• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Lasting memories of Versailles Elementary School, VHS


AN OPEN HOUSE at the new Versailles School Apartments will happen on Thursday, Dec. 8 at 11:30 a.m. The grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony includes featured speaker Libby Jones, former Kentucky first lady. (Photo by Bob Vlach)

The future of one former school building in Versailles has been re-imagined. The Versailles Elementary School building located at 299 South Main Street is being renovated into an apartment building owned and operated by AU Associates, a Lexington-based company that focuses on adaptive reuse projects such as the revitalization of aging school buildings. A first-grader at Versailles Elementary during the 1935-36 school year, Betty Dozier came back to her hometown school as a teacher in 1952 - teaching first-graders in the same classroom where she was taught as a first-grader. "I share that with lots of people," says Dozier, a teacher at Versailles Elementary from 1952 to 1964. She began her teaching career in the oldest section of Versailles Elementary (built in 1888 for $8,000 and torn down in 1967), and later moved to a front portion of the school "where we could look down Main Street and see the courthouse clock," Dozier remembers. Joe Gormley was a sixth-grader during his only year at Versailles Elementary School. He says, "They were very welcoming at the school." The former Woodford County schools superintendent still remembers the names of his principal (Miss George) and homeroom teacher (Miss Williams), who he describes as "just good folks." Ernest West - an inductee of the inaugural class of the Woodford County Public Schools Hall of Fame in 2012 - was also a Versailles Elementary sixth-grader, "and already playing varsity football," remembers Gormley. Patrick Shryock also has many fond memories of being a first-grader at Versailles Elementary School - years later. Being in Jean Barrows's class, meant that he also got to go to the same elementary school as his dad, Nickie Shryock, a longtime Versailles Police officer. "It was kind of cool going to the same elementary school that he went to. So I'm glad I got to experience that," says Patrick Shryock. "There are not too many people around that can say they went to Versailles Elementary." Shryock's most vivid memories came on Friday nights. Watching basketball games pitting his elementary school against teams from Millville, Mortonsville, Nonesuch, Pisgah and Midway was unforgettable. "It wasn't anything for that Versailles (Elementary School) gymnasium to be packed out (with people) on basketball nights. That was always a good time. It would be standing room only," remembers Shryock. Longtime elementary school teacher Peggy Carter Seal never attended classes at Versailles Elementary, but she's happy to see that the aging school building is being repurposed as an apartment building. "Any old structure that you can refurbish and use in a new way benefits the community," says Carter Seal. "It's a good use of a public facility," adds Gormley. The former Woodford County judge-executive says he plans to attend an open house for Versailles School Apartments on Thursday, Dec. 8, at 11:30 a.m. The grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony includes featured speaker Libby Jones, former Kentucky first lady. Building tours will follow. The repurposed elementary school building most recently housed the school district's community education center, but Gormley says, "I call it Versailles Elementary School all the time." Says Dozier, "I want to get in and see what each suite looks like. What are they going to call the suites?" Built for $70,000, Versailles Elementary School opened its doors to students on Sept. 4, 1939. At the corner of Lexington and Maple streets, another former school building - Versailles High School (known to later generations as Woodford County Middle School) - has an uncertain future since the school district sold the building and adjacent properties in 2006. The VHS building was a middle school until a new WCMS opened its doors for the 2004-05 school year. The building was used for educational purposes again during the 2005-06 school year as a temporary home for students and teachers from Simmons Elementary, while their school was being renovated. The former VHS building has been vacant and unused since its purchase in the fall of 2006 by local developer Matt Matthews. He was unsuccessful with his plans to repurpose the school building, where many memories were made by former students. Carter Seal, editor of the student newspaper during her senior year at Versailles High School, described her four years at VHS as a wonderful time in her life - filled with many lasting memories. The 1962 VHS graduate says some of her best memories happened whenever she and other students walked to downtown Versailles for lunch at Mucci's (current location of Madison's On Main). "For a quarter," recalls '57 VHS grad Beverly (Joseph) Crain, "you could get a hotdog and Coke and potato chips. That was the only time you could socialize during school." The small number of seniors - perhaps 60 or 70 - meant everybody in the Class of '62 really did feel like they knew everyone else. "I loved the people and made such good friends going to (VHS)," says Seal. She and George Withers have many fond memories of their teachers, "and the good times that we had in the school itself," explains Withers, Class of '63. ".It was a lot different than it is now," he continues, "simply because of our size. You knew most everybody that went to school