded by a unique learning experience they shared under the direction of some of the most prestigious educators in the state's history. William M. Stewart, for whom the school was named, was nationally recognized for his contributions to learning and teaching theories, which he perfected in the "laboratory" of Stewart School.
John R. Park, president of the University of Deseret, started the school in 1869. It was his idea to add a model school to the first two grades of his expanded Normal School program. "Normal School" was the early name of the Department of Education and its studnets practiced their teaching at the model School.
When William Stewart became head of the Normal Department in 1888, he carefully enlarged the model school and created a Normal Training School where university students could learn the most up-to-date teaching methods known in the country. Their young students, ranging from kindergarten through ninth grade, benefited from Stewart's enlightened philosophy:
"The school must be made a life-laboratory wherein childhood can be given the fullest, freest expression. Nothing is too good for the child."
When the training school was moved onto the U. campus, the students had access to the university's gymnasium, the library and the Home Economics Department - facilities not at all "too good" for Stewart's students.
"As we left Stewart School," says Ellis, "we had to make an adjustment to `public' high school. But most of us went on to the University of Utah, and it was like going back home to a campus we knew and loved."
At a time when formal education consisted mostly of theory and memorization, Stewart introduced the startling idea of hands-on education. Believing that "knowledge is valuable only to the extent that it is useful," he gave his teachers free rein to put the children into contact with what they studied.
"Florence Knox taught botany," says Durham. "We took long walks to study nature first hand. She shared her love of growing things with us as we walked."
"We studied foods in eighth grade," says Larena Crow. "We had our class in the university's Home Economics Building with a professor for our teacher. Miss Croxall taught us how to cook and then we prepared a luncheon every Friday for our faculty. We cooked, decorated the tables, served the meal and then cleaned up afterwards."
Today's occasional "field trips" were a regular part of the curriculum at Stewart Training School. Students visited fire stations, banks, the campus theater, the state legislature and U. sporting events. It was taken for granted that they would be interested in the trips, and they were.
"We had a marvelous group of youngsters," says George Dibble. "They were given more freedom than students in other schools, and they did not abuse it. They had more zest for learning."
A Salt Lake Tribune photographer was surprised by this fact, Dibble recalls. He planned a story on the last day of school and chose Stewart School as his subject. Heset up the camera facing the main doors just as the closing bell was about to ring. He would get a picture of the students rushing out of school with shouts of freedom. Instead, the boys and girls came slowly out the doors, very morose, obviously unhappy.
Puzzled, the photographer couldn't use the picture. He explained to some students what he was trying to do and asked them to go back in, get some old books, and come out throwing the books in the air.
The students' fondness for school attendance was undoubtedly connected with Stewart's infectious philosophy of learning, which was maintained by succeeding directors. "Teaching is consecrated service," he told prospective teachers. He said they should not teach ideas only, but should show students how ideas relate to their own lives. He wanted children to learn many skills and promoted "manual training" as a part of their curriculum.
As a result, students learned leather working, clay modeling, carpentry, needlework and mechanical skills. Manual training was not preparation for the trades, but preparation for life. Stewart noticed that many students were not intellectually inclined, but could excel in these skills. He found that their enthusiasm for learning increased when they alternated manual training with "book learning."
Eudora Durham was a student at Stewart during the years her father, John A. Widtsoe, was president of the U. She feels fortunate to have attended the school from kindergarten right through junior high school.
"We had so many advantages," she says. "We were often treated to outside lecturers, specialists in their fields, who visited the University. We had the benefit of master teachers who were hired because they had so much skill to share with student teachers."
She recalls being stimulated in art by Maude Hardman, in music by Jessie Perry, and in literature by a Miss Stevens, who would "read wonderful stories to us . . . if we behaved."
"We had dances in the hallways at lunch during junior high," she says, "and we had couple parties because our parents trusted us to act maturely."
"My grandmother's loom was given to the University's Home Economics Department," she says, "and I had the chance to work on that loom because that is where our classes were held."
According to Larena Crow, Stewart graduates were innovative and independent thinkers _ which sometimes got them into trouble. In 1919 she and some classmates went to East High and registered as freshmen. Then they went downtown to a movie. When they came to school the next day, they were expelled for missing the first day of classess.
"The principal was firm," she recalls. "He called around to other schools in the city, but nobody wanted us. Finally he let us come back to East, but we were on probation for the whole freshman year."
In spite of this inauspicious beginning to their advanced education, many of her classmates distinguished themselves. Forsberg later became ambassador to Sweden; Alice Sheets became associated with the giant Marriott Corporation with her husband Willard; Larena Crow organized a dance orchestra, "The Frosh Five," and put herself through college. She then taught public school for 38 years.
The school produced more than its share of high achievers, but the real success of the system was in the low percentage of dropout students _ nearly zero.
"Learning was an adventure," says Heber Hunt. "The students learned while they were being introduced to real life around them."
They learned about broadcasting by producing a radio show which was based upon research they had done on field trips. They learned about politics by visiting the legislature and rewriting their school constitution. They learned about other cultures by getting an introductory course in languages which gave them the basics of French, Spanish and German.
In 1940, Frances G. Davis wrote a history of Stewart School as her master's thesis. Dr. Roald Campbell, who was director of Stewart School from 1942 to 1951, thought it would be appropriate that someone finish the history. He expressed this interest to his daughter, Pat Bevan, who had already heard Wilkins' idea of a reunion.
Together they sent out a questionnaire along with a reservation form. In a snowball effect, the list of names has grown to more than a thousand. The responses will help in the history writing as well as in the booklet being presented to reunion participants.
Campbell and his children (Pat, Bruce, Judy and Adelle) represent just one of the families who shared the Stewart School experience. But for all the alumni, it will also seem like a family reunion as they recall together their unique learning experiences.