PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Dr. Gehrig T. Johnson, the superintendent of schools in SAD 1 in Presque Isle for nearly three decades, acknowledged during a recent interview that he has long had a goal of formally documenting the history of public education in the district.
While he envisioned the story being told in a book so that it could be preserved for future generations, he admitted that educational roadblocks such as funding and staffing shortages soon got in the way.
So Johnson shelved the idea, starting to fear that it “might never see the light of day,” until one day he crossed paths with a local optometrist, historian and author who was very good at making things clear.
The result was “The History of Public Education in Presque Isle, Maine 1837-2012,” by Richard “Dick” Graves, a 242 page historical work and comprehensive survey of the development and growth of the city’s school system. The book comes complete with black and white and color photographs showcasing everything from the district’s first old country school houses to past and present teachers and staff members.
There’s even a photo of a small heated shed on a sleigh hitched to a team of horses that was used in 1930 to transport students to school across the snowy landscape.
The district’s member communities are Presque Isle, Castle Hill, Chapman, Mapleton and Westfield.
“Dick Graves was absolutely the perfect person to do this book, and I do not think it could have happened without him,” Johnson said during an interview with Graves, who has practiced optometry for close to 40 years and also authored two local history books prior to his newest work. “This was a true labor of love for him.”
Graves said that he learned about the project from Johnson, who had set aside $25,000 for the project in 1998, when credit card company MBNA had a call center in the city. In March of that year, MBNA officials announced that through its Excellence in Education Grants Program, they would provide $500,000 to the district for special projects and to supplement the school’s budget. An MBNA grant committee approved the book project.
Molly Parks Andrews, a retired SAD 1 English teacher, initially began helping with the book but then moved to Arizona. Graves came on board, and having already collected thousands of photographs, notes, and other documents through his work on his prior two history books, he hit the ground running.
“What I found most interesting was documenting all of the little country schools that existed in the mid to late 1800’s,” Graves said. “And finding out who taught there, the book lists, what buildings were built. Little details, such as in 1900, a young woman named Myra Vickery introduced basketball to the the city by teaching high school girls to play and the boys didn’t learn to play until two years later. In 1910, the first high school was built out of brick, and people thought that it would not be lost to fire that way. But it burned down in 1921, because it was built all out of wood inside.”
The book also includes a detailed 50-page timeline; features those people directly responsible for the district’s 175-year educational success; profiles some of the most important educators, basketball coaches and players from 1903 on; colored photos of the last days of Cunningham School; and pictures of all 1,000 point basketball scorers from 1954 on.
It took Graves about five years to research and write the book while maintaining his practice.
“It wasn’t something I worked on every day or even every week,” he said. “It involved a lot of reading through microfiche records of newspaper clippings or sorting through yearbooks or thousands of pictures, and that got tedious. I would go three or four months where I didn’t do any writing on the book, just research. But I never lost interest in it. I enjoyed every second of it.
Johnson said that the district intends to use the book as a resource in the classroom by incorporating it into its eighth-grade Maine History curriculum. It also will distribute copies to its school and local libraries.
The book was printed in hardcover and paperback by Printworks in Presque Isle and went on sale on Aug. 7. The cost will be $35 for hardcover and $25 for paperback.
“There is no profit here,” said Johnson. “We did not do this for profit. The money goes to the school department.”
Books can be purchased at Merchants On The Corner at 394 Main St. in Presque Isle or through a form found on the SAD 1 superintendent’s website. Visitors also can visit the superintendent’s office at 79 Blake St., Suite 1 in Presque Isle to fill out the form in person. For more information about the ordering process, contact Rhonda Kenney at the superintendent’s office at 764-4101 or email@example.com.