School bells are a thing of the past. Much like church bells of today, school bells used to be a signal to those within hearing distance. They rang to start school each day, called the children in from the playground for each recess, rang after lunch and oftentimes served as a community call when there was a fire or emergency signaling the need for help. Even the death of a community member sometimes was acknowledged in its ringing.
And the last day of school, well, that was the day the teacher -- if she was in a good mood -- would let us ring the bell to our hearts' content to signify "school's out, school's out, teacher let the mules out." This, however, occurred only after the last day of school dinner celebration was completed. Parents, and the entire community, would bring covered dishes, and Mrs. Ben Karst would bring her famous, delicious, mouth-watering cream puffs, making sure she had at least one for every person there, for that was a treat we looked forward to, year after year. After we were done eating, then we would pack up our books, and make the trek to each of our homes with thoughts of summer frolics flashing through our minds, much like the dreams of sugar plums that dance in the heads of every child at Christmas time.
School days are some of the best days of a lifetime. True, they are not always appreciated at the time, but we must never forget education is something we never should take for granted. It is a privilege that, as free Americans, we are able to enjoy. Sometimes we need to be reminded education was something that was not always affordable to everyone. This was a true fact I learned from my own father. An immigrant from Russia in the early 1900s, and as the baby of a family of four older brothers, his help was needed at home on the farm, so education had to be put aside early in his life and much to his chagrin. But he had an obligation to his family.
Throughout his entire life, we, as a family, felt the loss he experienced in not being granted the privilege of a proper education and shared in his desire and goal to ascertain that others did not have to experience this same dilemma. That is why, to this very day, every time I board a school bus, or stop to watch children load or unload from a school bus, I think of my father.
Here was a man who chose to rise above this obstacle in his life when the need arose for furthering the education of his only son. It is sometimes said we bring our past with us to all new beginnings, and in this new undertaking, my father did that. He came to the United States with his parents to pursue a new life. His family left the tyranny of the Russian czars to come to this great country of ours, to be free. To enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life by marrying and raising a family. Liberty by attending the church of his choice and ascertaining his children did the same. Pursuit of happiness by always finding something to keep his hands and mind busy and not depending on others to always make his life easy. And, upon becoming a citizen of this country, he did just that. Ingrained with pride, he said "You earn what you have yourself." He was not afraid of long hours at work, sweat and sometimes tears and sadness along the way.
With the help of several of his former students, I have been able to put together some of the things he did in the late 1930s. One important thing he did was he made a school bus. Unthought of today with safety issues and government control, his one thought was to open the door of opportunity to young people graduating from grade school and transport them to the nearest high school to further their education.
Did he feel each child was unique and deserved the opportunity to pursue an education? I think he did. His actions proved he did. So, with my brother as the prime encouraging factor, along with his friends, Dad ingeniously converted the back of the ice truck he used for hauling ice as an occupation in the summer to a school bus. Heat was conducted through the small window of the truck, with homemade long, wooden benches along the trucks' bed, providing seats. Comfort was limited. A stepstool provided access to the back entrance. The bus route was from farmstead to farmstead.
This bus was not yellow. In the black-and-white picture I have, the bus appears to have been gray, with the word "ice" written on the side. Nonetheless, it was an opportunity for a better future for each student who boarded this vehicle each year. When the temperature was hot outside, it was hot inside. Same applied to the long, cold winters. But an education was far and foremost the goal of both the students and the bus driver of that era. They were able to overcome the little obstacles of comfort and convenience to obtain a dream, especially the young men, who went directly from high school into the armed forces in the early 1940s. There was a dream for each and every one of them, when finally they were able to return home to their families and a career of choice after dutifully serving their country.
The average salary in the late 1930s was $1,300 per household, per year. Unemployment rate was 25 percent and the minimum wage was 43 cents an hour. Money was scarce because of the Great Depression, but the farmers of those days were happy to pay $1.50 a week for their children to be taken to school, as this was the only mode of transportation available to further their education. As a matter of fact, one of the students, Paul Strecker, tells me the bus proved to be so popular a second bus was added the second year after it started, with my brother, then a sophomore at Hoisington High School, as the driver. Information provided said Dad parked the bus at the school and walked to another job while the students were in school, and when school was dismissed, he would be waiting at the bus, ready to return the children to their homes. But he was not the only one who had to make concessions for all of this to be possible. As one child of a former bus rider told me, "Dad had to get up every morning, early, and milk the cows to make enough money to pay for his school bus fare, but Dad told me he was always grateful that he had a ride to high school because without that education, he would not have been able to go to a barber school after he got out of the Army."
Dad might be remembered as being labor foreman when the Russell schools Simpson and Bickerdyke were built. "Mr. Mai," as he affectionately was called by the youngsters, will be remembered as the janitor at Simpson Grade School who, we have been told, held the door open each morning as the students entered the building at the start of each school day. Yes, all children, not just his five siblings, held a special place in his heart.
On the day of his funeral, I never will forget the men and women who came up to my mother and us siblings and expressed their sincere appreciation for "the man" who gave them the opportunity to meet their full potential in life's journey when he "had a dream" and made that all possible by the ingenious building of one of the very first "school buses" in middle Kansas from a truck bed on the back of a red GMC truck.
When I opened my mail recently, there was a familiar, ecru-colored college graduation announcement in my post office box, addressed "Granny Albrecht." First, I had to chuckle at the informality and then a flashback of my dad changed that chuckle to a sob, as a little trip down memory lane made me wish, with all my heart, that Dad still was with us today, to see the educational accomplishments and varied professions of his children, grandchildren, his great- and his great-great-grandchildren. I wish he could view what he and my mother, in all their ultimate wisdoms, helped instill in their family by their faithful teaching that we were each unique, and we were always to remember that what lies before us and what lies beyond us is tiny when compared to what lies within us.
Year after year, it is our duty and obligation, as American citizens, to ascertain that school bells continue to beckon to the youth of our nation, and hopefully the lesson they continue to ring out will echo through time with this inspirational thought: "Learn and do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places that you can, at all the times you can, for all the people you can, as long as you can, and live life as simply as you can, remembering all the while, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be yours."
Nadene Albrecht resides in Russell.