Former students, staff reminisce as Marshall Elementary marks 50 years

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Secretary Judie Loveall has been greeting students at George C. Marshall Elementary School for 33 years, and she welcomed back former students, former teachers and parents whose children attended the school on Thursday during an open house marking the school's 50th anniversary at its current location.

While Loveall has seen thousands of students over the decades, she wouldn't have known David Skeans as a student. She turned 2 the year he started at the original Marshall, which opened in 1943.

The original Marshall opened the same year as Lieser Elementary School and two years after Hough Elementary School opened. (The district had earlier elementary schools, but those have been completely rebuilt.)

Today, the district, which now goes by Vancouver Public Schools, has 21 elementary schools.

Skeans was in Marshall's inaugural first-grade class. The original school was about a mile away from the current Marshall on Vancouver's McLoughlin Heights and built to accommodate children of parents who worked in the Kaiser Shipyard during World War II. Both of his parents worked in the shipyard; his two sons later attended the current Marshall.

Skeans enjoyed looking through scrapbooks in the school gymnasium/cafeteria Thursday, pointing out a story in The Columbian from 1948 about an evening of skits at Marshall put on by children's groups including his Cub Scout Pack 560. His mother, listed as "Mrs. J.L. Skeans," was the den mother.

Skits were what they did for entertainment, he said.

"In those days, all you had was a radio," said Skeans, 74. His pack's skit was called "Atomic News." Reporters would rush in with what they claimed to be good stories, only to be turned down. The last reporter would rush in and say, "There's gonna be an explosion!" Someone would ask, "When?"

And then tables and chairs would be knocked over, Skeans recalled, making a large clattering sound.

The original Marshall was torn down in 1953, and students attended Lieser Elementary School until the new Marshall opened at 6400 MacArthur Blvd., for the 1962-63 school year. A wing was added in 1963, and the school's media center was remodeled in 1992.

But inside the school, which was built around a courtyard, not much has changed.

Named for the nation's first five-star general -- who served as Army Commander of the 5th Infantry Brigade at the Vancouver Barracks from 1936 to 1938 -- the school's nickname is, naturally, the Generals.

On Thursday, a pre-spring break ritual of doing the "Hokey Pokey" around the courtyard was relived, followed by a singing of the school fight song.

In the school's hallway, people took photos of class photos chosen to represent the decades, while thick scrapbooks of photographs and articles were on tables in the gym.

Former school Principal Don Cannard, who retired in 1980, said his lasting contribution to the courtyard was a tall pole with a cross bar, upon which are several worn-looking birdhouses built by students.

"We had trouble with the squirrels getting up there," he recalled.

More current additions to the courtyard include Dale Chihuly-inspired pieces hanging from trees. But instead of glass, current principal Karen Leary said, the pieces were made from recyclable plastic bottles. The students, under the guidance of art teacher Lori Talley, painted the bottles, cut them and used heat guns to distort them so they would look like blown glass.

Marshall's population grew steadily after it opened in 1962 with 439 students, but now it's below 400. Population ballooned to 602 after the Skyline Crest housing project opened in 1964, and portable classrooms were added. By 1967, 790 children were enrolled.

Leary said Thursday the school has 366 students, and the number has hovered around 400 for several years.

The red-brick school was built for $422,800.

Stephanie Rice attended Marshall Elementary School in the 1980s and always achieved a five-star general ranking during Read Week.