Gone, but not forgotten: Billings' early schools shaped lives

2012-08-12T00:05:00Z Gone, but not forgotten: Billings' early schools shaped livesStories By MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

John Louk can still find his junior high school classrooms in Lincoln Center.

His sister, Harriette Louk Frank, remembers where the home ec room was and that the girl’s gym was behind the Lincoln Center auditorium.

Rita Hughs Wells teared up when she recently visited the small office where her mom, Caroline Hughs, was the lunchroom accountant at the “new” Taft School in the late 1970s.

Garfield School launched Fred Jackson’s future careers in art and the theater.

Even after a school has disappeared or changed, it’s not forgotten.

John Louk and his sister both went to sixth grade at Jefferson School, which was torn down years ago. They didn’t have to go far for junior high at Lincoln next door.

One of the earliest schools built in Billings, Jefferson sat at the corner of North 29th Street and Fourth Avenue North. It was one of three school buildings in the block that including Billings’ first permanent school.

Opened in 1900, Jefferson was torn down to make room for an expansion of what is now Lincoln Center, which houses School District 2 administration offices as well as many education programs.

Louk has fond memories of both schools.

“I was not really a good student, but I never got

in trouble,” Louk said with a wide grin. “There never was a morning that I didn’t want to go to school because all my friends were going, too.”

When in junior high, he and friends sometimes walked across 29th Street North to a gas station with a lunch counter to eat. Or they’d go a couple more blocks to the legendary Hamburger Shop run by the Navasio family where he could get two hamburgers and a malt for 50 cents.

Louk would go on to Billings High School, now Senior High, where he graduated in 1953.

After attending Rocky Mountain College and serving in the U.S. Navy, Louk returned to Billings to work, including 23 years at Firestone Tire and Rubber Co.

In 1951, Harriette Louk Frank came to Jefferson for sixth grade.

She remembers an English teacher called “Chalkeater Johnson,” who may have taught when her father, Jack Louk, attended the school there in the 1930s. The teacher earned her name when her face became dusted with chalk after writing on the blackboard.

After graduating from high school in 1958, Frank went to work for the Ben Franklin store in Evergreen shopping center and has continued to work in retail for 48 years, most recently at Billings Hardware.

Fred Jackson was little lost when he arrived at Garfield School in the late 1940s.

He started school at Orchard School, near where he lived, but flunked the third grade.

It’s not a mystery why he had trouble in school.

“I was looking out the window and daydreaming,” Jackson said.

Concerned that he’d be embarrassed about repeating that grade in the same school, school officials sent him to Garfield School where things got better.

In seventh grade, Jackson was in an art class taught by Archie Elliott, who had his students make papier-mâché animals.

Instead of one, Jackson made five or six.

“I went wild,” Jackson said.

Those lessons in three-dimensional sculpting led to a career creating toys for the Ideal Toy Co., decanters for Avon and celebrity dolls for Mattel Inc.

While at Garfield, Jackson was such a cutup in art class, Elliott sent him to Mrs. Mullen, a drama and English teacher, who put him in a school play.

He fell in love with the theater and went on to act professionally in New York.

Jackson, who now lives in Billings, had classes at both the original and newer Garfield buildings that were attached. The old building was torn down years ago. The newer Garfield School still stands, although it was closed as an elementary school in 2001.

Rita Hughs Wells and her family have a lengthy history at three schools named Taft on the South Side.

In 1908, a three-story brick school was built at South 26th Street and Fifth Avenue South.

A 1921 article in The Billings Gazette noted that Taft students were of Mexican, Chinese, Black, Russian, German, Italian and Swedish ancestry, many of which were children of immigrants.

The school still had a diverse student body when Wells attended in the 1970s.

In 1973-74, Wells attended third grade at the old Taft School and the rest of her elementary years at two newer Taft schools built on the same block.

The original building, which was torn down in the 1970s, could be as foreboding as a haunted house.

The old building had a slide fire escape. If the children were good, teachers allowed them to ride the dark, creepy slide to the ground.

A trip to the library was scary for a young child, too. Wells had to descend the stairs and then navigate a dark passageway before reaching the library. But once she had reached the brightly lit library, she was cheerfully greeted by Mrs. Anderson, the librarian.

Wells’ parents, Cecil and Caroline Hughs, were active in the Taft PTA.

“I loved going to school here,” Wells said during a visit to the parking lot where the old school once stood.

Wells’ brother, Mike Hughs, didn’t attend Taft as a student, but he started his 33-year teaching career at the newer Taft schools in 1974.

Now retired, Hughs works at the city’s operation center.

The newer Taft School closed for good in 1980 when only 119 students were attending and district administrators worried about students crossing busy South 27th Street, Hughs said.

The newer Taft school was bought by Walla Walla University and now is used for its master’s of social work program, All Nations Church and the Family Tree Center.

Taft continues to be a force in Rita Wells’ life today.

The positive experiences with teachers at Taft drew her to teaching.

For the past 22 years, Wells has taught orchestra in every elementary school in Billings.

One is particularly familiar to Wells. The floor plan of Broadwater School, one of Billings’ oldest, is similar to the old Taft School.

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