Hammansburg School: Change Always Comes Bearing Gifts



In the early 1970’s, the North Baltimore School system was facing an overcrowding problem.  As a solution, a decision was made to move the fifth graders en masse to the abandoned Hammansburg School.  Having served on a school board myself, I am fairly certain that many parents were less than enchanted with the idea of busing children, many who had never ridden a bus before, into the country to attend school in a building well past its glory days.

My class (NBHS ’78) was the second class to attend fifth grade at Hammansburg School.  I distinctly recall members of the class of ’77 telling us horror stories about the Hammansburg building: sulfur water, terrible lunch food, long bus rides.   Since we were younger, we believed them.  We spent the summer prior to fifth grade worrying about the pending transition to a new school.

As always, summer passed quickly and we soon found ourselves loading the bus for our first day of fifth grade.  When the students who had previously attended Powell School jumped off the bus at Hammansburg School on the first day and surveyed our surroundings, the reports from our elders seemed to be true:  the odor of sulfur water emanated from the tired, old building. We were still contemplating our fate when a second busload of students who had previously attended the Main School arrived.  Of course, we knew some of them from church or sports teams, but most of them were brand new faces. 

Who could have known that the moment we found ourselves surrounded by strangers and preparing to enter a spooky-looking building would have been the beginning of the best year of our school career?

Cherie Seiler, the school secretary, set the tone with her friendly greeting.  She helped us locate our classrooms.  There were four classes taught by Mr. and Mrs. Wright, Mr. Gerig, and Mrs. Shearer.  There was a lunch room attached to the school building that doubled as a band and music room.  We had an art room full of supplies and half-completed projects. Maybe the most exciting amenity was a standalone gymnasium replete with bleachers and a stage. 

Almost immediately, we bonded as a group.  Soon, old alliances formed at Powell School or Main School were expanded to include new friends that we hadn’t known before fifth grade.  It seems like recesses were extra long at Hammansburg School and that helped us bond.  There was ample space for many outdoor activities:  monkey bars, merry-go-round, and slides;   grassy places to play baseball or touch football; and lots of pavement for games like four square, jacks, or dribbling a basketball.  In the winter, the puddles froze and we were able to slide about on the ice.

Within the classroom, I remember excitement as we rotated to different teachers’ rooms for various subjects.  It almost seemed like we were already in junior high!  For some of us, there was the added thrill of learning to play a musical instrument in fifth grade.  For the boys, this was the year when they began to play on basketball teams on winter weekends.  Much conversation focused on those important games.

My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Shearer.  I remember breaking into small groups to decorate bulletin boards as a way to learn about the continents.  My bulletin board was Antarctica which we unfortunately misspelled, significantly detracting from our grade.  Mrs. Shearer, you will be happy to know that I haven’t misspelled Antarctica since then.  Another time, she allowed us to arrange our desks in the shape of a peace sign.  Not surprisingly, I found myself sitting at the very bottom of the straight line in the peace sign which was exactly in front of the teacher’s desk. 

During that year, we also made an erupting  papier mache volcano at Julie (Stephens) Cowan’s house.   In a recent conversation, Julie said, “I remember using lots of plaster of Paris, paint, and little plastic trees for landscaping to build it.  I made it in our basement and didn’t plan on how heavy that dang thing was going to be carrying it up the stairs.  I’m sure my dad (Ralph Stephens) about had a heart attack carrying it out of the house.”  Another memorable project involved the creation of a plantation.  Kathy (Vermilya) Cramer’s dad (Rich Vermilya) built the plantation house.  My grandpa (Ed Slaughterbeck) helped me build two tobacco drying sheds.

By far, the most fun portion of each day was the morning and afternoon bus ride.  The two bus drivers were Bob Mong and Maurice Hough.  Each morning, Mr. Mong would say to each of us, “Make sure you learn something new today.”   Maurice Hough often led the bus in a jolly rendition of “Yes, We Have No Bananas” as he drove us home. 

Nine months later, another summer was upon us.  When we went to the Quarry that summer, we had twice as many friends as we had the summer before due to our magical year at Hammansburg School.  We were confident and ready to move to sixth grade at the Main Building.  And I’m pretty sure, we lied to the incoming fifth graders and told them horror stories about the decrepit Hammansburg School building and the sulfur water and the bad food and the long bus rides.  I bet they believed us too.


Leadership Lessons from the Corner of Beecher and Walnut

schwinn collegiate

“Describe your leadership style and a significant influence on your leadership style.” This was posed to me recently in an important interview.

