An enduring legacy: College Avenue Elementary looms large in memory
FRANKLIN LIVING NOVEMBER-DECEMBER 2023
Once upon a time, in a place not far away, there stood a school. More than bricks and books and tests and games, it’s where generations passed through as they made their way along childhood’s rambling path to adulthood. Although no two experiences were the same, many who passed through its halls share fond recollections. With demolition complete this past July, the sun has set on Russellville’s College Avenue Elementary for the last time, marking the end of an era.
The 1998-1999 class was its last. The buildings remained in use for a time by other organizations, including SafePlace, HeadStart and what would eventually become the SPAN program. Eventually, necessary operating and maintenances costs grew too large to justify continued use of the space.
Though the buildings no longer stand and were long out of use and in a state of disrepair, many decades of memories endure for the generations who attended and worked there – perhaps for none more so than for Joe B. Pride III, the school’s last principal.
“I came in one morning, and the maid met me at the door. She said, ‘I can’t go in Mrs. Hamilton’s room,’ and when I asked her why, she said there was a mouse in there,” recalled Pride. “It had gotten in the trash can and was banging up against the side.” It’s one of many memories he has of his time there. Pride served 19 years in the role, from 1980-1999, following Dan C. Hindman’s tenure as principal.
They both started out working at Russellville High School together in 1969. “I was moving in my apartment when Armstrong landed on the moon,” Pride said, “and I started teaching that fall.” Pride said Hindman “stayed one year teaching government and then came over here as the principal. “I stayed there through the 1979-1980 school year, and that’s when he left, and I came over here to be principal.”
At RHS, Pride taught history, government and economics. Raised in Tuscumbia, Pride attended Cave Street Elementary for first and second grade, and then Main Street Elementary, “the old Deshler High School,” where he attended third, fourth and fifth grades. He attended Florence State Teachers College, now known as the University of North Alabama.
Pride made a couple of final trips to College Avenue this year. During one, he shared memories of his time there, along with history of the school. He recalled the tall ceilings and tall windows, which he said provided a lot of airflow, something he explained was practical to help get by with an initial lack of air conditioning. Window units eventually were added, and wall radiators were a well-known staple of the school. Other features former students and faculty recall include the wood floors and doors.
Pride explained he got “a couple of opportunities to go other places,” but “I just loved Russellville.” He spoke proudly about his time there, speaking highly of students and staff through the years.
He said although he’s glad he made the decision, he didn’t always know he would want to be a principal. “I wanted to work with young people, and I had been at the high school for 11 years when the opportunity came up to move over here. I was scared to death, and if it hadn’t been for the faculty, I wouldn’t have made it,” he shared, adding he knew one or two from teacher meetings, but none well, at the time he started.
Some of his favorite memories include an incentive program in which students could earn, through good behavior, the privilege to have a group lunch with the principal – something he recalls happily, for the opportunity to get to know the students better. “I got such a kick out of doing it,” he said. “Being able to sit down at lunch with the students and be in a different setting than the cafeteria and get to know some of the students and let them get to know the principal – that’s a big deal.”
He also remembers the Super X Good Times Club, a school feature already in place before he started as principal. He said he’s not sure who started it. After learning the six-times multiplication table, a student received a special pencil. Upon completion of memorizing and reciting all the multiplication tables, students received metal badges.
Pride said he also has fond memories of the food. “The chili was absolutely delicious, and so were the cinnamon rolls,” he said with a smile.
Pride isn’t the only person with many fond memories of College Avenue. There are students memories, too – like for Slade Gilmer, who attended from the fall 1995 until spring 1997. “It was an older building even back then – something different from anything I’d seen as I kid,” he recalled. “We played basketball and crab soccer. I played a bunch of kickball. I remember being introduced to the book ‘Where the Red Fern Grows,’ and I remember being just blown away by it.” Gilmer said he thinks he developed a bit of a reputation when he was in school there. “When I was a kid, I started reading encyclopedias at my grandmother’s house. If I got done with my assignments at school, I would grab an encyclopedia and start flipping through it.”
For Stephanie Mayfield, who attended as a student in the ’70s and later taught at the school, her years there represents good times in her life. Hired by Pride in August 1989, Mayfield describes College Avenue as “a special place.”
“When you think about College Avenue, you can still hear the slide of feet on those polished floors,” Mayfield said. “I can still hear the hiss of the radiators and hear the children outside playing kickball. I’ll never forget walking outside after lunch and going and letting the kids have about five or 10 minutes outside and catching leaves falling off the trees.”
Mayfield said the experience was “like a home.” “It was a happy place,” she added. “The large windows, the cabinets – the classic old school atmosphere.”
“This particular building was built around 1931,” Pride said, indicating the main school building. He explained it replaced “a wooden structure that had burned in 1929,” noting it housed grades one through five until 1951, when what he referred to as the “lower building” was built. That added four rooms to the school, which were initially used for first-grade classrooms. He said this was done in order to accommodate the growing student population.
Students from the school’s later years will recall this building as the location of the cafeteria – originally housed in the basement of the main building, where the library was later located – and the chorus room.
“Around 1972, when West Elementary was built, they moved first, second and third grade over there, which left fourth and fifth grade in the main building,” Pride explained. “The lower building was empty until the ’80s, when the state came out with their kindergarten units. Up until that time, there were several private kindergartens here in Russellville but not a public one.”
At that time, the lower building was the only one available for a public kindergarten program. Pride said this resulted in what might sound like an unusual organizational structure, as it meant the school had kindergarteners in with fourth- and fifth-graders. “But it worked fine,” he added.
Pride said during the ’80s and ’90s, the school kept increasing in enrollment. After the addition to West Elementary was built, the kindergarten program was moved over there, leaving fourth and fifth grade at College Avenue. With “such a small faculty and (just) two grade levels,” Pride explained this resulted in the students getting a lot of attention and really getting to know everyone. “The way the building’s built, you could hear a door close at the end of the hall. Everybody knew what everybody was doing,” he added.
Plans have not yet been announced for what will happen to the space where College Avenue once stood, but one thing is certain: though the buildings are gone and the students and staff have long since moved passed their days there, College Avenue Elementary has an enduring legacy that will not soon be forgotten.