I have found that good stories often engender other good stories. Take the Dec. 26 column about Schmitt Elementary School’s fireplace.
Schmitt certainly is not unusual. Nor are fireplaces. But put the two of them together, especially when a fireplace has been part of the kindergarten classroom since architect Harry Weese incorporated it into his original design in 1956, and you have a story.
Fireplaces in classrooms in 1956 were considered an anachronism. In the 21st century, the state fire marshal probably would close a school if it were found to be warming students’ bodies via a fireplace. That’s why Schmitt teacher Laura Coffman has spent a good part of the school year trying to find out why she has a fireplace in her classroom.
The fireplace is harmless these days because the chimney was capped years ago. In fact, it was lighted only rarely, and former teachers always recall that the warmth and glow of the fire gave the classroom a homey quality.
That’s what Weese intended for the 27th Street school. Each classroom had a unique identity. The one for the kindergarten room was intended to make students new to the learning experience feel at home.
Rare as the Schmitt fireplace might be today, it was not totally unique in Columbus.
The column caught the eye of Delores Strietelmeier, a former teacher at St. Peter’s Lutheran School, who referred me to one of the photos that runs with today’s column. Her young charges also experienced a homey atmosphere in their classroom courtesy of a fireplace.
“It was part of the 1940 section of the school,” she recalled last week. “I don’t remember that we had all that many fires in it, but like the one at Schmitt, it made the children feel at home. I think it was dismantled sometime in the 1980s.”
Delores’ story about the fireplace certainly was interesting, but she happened to mention another story in passing that really caught my attention.
St. Peter’s is celebrating the 150th anniversary of its school this year. It figures that the parochial school would be pretty old. After all, the church itself celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008.
Actually, St. Peter’s is not the oldest parochial school in Bartholomew County. The school for St. John’s Lutheran Church in Whitecreek dates to 1840. The original St. Bartholomew Catholic School came to be in 1855.
It’s when you consider 150 years of education in terms of the children, their families and their teachers that the achievement becomes something special.
For instance, Delores noted there have been five, maybe six generations of Schwartzkopfs who have been students at St. Peter’s, beginning with George Schwartzkopf, who was one of the owners of the Schaefer and Schwartzkopf Flour Mill at Third and California streets, which started operations in 1893.
Put another way: Schwartzkopfs have been part of the St. Peter’s school story through 119 of its 150 years.
Church and school officials have been taking note of the milestone since the current school year began, starting with a presentation in September of “Students Through the Ages.”
A gallery of generational photos of former students is on display behind the reception desk at the main entrance to the school on Fourth Street. On May 17, the anniversary will be capped off by a reunion of current and former students beginning at noon at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.
The church’s first pastor, the Rev. G. Kuechle, also was the school’s principal, teacher and janitor, teaching four days a week.
Because Lutherans made up a major share of Bartholomew County’s population, enrollment in the school grew quickly, so quickly that a branch school was established in Harrison Township and was in operation from 1877 to 1912.
A three-room school was built in 1877, and with the growth of the student body, several classrooms were added in a series of expansions, the most recent in 1988.
With a history of 150 years, singling out particular teachers and students is a risky business, but there is one name that resonates with practically all St. Peter’s alumni: T.J. Koch.
From the time he first stepped into a classroom in 1906 until his death in 1977, Koch was regarded as an institution at the parochial school. He didn’t just impart knowledge, he embodied it.
He earned his living by teaching, but at heart he was really a musician and artist. He has been credited with hundreds of musical compositions and an equal number of paintings, many of them landscapes in and around Columbus.
Ironically, that acclaim came about because a janitor at St. Peter’s, Harvey Nordman, came across a number of boxes in the old church basement in 1968. Instead of throwing the contents out, he opened them to discover dozens of original compositions written by Koch.
He turned the materials over to Koch’s daughter, Marie Blomenberg. They came to the attention of her son, James Blomenberg, who was convinced the material needed to be shared.
Eventually several of the pieces were recorded by the Concordia University Choir in Nebraska, which already had begun featuring some of Koch’s works in its concerts.
Koch died in 1977. At the time he was a part-time teacher at his beloved school. He became ill while teaching adult Bible classes and died shortly thereafter.
As I said, good stories can engender more good stories.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at email@example.com.