“Hmmm.” I knew the right answer should be couched in the leadership literature. My mind raced. “Should I give them a rehearsed line from Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, or Jim Collins? I know this stuff cold. I could hit it out of the park.”

But, then I surprised myself and took a big risk: I didn’t give an answer meant to impress the interviewers. Instead, I said, “My greatest leadership skill is consensus building. I learned it on the corner of Beecher and Walnut Streets in North Baltimore as a child.”

In my childhood, I was part of a great gang of neighborhood kids. Most days, you could find us on Beecher Street somewhere between Walnut and Broadway. We were easy to find; there was always a pile of bikes nearby. We were together from morning until dusk and our moms usually had to interrupt a game of “Ghosts in the Graveyard” to drag us home after dark.

Flashback to the summer of 1970: a time when our nation was reeling from an unpopular war in Vietnam, the music playing on the radio shouted “Four Dead in Ohio,” and cities were burning due to racial conflict. Yet, on Beecher Street, a group of 10 year-olds were practicing consensus building.

It started every morning when one member of our little posse asked what we were going to do today. In the business world, that is called defining the problem.

The next step in consensus building is identifying alternative solutions. In our 10 year-old conversation, there were usually several suggestions ranging from a wiffleball tournament, playing town on our bikes, going to the library, or organizing a foul shooting contest. Sometimes there were suggestions for bigger projects like planning an afternoon swimming trip to the quarry, counting all of the cars on the trains that would pass that day, or setting up a lemonade stand.

Evaluation of the options followed. There were comments like, “We can’t go to the quarry because I have a Little League game tonight so I’m not allowed to swim today” or “We lost the last wiffleball yesterday.”

This brought us to decision making. This was the hardest part. If one kid was passionate about his proposed idea, he would need to use his persuasive skills to recruit more support for his scheme. We didn’t know it then but we were learning sales skills at that moment.

Some days, my idea would be approved and then it was my role to make it happen. As example, if we agreed to go to the quarry, we would need to secure permission from our mothers, each get $1, plan a meeting time and place to begin the two-mile bike ride, decide who else might want to join us, invite them, and negotiate what time we needed to be home. On other days, my idea was overturned and that was an opportunity for me to practice being a good follower by not pouting that the group hadn’t rallied around my plan and working to bring someone else’s suggestion come to fruition.

Finally, we came to the last step of consensus building: implementation. That was the part where the best memories were made. Some of those great plans that became reality are still crystal clear in my memory. One time we even created a backyard carnival!

In hindsight, I realize it didn’t really matter what we did; the true magic came from sharing those experiences with friends and the real education happened in practicing teambuilding, selling an idea, evaluating an option, and learning to lead a project from the front and also from the back, as a good follower, while a friend practiced leading.

As for the important interview, I could have said, “In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus,’” but I didn’t. I just said, “My greatest strength is as a consensus builder and I learned it with Ron, Rhonda, Randy, Shari, Steve and Gary on Beecher Street in North Baltimore.”

And as for Stephen Covey, John Maxwell, or Jim Collins, their teachings just confirmed what a bunch of 10 year-olds in North Baltimore practiced every summer day a very long time ago.

Ohio Road Trip

ohio state reformatory

There is one movie that always captures my attention when I’m flipping through the television channels:  “The Shawshank Redemption.”  This is a 1994 film starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins that virtually no one went to see in the theatres, but it has since become a cult classic on television reruns. 

The overarching theme of the film is eternal hope cast against the sorrowful backdrop of prison life.  The main characters are Andy Dufresne, a banker serving a life sentence at the fictional Maine prison called Shawshank  Prison, and his fellow inmate, Red Redding.  Throughout the movie, Dufresne proclaims his innocence and is respected by his fellow inmates for his moral code.  Morgan Freeman narrates the film from the perspective of his character, Red Redding.  The film ends with a daring escape.

After watching parts of the movie at least a dozen times, I finally learned that the “Shawshank Redemption” was actually filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield.  Construction on the historic prison began in 1886 and prisoners were housed there until December 31, 1990.  Over 155,000 men were housed in that prison. 

Last summer, we decided to tour the Ohio State Reformatory on a Sunday afternoon.  The Reformatory is located less than a mile from US 30; just turn left at the Wayne Road exit.  Immediately, you will see the spooky Gothic structure that looks exactly like the Shawshank Prison. 

There are several choices for guided tours on Sunday afternoons throughout the summer months.  For a nominal fee of $9, we took the Hollywood tour.  We saw the Prison Warden’s office from “Shawshank Redemption” including the safe where Andy placed his ledgers, the Parole Board Room, and Andy Dufresne’s escape tunnel.   We even had an opportunity to see the dreaded “hole.”  We also saw the East Cell Block which is the worlds’ largest freestanding steel cell block that stands five stories high; the sheer scale of the cell block was amazing.

