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Retired newsman who began his career at WETB reflects on South Side School, ETSC in the 1940s

Bob Cox • Oct 30, 2017 at 12:15 PM

Joe Goodpasture recently sent me some cherished memories of growing up in Johnson City's Tree Streets and attending South Side School and East Tennessee State College.

"There were no school buses in the 1940s," he said, "so nearly all the Tree Streets kids walked to South Side Elementary School. There was a lively procession, almost a parade, through the neighborhood as students made their way to and from school.

"No one had ever heard of a backpack. The girls cradled their books in their arms while most boys shoved them down the front of their pants. A few parents drove their children to school, but gas was rationed during WWII.

"A hot lunch was served in the combination auditorium/cafeteria, but more than half of the students either went home for lunch or brown-bagged it. You could wolf down your peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a half-pint container of milk, which cost a nickel.

"Older boys, equipped with white Sam Brown belts and official looking badges, directed traffic at the intersections. It was a big honor to be chosen for the Safety Patrol, and I dutifully guarded my post at the intersection of Southwest Avenue and Devine Street, across from the little park.

"School seldom closed for bad weather in those days; we just pulled on our galoshes and trudged along through the snow. Actually, we loved it. No one paid much attention to the cold because we figured winter was supposed to be cold.

"However, during the war years, school closed occasionally when the ancient coal-burning boiler that fed the classroom radiators would break down and spare parts were hard to find.

"The hallways literally stank in wintertime from the combination of rubber galoshes and wet woolen jackets. Galoshes were lined up in long rows, and jackets hung from hooks that lined the hallways. To tell the truth, kids didn’t bathe as much in those days and we were pretty fragrant ourselves.

"In the classrooms, students were seated alphabetically in rows of old-fashioned desks with the writing surface attached to the chair in front. Intricate patterns in the wrought iron desk legs added a bit of style and each desk had an ink well so we could fill our messy ink pens.

"Classrooms displayed an American flag, pictures of Washington and Lincoln and examples of cursive writing posted all around the room above the big blackboards. The lock-step method of teaching was still in vogue and all students studied the same subject at the same time and were expected to advance at the same rate.

"An accelerated fifth/sixth grade class, an experiment supervised by professors at the Teacher’s College, allowed a group of the more gifted students to advance at their own pace.

"A big May Day celebration each year always attracted a big crowd of neighborhood mamas. Some of us sang, danced or played the piano. There was always a spirited softball game on the big playground. Also, a group of specially chosen girls, dressed in spotless white dresses, performed the May Pole dance, wrapping brightly colored crêpe paper around a big pole in some sort of intricate pattern that seemed to delight the mothers.

"A new, modern structure replaced the boxy 80-year-old, two-story South Side School in 1996, but thousands of us will always remember the South Side of our youth.

"The shaded green campus of East Tennessee State College, still referred to by most locals as ‘Teacher’s College,' was a popular playground for the Tree Street kids who grew up in the 1940s.

"The school, which had grown to become ETSU, was much smaller in those days with only a few hundred students compared with today’s thousands. The campus was quiet and serene with little vehicular traffic and acres of well-kept lawns ideal for tossing footballs or running races.

"The neighborhood kids were welcome on the campus where we ran among the students and concocted spur-of-the-moment plays and performances from the grass stage of the school’s outdoor amphitheatre. I remember singing all the verses to ‘I'm Walking the Floor Over You’ during one of our make-believe radio shows.

"We searched for unlocked classroom buildings where we could play ‘going to college’ and a friendly maintenance worker would sometimes let us play in the big gymnasium, but we had to remove our shoes and promise to leave if any students showed up.

"A favorite pastime in the gym was racing toy cars propelled by small canisters of compressed air. Some of the better ‘race car drivers’ could blast their cars from one end of the basketball court to the other.

"The tall campus trees and stately buildings provided the perfect setting for endless games of 'hide and go seek.' The boys, particularly, enjoyed searching for crawfish, tadpoles and frogs in the little stream that ran behind the old library. And all sorts of skink lizards and salamanders could be discovered if you turned over the river rocks.

"As some of us neared puberty, we began to find excuses to hang out around Carter Hall, hoping to spy a pretty young coed sunbathing. The girls would usually run us off. It was a different world then."

Thank you, Joe, for making available your cherished Tree Street memories: I hope others will share their special ones, too, for an article in the paper.

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