Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Classroom Magic: Wisconsin School of the Air

Static. Crackling. Whistling. The radio was on. Chairs were scraping as they were pulled across the floor. Kids sat straight with hands folded. And then - Professor Gordon's Journeys Through Musicland was on the air. It was almost magic.

To know what it was like, one had to be there, and all over Kewaunee County kids were. There are memories and more memories. In an era of instant communication, a time when cell phones record and play videos,Wisconsin School of the Air seems like a stretch. Or maybe a figment of one’s imagination. But it wasn’t.

We were in a split 3rd – 4th grade combination and were filled with expectation knowing Professor Gordon would be on in seconds. He was fun so it was hard to understand a few years later when we found out he was educational too. How could so much fun teach us something? To sing with Gordon’s Journeys Through Musicland was the best. Although we didn’t know it then, we were among the 90,000 kids singing with Gordon that year. We had the soft-cover songbooks, but who needed them? We knew so many songs by heart. “Oh Matelli, Oh Matelli, pray tell me where’s your home. My home it is in Switzerland, it’s made of wood and stone…..” Maybe it was, “Reuben, Reuben, I’ve been thinking what a strange world it would be, if the boys were all transported far beyond the Northern Sea………”  Could it get any better than that?  Not only was Professor Gordon popular with the kids, he was a highlight of a Door County Teachers Institute when he spoke in September 1946.

We city kids sat in our desks, however some kids from the rural schools talked about gathering around the radio and watching it with rapt attention, listening carefully, and then singing their hearts out with Professor Gordon. He was a voice inside radio, but what did he look like? The only male grade school teachers in Algoma then were Mr. Sibilsky at the public school and Mr. Kuether at the Lutheran school. The Catholic school only had nuns in those days. For those who never experienced a male teacher, what Gordon looked like was a big question. At 10 years old, the only male singers we knew were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and the other singing cowboys frequenting the Majestic’s movie screen on Friday nights. “I’m Back in the Saddle Again” was a far cry from “Ruben and Rachel.”

Back in the 1940’s and early ‘50s, a classroom radio was big.  School boards – especially rural – were loath to spend a dollar on the non-essential so it had to be the opportunities offered by School of the Air that prompted boards to purchase that little Philco or RCA.  A $50 radio ensured that Gordon taught us music while Mrs. Fannie Steves taught rhythms and games to the little kids. Professor Gordon’s Journeys had huge enrollments as did Mrs. Steves who broadcast for 35 years, about as long as many of the area teachers stayed in their classrooms.

The “remember whens” bring up Ranger Mac, a program the “country kids” knew most about. For some reason, he wasn't a part of our curriculum. Maybe because he would have brought us too much fun bringing his nature studies to city kids. He was held in awe by our rural cousins. After all, he was chief of the Junior Forest Rangers and how could you be a Junior Ranger without his program? We didn't know it then, but when we got televisions a few years later, we could write for a ring and become part of Rocky Jones Space Rangers rather than a Junior Forest Ranger. At least we could be rangers in something.

Let’s Draw was another of the programs. Art teacher James Schwalbach encouraged creativity, not that we knew what it was at the time. Our teachers showed us how to re-create what they were doing while we used hinged paper cut-outs for figure drawing. We imagined with Schwalbach because that’s all we could do “on the radio.”   Schwalbach’s “Let’s Draw” invited students to Madison each year. Children chosen were those who had done superior during the year; those chosen probably did not have to re-create their teachers’ work. In addition to the welcome and tours, the chosen students recorded a program with Schwalbach, a program that was broadcast the following week when the students with bragging rights would be basking in the glow in their own schools.

Fifteen years before we started singing with Pops Gordon, the Advocate told readership on September 26, 1935 that Wisconsin’s “major instructional programs by radio” were beginning the following week. Educational programming would include School of the Air and College of the Air via WHA, the state-owned radio station. Ten college programs were offered to those wishing to continue their education. Programs for grade school kids would supplement and assist curriculum.

When Hainsville School kids submitted their educational radio experiences to the Advocate in 1937, they told about enjoying School Time every morning. Every Monday they heard world news. On Tuesday it was music appreciation and then on to a factory on Wednesday. Thursday was a visit to another country and Friday brought lectures on issues such as character building. The wonders of radio!

In March 1960 Casco High School gym was one of the state's five sites hosting a "Let's Sing" and "Let's Draw" festival. About 1,700 kids from all over Northeast Wisconsin crammed into into the small school which was "rockin'" till it was over at 3. By 1960, Kewaunee County was no stranger to television. By then the paper's community correspondents weren't writing about the education filmstrips and movies that kids were "treated" to. Time - and technology - were marching on.

Though programs were carried on WHA, WMAM (Marinette and Menominee) and Sturgeon Bay’s WOKW were among the non-state owned stations to carry the programs according to the schedules listed in local papers. Programming went beyond the educational for youngsters and young adults. It included music, programs for farm families, “Chapter a Day,” weather and almost whatever one wanted.

Fast forwarding 50 or 60 years, Wisconsin Public Radio and Public TV are every bit as important to the grown-up kids as Professor Gordon was way back when. WPR sttod the test of time. It's 100 years old this year, but there is nothing old about it!

Sources: Algoma Record Herald, Door County Advocate; conversations and memories.


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  2. Love the work you've done here. Found you searching for Woodside School Algoma. My grandmother Ruth attended in the early 1900s.
    Sure wish you had a search box so I could search all the posts you have here!