I could hear Morgan Freeman’s voice playing in my head throughout the tour: “ I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. That was my first impression of the man.” 

For the mega-Shawshank fans, there is even a self-guided driving tour around the Mansfield area called the Shawshank Trail.  A map is provided to help you drive to the locations where other non-prison movie scenes were filmed.

As a qualifier, I would caution that there is stair climbing involved in the tours and it is not handicapped accessible.  Also, it is not appropriate for small children.

After living in northwest Ohio my entire life, I felt like I had seen most touristy sites within a 90 minute drive so visiting the historic Ohio State Reformatory was a fun surprise.  It is an easy drive and affordable.  I learned a little about the dark side of Ohio history, saw how one of my favorite movies was filmed, and as we drove away, I am almost sure I heard a voice say, “Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free.”

I Hear Voices

little julie

I’ve recently begun listening to country music and there is one song, “Voices” by Chris Young, that always makes me appreciate the positive impact so many folks from North Baltimore made on my life.

“You could say I’m a little bit crazy
You could call me insane
Walkin’ ’round with all these whispers
Runnin’ ’round here in my brain

I just can’t help but hear ’em
Man, I can’t avoid it
I hear voices
I hear voices like

My dad sayin’, ‘Work that job
But don’t work your life away’
And mama tellin’ me to drop some cash
In the offerin’ plate on Sunday.”

Hearing those voices, always draws me back to my carefree childhood in North Baltimore, of bike rides, and wiffleball games, and swimming at the quarry.  Our childhood might not have been flashy, but we were sure surrounded by good people.

One of the loudest voices I hear came from Sunday School at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church: “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”  (Matthew 25:40)  I heard that message so early that I can’t recall exactly whose voice it is, but I’m guessing it is a Sunday School teacher like Mabel Dick or the junior choir director, Jesse Hess.  Regardless of who said it, I heard it and it remains a driving force in my life.  That voice spoke to me when I made a midlife career change to work with nonprofit agencies that feed, shelter, and provide many necessities for the “least of these brothers.”

Another voice that I hear frequently is from my piano teacher, Glenna Andrews.  Her voice says that you aren’t likely to get much better at any skill unless you practice.  Even though I didn’t always take her advice back then, I did get the message:  “Practice makes perfect.”

I learned about forgiveness from my fourth grade teacher, Emma Apple.  Over the course of the year, she had confiscated several of my belongings: marbles that fell out of my desk, a squirt gun, click-clack balls, a Super ball, and maybe a few other things.  I had written those prized possessions off as long gone when the bell rang on a beautiful June day to mark the end of the school year.  As my classmates bolted for the door, Mrs. Apple called me aside to say, “Here, I saved these for you.”  I was so happy to have my contraband back and even happier to know she wasn’t even mad that I had brought them to school.

At home, I hear the voice of March Bean, mother of my friend, Ron Bean.  March’s voice speaks of hospitality.  At March’s house, the door was always open and we were always welcome.  We used her restroom, ate her food, and disrupted her day but she was always smiling when we were there.  I especially remember when she baked chocolate chip cookies, all of the Beecher Street kids showed up and we gorged ourselves on the first batches of cookies. March just kept baking and smiling until we were all full. 

Every day, I hear the voice of junior high English teacher, Jim Dennis, because much of my work is based on writing or editing.  Jim’s voice says things like, “Affect is a verb; effect is a noun” or “Who is a subject; whom is an object.”  It wasn’t much fun learning it, but I’m sure glad you made me do it.  Thanks J.D.

Of course, the North Baltimore voices that I hear the most are those of my parents and grandparents, but their voices are louder because those important life lessons were reaffirmed by an entire village of people.  If it takes a village to raise a child, I think we landed in an exceptional village.

“Sometimes I try to ignore ’em
But I thank God for ’em
‘Cause they made me who I am.”
  ~Chris Young

Shake Down the Thunder From the Sky


It took a trip to Notre Dame Stadium to bring this Buckeye home.

During my days attending North Baltimore High School, there wasn’t a lot to cheer about on Friday nights but Saturday afternoons were very exciting.  The late 1970’s found North Baltimore strategically situated right between two college football dynasties:  the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, under the leadership of Dan Devine and Ara Parseghian, winners of two national championships during the 70’s and the Ohio State University Buckeyes, led by Woody Hayes and two-time Heisman winner, Archie Griffin, always perched near the top of the national rankings.