there. At some point in time during the (school) year, you ended up (in classes) with most of the teachers." Jim Tuttle, a science teacher at Versailles High School in the late-1950s, says his students were always very respectful to him and their other teachers. "You knew families. And I feel that's important for teachers to know something about the families that students are coming from," says Tuttle. He often took his science students on fieldtrips - "fitting as many in my car as I could get" - to destinations in Woodford County and elsewhere for scientific observations. One of his fondest memories involved letting his students launch hydrogen-filled balloons with notes attached. "And they got some very interesting replies back from places - mostly east of here because of prevailing winds," recalls Tuttle, himself a graduate of VHS in 1951. Gormley says he did "just about everything" during his years at VHS. Teacher, coach, guidance counselor, athletic director and assistant principal were his job titles after being a student there. "It was a special time as much as a special place," says the 1953 VHS graduate. With far fewer entertainment options in those days, Gormley says school events were well attended. "A very close relationship between community and school," he explains, before adding, "I remember 4-H meetings being packed." Withers can still remember making so many good friends while playing sports at VHS. "It was unbelievable the community support for the teams," he says. "When we played - especially when we played football - our side of the stands was always full." He says that support was present in the football team's lean years before a state championship at VHS in 1962. Crain, a health teacher and cheerleader sponsor during that championship season, met her husband of 50 years, Ben Crain, on her first day of classes - as a student - at VHS. Beverly and Ben Crain dated during their senior year; he was class president. Their Class of 1957 at Versailles High School had only 84 graduates, but they included trailblazers Richard Beasley, Stella Howard, Helen Jackson, Lewis Johnson, Wendell Stepp and William Weaver. The African-American students chose to enroll at VHS - and end segregation in Woodford County schools - rather than stay at Simmons School for their final year of high school. Reflecting on her years at VHS, Nancy (Nealus) Turner says she doesn't really remember the building where she attended classes. "You care about the other students, you don't really care about the building," says Turner, who graduated from VHS in 1960. Still, the longtime employee of The Woodford Sun has strong feelings about not repurposing a former school building like VHS. "Churches have become restaurants. Schools have become apartments. But to just let a building fall down is obscene," says Turner. Asked to express her thoughts about the current deteriorated condition of the VHS building at the corner of Lexington and Maple streets, Carter Seal says, "That is just tragic . That building had so much character and so many memories that go back a long way." The Versailles High School building was much smaller when its doors opened 1927. Construction cost was $105,000 for the original building, which faced Maple Street and housed an auditorium with a gymnasium below. An addition of a south wing in 1938 included a large shop, study hall, library and classrooms. Before he became a science teacher, Tuttle was manager of the boys' basketball team during his junior and senior years at VHS. So he remembers practices being held in the gyms at Pisgah and Woodburn elementary schools after a fire burned the high school's gym. "Interestingly enough," Tuttle recalls, "I drove an old rickety school bus for the basketball team, and we would drive out to one of these two" school gyms for practices. Without a gym, he says, "We were always on the road when we played." A renovation following the 1948 fire in the building's north wing resulted in a renovation of the stage and auditorium, a remodeled gym, home economics area, science lab and band room. When Withers left a small school on the other side of Cynthiana to attend Versailles High School as a seventh-grader in 1957, he says, "I had never seen anything as big as that." In 1964, the VHS building became Woodford Junior High School and began serving students in grades six through eight from across the county. The building was then designated as Woodford County Middle School in 1962 after a renovation. "I never think of (that building) as the old middle school," says Carter Seal. "I always think of it as my high school." Having spent so many years in a building that educated countless middle and high school students for more than seven decades, Gormley describes its loss as "significant." "The building had so much to offer to the community and to just let it go - to me (it's) very depressing," he says. "It's sad. To me, it's very sad," Withers agrees. Seeing the school's gymnasium torn down was particularly troublesome for a student whose memories are so linked to athletics. "Anybody that went there," says Withers, 71, "they'll always have a soft spot in their heart for that building." He only hopes someone will find a new use for this school building where so many former students and teachers have lifelong memories. "When I think (of my years at VHS)," says Tuttle, "I don't think so much of the building as I do the people" - former classmates and his students. And Beverly Crain says she chose a career in teaching to "help other students like (my teachers) helped me."

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