CEDAR RAPIDS — Mary Church clocks in at 5:56 a.m. every day, the first person to greet the 97-year-old school towering over 10th Street SE.
She has been the first line of defense for McKinley Middle School for nearly 20 years, she said, the one called when a student spills a drink in one of its hallways, when its lights refuse to spark on, when one of its windows is broken in the night.
She walked the quiet hallways while the sun rose outside. While most of the school’s 463 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders still slept, she carried industrial-sized buckets in each hand, dropping them off at classroom doors. In two hours, students would dump leftover white and chocolate milk into the tubs after breakfast.
Her tennis shoes padded down the halls, into the elevator, through the kitchens and up the stairs as she unfolded the cafeteria’s lunch tables, retrieved a ladder from the guidance office and installed a pencil sharpener for a math teacher.
McKinley still was warm and muggy inside, the building taking its time to cool after a three-day weekend.
The school would soon be humming as a mass of students streamed through its north doors, marked by a stone carving of a boy holding a baseball mitt, grabbing free breakfasts and making their ways to their homerooms.
After almost a century in use, McKinley has ushered in a new era of education in Cedar Rapids, served one of the city’s most diverse student bodies and been home to prolific teachers and alumni. While administrators and educators there today turn the building into a magnet school with a STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts and math — theme, they acknowledge the iconic facility can feel like a museum.
“That has tended to be how McKinley has felt,” said Stacy Karam, a McKinley teacher who attended the school in the late 80s. “I think that’s why we’ve put such an emphasis on adding bright colors and putting our new logo up in so many places. I feel like we’ve done a good job of maintaining the historical aspects of the building — but every time you put something up, you have to take something else down.”
The school’s past remains in many places, some just out of view — in the Cold War-era basement bunker still full of government-issued rations, the unfinished pool beneath the cafeteria, the decades of student signatures covering the walls of a hallway off the auditorium balcony.
When McKinley’s doors first opened in 1922, boys entered in the north and girls through the south doors, where a young girl is carved above the door. Cedar Rapids’ first junior high, the beaux-arts building has made history since its earliest days, Cedar Rapids historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said.
It ushered in a new architectural era for the school district, he said, and has always been a racially- and culturally-diverse place. The school was never segregated, he said, and instead was one of few Cedar Rapids schools with African-American students, who lived primarily on the southeast side of town. Many children of Czech, Syrian, Greek, Russian and Italian immigrants also were enrolled.
The school temporarily became a high school in 1935, after an addition was constructed. Ed Horak was McKinley High’s last class president in 1957 and, at 81, still is president of the McKinley Alumni Association — fundraising for current students and organizing reunions for past graduates.
He’s dedicated to showcasing McKinley’s successful graduates, Horak said, highlighting Collins Radio founder Arthur Collins, poet Paul Engle and actor Don DeFore. He keeps binders and folders full of McKinley artifacts, including a 1962 letter from Frances Prescott, the school’s first principal, that she wrote to DeFore after a visit with her former student.
“Early on I used to worry about McKinley children,” Horak recounted from the letter. “ … You’ve done so well. I have a feeling maybe I did too.”
He remembers playing basketball on the courts at Coe College after school, and how he and his classmates loved a potato doughnut store nearby. They went to a place called Joey’s that had enormous tenderloins, and their school held monthly air raid drills.
“I wish I could tell you a little more about the feeling of McKinley,” Horak said. “It’s like the way I feel about Paris — that’s the feeling I get about McKinley. That ‘whatever it is.’ It may sound corny, but it’s true.”
Most students got along, Horak remembered, regardless of their differences.
“It set the stage, when you think about it, for the diversity that Washington High School has today,” Stoffer Hunter said. “It’s really a school environment where people had great opportunities to get along and know people from different backgrounds. Of all the junior highs, it had the lowest-income kids and the highest-income kids.”
Stories and legends
Perhaps most notably, McKinley opened with artist Grant Wood on staff.
“Giving Grant Wood a job at McKinley was a way to keep Grant Wood in Cedar Rapids,” Stoffer Hunter said. “Everyone really pulled together to make sure he had something to eat. He was really a starving artist for a long time.”