Not only was North Baltimore geographically positioned between the two powerhouses, it seemed to be spiritually straddling the line as well.   Where a North Baltimore resident worshiped on Sunday seemed to have a direct correlation to which team he supported on Saturday afternoon. 

Since I attended church at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, I was raised squarely in the OSU Buckeye camp.  My favorite t-shirts were adorned with some sort of OSU logo.  The most exciting day of the year was the OSU-Michigan game and in the best years, January 1 found us watching our beloved Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl.

I distinctly remember some of my high school friends, who worshiped at Our Lady of Miraculous Medal Catholic Church, were equally ardent Notre Dame fans.  They sported jerseys with leprechauns or shamrocks on them.  They even had the advantage of “Notre Dame Football Replay” that was aired on television right after church on Sunday mornings.  I can still hear the announcer say, “Later, on the same series of downs….”

Some of my school friends were lucky enough to attend Notre Dame games.  Even though I didn’t like the Fighting Irish, I still remember their excitement about Notre Dame games and game day traditions.  Mostly, I remember hearing stories from Nancy Swartz (’76) and Pete Boney (’78) whose parents often attended the games together. 

The common thread in every story about a North Baltimore resident going to a Notre Dame game somehow involved tickets from Clair Blackall, a NBHS and Notre Dame (BS ’29, MS ’30) alum.  Then there would be the talk about the game day traditions at Notre Dame:  lighting a candle at the Grotto before the game, walking through the Basilica, the Golden Dome, the Band of the Fighting Irish following the Irish Guard into the stadium, and then the game that Notre Dame almost always won.  Finally, there would be the trip home that involved a stop at Das Dutchman Essenhaus in Middlebury, Indiana, for some good Amish cooking.  One time, Nancy Swartz even got to shake hands with Digger Phelps. 

Then time flew like it always does.   I graduated from OSU.   I cheered diligently for the Buckeyes through the good years and the bad.  Before we knew it, our children grew up and went to college.  One of our daughters went to the University of Miami and I found myself unexpectedly watching the once-hated Miami Hurricanes.  Soon, I grew to realize that the joy of a college football Saturday isn’t about which team you support; it’s about the pageantry, the tradition, the sense of community.  Now every fall, we venture to stadiums we have only seen on television and explore different college football cultures.

I have been to several Notre Dame games, but this year I was granted an inside peek to those North Baltimore stories I remember hearing during my youth.  On October 20, North Baltimore was well-represented at the Notre Dame-BYU football game.  In one long row, NBHS was represented by Larry Slaughterbeck (’59), Nancy Swartz (’76), Julie Brown (’78), Zac Swartz (’93), Jake Swartz (’94).  Larry brought his grandson, Samuel Slaughterbeck, and other NB relatives included Gene Swartz’ grandson Luke, and his great-grandsons, Tyler, Zachary, and Avery.

On that crisp autumn afternoon in South Bend, the Swartz family generously shared their Fighting Irish traditions with some lifelong OSU fans.  Recreating those game days Nancy Swartz shared with her dad, she led us from the Grotto to the Basilica to the Golden Dome to the team walk into the stadium and the “oldest band in the land” performing outdoors before the game. 

Once inside the stadium, surrounded by Gene Swartz’ daughter, grandsons and great-grandsons, we watched the Irish sneak out a 17-14 victory over the Cougars, but my favorite memory  was watching 6 year-old Avery Swartz play his air guitar as Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train was blasted over the stadium loudspeakers to encourage the Irish defense on third down stands.  I couldn’t help but think about how proud his great-grandpa would be to see this avid Irish fan.

In the end, a day spent at Notre Dame stadium reaffirmed to this Buckeye alum that the magic of college football isn’t measured in wins and losses; it is really about traditions and special times spent together that create lifelong memories.  This experience also reenergized my ties to North Baltimore:  to old friends and to memories of NB people from my childhood like Clair Blackall, Gene Swartz, Ed and Marceille Boney.

“Strong of heart and true to her name.  We will ne’er forget her and we’ll cheer her ever, loyal to Notre Dame.”


A Hero’s Welcome: Flag City Honor Flight 2012


Did you hear alarm clocks ringing at 3 a.m. last Thursday?

That was the sound of 165 area veterans and their guardians awakening for one of the longest yet most memorable days ever:  Flag City Honor Flight 2012.

George King, a North Baltimore resident from 1939-2001 and Korean War veteran, was one of the 79 veterans who were honored as part of Flag City Honor Flight 2012.  He served in the U.S. Army from 1950 – 1952 and spent nine months on the frontlines in Korea.  George’s Honor Flight guardian was his daughter, Karen Bishop, Findlay, who works as Assistant Director of Nursing at Birchaven.

