September 2, 2008
Ray City -- A sign that marks the Ray City Elementary School faded long ago, as well as the library sign hanging near-by.
A dumpster sits within a few feet of a set of steps like a buzzard ready to eat road kill as soon as it breathes its last breath.
The only thing new and modern is a shiny chain link fence that keeps people out of the condemned building.
The old school seems imprisoned. Two locks, one on a deteriorating, weathered door where the veneer has started splintering, help provide security to hundreds of memories inside.
"I would say that the Ray City Elementary School came within weeks of being demolished," says Ray City Mayor Carl Camon, who attended the school as a kid.
It had a brief after-school life. Part of the building was used as a private library and a youth center. Now, a mess of old books, electric typewriter, magazines illustrate an effort to use part of the school that didn't work out.
The school stands vacant, an inviting target for vandals to break its windows and go inside risking bodily injury. So, the city, quite concerned about liability, had a fence erected with padlocks on the gates.
Some taxpayers wondered why their city council spent an estimated $10,000 a year for the insurance and upkeep of an empty building.
"(It's) not a question of wanting to tear it down, (but a) question of the building being there and not being in use and costing the taxpayers money," says Mayor Camon.
Greg Harrell and friends heard about the school's eminent demise and decided to try a community rescue mission. Their committee started with about five members and grew to about 30 who meet weekly to discuss their community project of turning the old school into a community civic center.
"We want to it to be self-sufficient so it can hold its own (financially)," says Greg who doesn't intend for it to cost taxpayers anything to renovate and operate the old building.
A visit inside the school, after signing a liability release form, brought back many pleasant memories for Greg. He made it a point to visit the school's auditorium where the original seats remain in surprisingly good condition.
"There are three generations of my family that's graduated off that same stage. That's a lot of history to us," says Greg.
He proudly shows pictures of himself on the stage after graduating from kindergarten and later from the eighth grade. Another picture shows his daughter standing in almost the exact spot when she graduated from the pre-kindergarten program. Other families have similar historical memories, as well.
"The piano is sitting right where it always has," says Greg.
White flakes of paint from the auditorium's ceiling dot the stage floor, but Greg doesn't acknowledge them.
Two rotten areas appear below the steps on the stage's right side. Is it cosmetic or a structural problem?
"I see it as what it was when I was here. I don't see it as the shape it's in now. I see it as what it was, and what it could be," says Greg.
Some questions remain about the 87-year-old building's condition. The floor appears to have dropped a few inches in one of Greg's old classrooms. Wall molding has noticeably slipped. The floor sits about an inch or so below another piece of molding where a wall and floor meet. Do floor supports need replacing?
"Actually the building is in pretty good shape. It needs a lot of renovation," says Greg who estimates it'll cost about $300,000. "There's a lot of work to be done, but it's going to be worth it in the end" says Greg.
A priority for his committee involves restoring the auditorium to make it a gathering place for local events. Greg says no place exists for citizens of Berrien County to gather as a community. Repairing the old school could fulfill a countywide need.
A quick look at the classrooms that surround the auditorium prompts Greg to recall fond memories.
"This was my eighth grade classroom," says Greg sitting in a chair in the old classroom with a big window broken. "We did everything in one room. We did our math, our English; everything was done in one room. Reading, writing and arithmetic were all done by one teacher. We had the same class (room) all day long."
He remembers the days when students got a paddling when they needing discipline.
"I probably have fingerprints on the wall outside from where we got so many spankings," says Greg with a laugh.
Those old memories help drive his passion to save his old school.
His dream of restoring the old Ray City Elementary School building, shared by many of his friends, rests on many people volunteering their time and their talents.
"We have a lot of volunteers," says Greg.
Volunteers who want to renovate an old school, giving it an after-life, snatching it away from the wrecking ball and returning it to its old glory days where a community school taught more than the basics of life.