Washington's First Kindergarten Class

With Washington’s 175th anniversary just around the corner, there is another anniversary some area residents will never forget — the first kindergarten graduation in Washington.

Mary Lee (Rombach) West, as well as Doris (Wildt) Skornia, Dorothy (Monzyk) Richardson and Vernon Tobben reflected on the first kindergarten class to graduate in the Washington area 80 years ago this year. Students attended St. Francis Borgia Church.

“I’m proud that we were in the first kindergarten class, but it wasn’t my doing — it was my parents’,” West said.

All about 4 years old, a total of 45 students attended either the morning or afternoon class. No lunch was served.

The teacher was Candidate Sister Dorothy Fisher, who joined the Sisters of Notre Dame.

In 1934, the height of the Depression, families were poor and often struggling to get by. But parents and grandparents saw to it that the children could go to school.

West said she believed it was about 50 cents per month for children to attend kindergarten, which was located in what is now known as the annex building. Today, it houses the parish food pantry.

“Father Joseph Meyer would come over three or four times per week to make sure we were learning something,” West said.

Attending kindergarten affected every aspect of West’s life, she said.

“They impressed so much upon us that you can do something,” she said. “We learned to count, to hang our clothes, our ABCs — we had a rhythm band.”

At Christmas, everyone brought an ornament from home so we could have a Christmas tree.

At graduation, each student donned a little cap and gown specially made for them.

“Just think what they had to go through to give us little caps and gowns,” West said.

West paid a special tribute to the first class member who passed away. William Willenbrink was around 10 years old when he died after a battle with cancer.

“It was a very touching thing,” West said, remembering the boy’s funeral.

Though Tobben doesn’t remember much, he said he enjoyed kindergarten. He especially enjoyed meeting all the other kids his age.

“I thought it was the greatest thing in the world, being able to go to kindergarten,” he said.

Tobben, like West, was in the morning class at St. Francis.

He also remembered his first time being punished, “which was my first year in school of course.”

The candidate nun pinched his cheeks for not being quiet when asked.

“It was an embarrassing situation, but it wasn’t that bad,” he said.

Skornia also said that she enjoyed her first year in school.

“We had a great kindergarten teacher,” Skornia said. “She was really nice.”

Like others, Richardson, said she felt like it was a privilege to be in kindergarten.

“It was beautiful. I just loved it,” Richardson said, adding that she loved learning from Candidate Fisher.

“She really could handle us with ease,” she said. “She was a beautiful person. We all looked up to her.”

The candidate made sure all the kids learned their alphabet and to count to 100. She also made sure the students were ready for first grade.

“I loved going to school. I felt like it was a good place to be,” Richardson said.

She said being a part of the class made going to school a pleasure.

Special Memories After Kindergarten

Uniforms began in first grade, which was especially cumbersome for the girls.

Girls had a long wool, navy blue skirt with long-sleeve khaki blouses. Each girl had to wear a bow on her collar.

Parents had to find someone who could embroider “SFB” on their children’s shirts.

Typically, girls had two blouses and one skirt. They wore long cotton stockings.

By the eighth grade, khaki was needed for the army for war efforts during World War II, so girls were allowed to wear white button-down shirts and were allowed to wear socks. The bow was eliminated from the uniforms.

In fourth grade, West recalled a Halloween party, in which everyone was allowed to dress up.

She also spoke of a Franciscan priest, The Rev. Roland Averbeck, who went to China as a missionary. Grade school students would send him stamps, aluminum foil and pennies.

Dyes from the stamps could be reused for other purposes.

Years later, Father Averbeck brought back items from China, such as a rickshaw, and told students about his time in China.

“As a child, it was fantastic to know someone who was in China,” West said. “He was a fantastic priest.”

During the depression, families couldn’t afford special clothes for First Communion, so students wore their uniforms.

The bishop only came out for confirmation every four years. Students were confirmed in third grade.

“They said we were soldiers of Christ. I’ll never forget that,” West said. “For a girl to be a soldier, that was unheard of. We were so happy. We were going to go out and fight for the Lord,” she said.

From fourth to eighth grade, students sang for Masses, funerals and weddings.

Some people didn’t have phones in their homes, so others would go to each student’s house and tell them they were singing that day.

West laughed when she remembered electing class officers in eighth grade. Shortly after, students “went on strike” because they felt they had too many books.

Every student walked out of class.

Officials took away one book, but class officers had to go to the principal’s office for six weeks and new officers had to be elected.

Larry Brinker, who recently passed away, was elected class president all four years.

“He had a special way of speaking,” West said, adding that he could always make people think.

By eighth grade, in 1942, the class had grown to 84 children, all in one room with one teacher.

A total of 46 students graduated high school in 1946, though some had gone away to war, West noted. Others began work right after eighth grade and didn’t attend high school.

The high school class held its 50th reunion in 1996 and 60th reunion in 2006.

West said, as best as she can tell, 34 of the graduates remained in Missouri.

There were 19 who went to school together all 13 years.