Seven NBHS alums also volunteered to serve as guardians on the Flag City Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. Denise (Sterling) Green ’77, Kathy (Vermilya) Cramer ’78, Julie (Slaughterbeck) Brown ’78, Karen (King) Bishop ’77, Melody (Blake) Drewes ’78, Nancy Swartz ’76, and Lori (Phillips) Allison ’77.  Each veteran is assigned a personal guardian to accompany him throughout the day.  Some veterans elect to take a family member as a guardian, but many choose a community volunteer to serve as guardian.

Melody Drewes had previously volunteered as a guardian on a national Honor Flight and accompanied two North Baltimore residents:  her father and uncle, Bob and Paul Blake.  The Blake’s were well-represented on the earlier Honor Flight with Paul Blake’s daughter, Cathy Basye, serving as his guardian.  Meeting the group in Washington, D.C. was Bob’s family:  Bob “Bun” Blake, Patty Long, and Josh Long.   Drewes said, “I wanted to be an Honor Flight guardian again because it is such a rewarding experience to honor those who gave so much for each and every one of us!  Based on my dad’s and Uncle Paul’s experiences, I know an Honor Flight is the trip of a lifetime for a veteran.”

Nancy Swartz, who is a registered nurse at Fostoria ProMedica Hospital, spent the day serving as a guardian for Robert Wilson of McComb, a World War II veteran.   Swartz felt especially blessed to have the opportunity to serve as a guardian to honor her father, Gene Swartz, who was a WW II US Navy veteran and survived the Pearl Harbor attacks:  “I’m sure that if he were alive today, we would be making the trip together. Instead I’ll be proud to share the day with someone else’s dad, but will have my dad’s memory close to my heart.”

Like Swartz, many of the guardians work as health care providers which provides a precaution to any minor health issues that might arise during the trip.  “Even though many of the veterans are elderly, for the day of the Honor Flight they are 20 year old soldiers again,” said Deb Wickerham, Flight Director. 

Veterans and guardians began the morning at 4 a.m. at the Masonic Temple in Findlay. The buses were loaded and followed a motorcycle escort to Toledo Express Airport.  Upon arriving at the private terminal, guardians and veterans were treated to a hot breakfast.  Ohio Representative Robert Sprague shared a personal thank you with each veteran before he entered the plane.

Next the flight was boarded for Baltimore Washington International Airport.  In total, 170 souls and 66 wheelchairs were onboard.  Upon landing, the veterans were greeted by an active three-star general stationed at the Pentagon.  Three charter buses were loaded and the group headed for the National Mall.  The veterans and their guardians visited the memorial dedicated to each specific veteran’s war:  WW II, Korean, or Vietnam.   A hearty lunch was provided under a tent near the WW II Memorial.  The most powerful moments of the trip were the many tourists at the memorials who spontaneously thanked the veterans for their service.  Each veteran was surrounded by strangers who wanted to shake hands, take a picture or share a hug. 

Soon, it was time for another reloading of the buses for a trip to Arlington National Cemetery where the group enjoyed V.I.P. seating for the Changing of the Guard.  Finally the buses circled the Iwo Jima and Air Force monuments and the Pentagon and the return journey to the airport.

Finally, the exhausted group was back aboard the charter plane headed for Toledo Express Airport.  The veterans and guardians thought the day’s festivities were over, but arrived to a hero’s welcome replete with a military band, family, and friends.  Over 400 people were in attendance.  The evening ended with a mail call.  Each veteran received photographs from his visit, a good conduct pin, and a book highlighting his memorial.  By 11 p.m., it was time to reload the buses for the journey home to Findlay.

To summarize his experience, George King said, “I am very glad I went on this trip.  I did not know that so many people cared that I had served my country.”

Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization created solely to honor America’s veterans for their sacrifices. Honor Flight transports heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit and reflect at their memorials. Top priority is given to the senior veterans:  World War II survivors, along with those other veterans who may be terminally ill.

Initially, Flag City Honor Flight was formed as a branch of Honor Flight NW Ohio in Toledo.  In 2010, local leaders of the initiative felt a sense of urgency prompted by the age of World War II veterans to get more Hancock County veterans to their memorials.  At that juncture, Flag City Honor flight was established as an independent nonprofit agency under the leadership of Deb Wickerham, fifth grade teacher at Findlay’s Chamberlin Hill Elementary and former Ohio Teacher of the Year.  For additional information on future flights or to volunteer or donate to Flag City Honor Flight, please visit http://www.flagcityhonorflight.org/.