Principal Prescott hired her old friend to teach art classes at the junior high. Still in his 30s and not yet the prolific painter of “American Gothic,” Wood worked at the school until 1924.
Many artifacts of his remain in a usually locked, stately room on the third floor, including a spectacled mask known as Percy Heavy Thinker, meant to be of an ideal student and bearing an eerie resemblance to Wood.
The mask, which can be seen on the faces of past students in old class photos, is one of several artifacts Karam introduces to students in McKinley’s Program for Academic and Creative Talent, or PACT. Most years, a group of her students leads their peers in tours of the school.
The script for the tour guides, which Karam said has been used for some 35 years, prompts students to tell true stories about how McKinley’s builders proved the school wasn’t being constructed on quicksand by leaving a dump truck on site overnight; how it was built on top of a rat colony — according to Prescott; and how additions to the building created staircases to nowhere.
Those histories, though, don’t keep students from improvising.
“There are certain stories that have floated around over time, like that the building is haunted by the first principal,” Karam said.
“Sometimes kids will tell random stories like that, just to freak the kids out. They’ll say, ‘I was here late at night and I saw this rose floating in the hallway. Those stories, obviously, are unconfirmed.”
Mischievous student tour guides aren’t alone in believing Prescott haunts the halls — staff, too, trade stories of hearing or sensing her presence. Even current Principal Jason Martinez, who insisted he “isn’t a big paranormal person,” has no doubt someone has been with him in the building late at night.
Described in a 1928 edition of the student publication The McKinley Mirror as “the guardian spirit of our school — the thoughtful mother, the wise counselor, the ever-ready helper in a thousand tasks,” Prescott was principal of McKinley until 1947.
Tasked with opening the district’s first junior high, Prescott wrote in 1972 of the school’s earliest days, of how the hallways felt stark and barren but held incredible potential.
“Bleak white walls everywhere, no pictures, no school mementos — no decorations or attractive furnishings of any sort,” she recalled, according to a writing included in a 75th anniversary publication for McKinley. “But everyone concerned shared the thrill of having plenty of room!”
By the school’s second winter, Wood had filled the school with borrowed house plants.
Molded for students
One September afternoon, sixth-grader Jason Rivera poked at a plastic plant on a marble shelf outside the archives room. The dusty plant was one of few items on display in the hallway where he and a few other students were asked to look for evidence of their school’s STEAM theme. Being a STEAM school means the school will take a more holistic approach to learning, said Michele Wilson, who became McKinley’s magnet coordinator after two decades of teaching there.
Magnet schools try to attract students from outside their neighborhood boundaries, and
Wilson said the school environment should signal visitors, right away, that this is a place where students are learning.
“They look dead,” Jason, 11, said flatly, holding the artificial plant. He, Wilson and a few other students giggled.
“OK, that’s how I want you to think,” Wilson said. “Could it be improved or cleaned in some way?”
Maybe we could get real plants, another student said, while others chatted about how a couch and comfy chairs could fill an empty space where a long boarded-up staircase used to open onto the top floor.
The aging building has never hindered her own teaching, Wilson said, and seems to have molded to students’ needs. There’s still room, though, to better showcase students and their work within the school.
“Whatever we do in these classrooms is really what matters,” Wilson said. “The physical space is secondary to that.”
McKinley has changed over the years, but Church, the building engineer, knows where nearly everything is in it. She knows where the wood shop classes used to be, where the locker is of the boy she once saw being picked on by other students — the boy she later surprised with a birthday cake. She knows, she said for certain, there is no ghost.
For all its history, her favorite place is almost new.
“My favorite? I’ll show you,” she said, walking toward the north doors, picking up a fallen poster and turning into the attendance office.
Inside, a long desk sat in front of tall windows. A softly worn couch was in the center of the room. Coffee brewed on a counter, and plants adorned the window sills.
“It’s cozy,” she said, looking at the space that greets tardy students and visiting adults to the school. “It’s welcoming.”
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