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Emerson, Jefferson Schools Turn 100

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday May 11, 2007

A celebration of smiles will be held at Emerson and Jefferson Elementary Schools this weekend. 

Smiles that belong to the thousands of children who have learned their ABCs and scraped their knees on their hallowed grounds over the last 100 years, and to the parents and teachers who have painstakingly helped them every day. 

Established in 1906, Emerson will celebrate its centennial anniversary today (Friday) while Jefferson—founded in 1907—will host it’s 100th birthday on Saturday. 

Both schools were born from the 1906 earthquake and both are vivid examples of institutions that have stood the test of time. 

“We acknowledge our students for who they are,” said Jefferson principal Betty Delaney, who has been at the school for the last six years. With her warm smile, watchful eyes and motherly advice, Delaney proudly carries the legacy of the school’s former principals. 

The close-knit North Berkeley community remembers Mary O’Bannon, Jefferson’s first principal, who drove to school each morning in her buggy. They remember Les Thomsen, who as a student in 1917 helped operate the school’s first baloptican projector. Years later, Thomsen directed a film about the school’s Junior Traffic Police in Hollywood. 

“Berkeley had the first Junior Traffic Police in the country,” Joann Sullivan, who served as the school historian for its 90th anniversary. 

“It was 1923, and August Zollmer, head of the Berkeley Police Department, felt it was necessary to have one,” she said. 

As Sullivan and a team of other devoted parents and faculty put together scraps of paper, remnants of faded photographs and a million memories, their effort gives shape to the history of the school’s evolution. 

“Way back when Ms. O’Bannon was principal, the school didn’t even have a piano because the Board of Education could not provide it,” Sullivan said smiling. “Fifteen dollars was raised for down payment and the principal gave her a note for the $185 balance. Her faith in the Jefferson people were justified. They met every succeeding payment.” 

Jefferson has come a long way since then. Its excellent programs and caring, nurturing atmosphere earned it “A California Distinguished School” award under principal Marian Altman. 

Anna Wong, who has taught the Chinese by Cultural Kindergarten program at Jefferson since 1970, credits the school’s success to its staff. 

“Over the years the teachers have put up with some really extraordinary circumstances,” she said, while teaching her class the meaning of resilience in the yard Wednesday. “But it’s the children who keep us going. My best memories are watching the kids develop and grow and have an ‘aha’ moment,” 

Teachers have survived not just disasters, suc as the Loma Prieta earthquake, but also small hindrances such as forever leaking hallway windows, lack of handicap access to the stage and second floor, asbestos removal, lead paint removal, failed heating system, popping floor tiles, and failing ceiling tiles, which led to many a stressful working condition over the years. 

“We will always be a work in progress,” said art teacher Lolly Watanabe, who is creating a centennial year mural with students. 

“Right now, the school does not reflect the creativity of the students and teachers and the tiles are going to change that. The entire mural will serve as an year book. The kids will be able to come back and remember Miss Delaney, Kate Brooks—their music teacher—and festivities such as the Chinese New Year.” 

For fifth-grader Tara Taeed, it was the memory of the school’s ice-cream social that went into her tile. “I have been going to it since I was a Kindergartner,” she said shyly. “It’s cool that our school has been here for 100 years. That makes it so much more special.” 

Nestled in the hills of South Berkeley, is another special institution— Emerson. A bond issue passed in May 1903 led to ten rooms built three years later on the corner of Piedmont and Forest Avenue and Emerson was born. 

Today the school boasts of classrooms, offices, an auditorium and a playground as well as an extraordinarily committed PTA and a strong academic program. 

“Even though it’s a tiny campus with no grass, it’s always been the kind of school you’d want to send your child to,” said former Emerson parent Jamie Carlson, who has been teaching at the school for 14 years. 

“Every year there’s a phrase we say : ‘It’s the Emerson Way’. The school is like our own village, our home, a place where we can be safe. Every teacher knows every student by name.” 

Emerson alumni will congregate Friday to share memories about Bert Harwell, known as the Bird Man, who served as principal from 1921-1927. Harwell, who broke the ice at the first faculty meeting by whistling for the teachers, inspired hundreds of Emerson school children with a love for the birds in their neighborhood. 

They will remember Miss Betty Pittman, former kindergartner teacher who is now 85 years-old and lives in Santa Barbara, and share a laugh about the wild sliding on the linoleum floors. 

“One of the things I remember is the effort to desegregate schools in the 1960s,” said Carlson. “Earlier, we only had students who came from middle class backgrounds and were just as white as could be. But after desegregation, there were children of color who came from different socio-economic levels.” 

Louis Smith, the school custodian, often described as the heart and soul of the school, summed up the spirit of Emerson after a day’s work. 

“When I first started, it was from K-3. Today it’s K-5,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot busier but everyone does their bit. If it hadn’t been for the team effort, I would have had a whole lot of trouble keeping up with things today.” 



Emerson Elementary School will begin festivities at 4 p.m. today (Friday) with tours of the Emerson school site followed by a reception and commemorative program at St. John's Presbyterian Church from 6-9 pm. Tickets $10; all alumni and family over 18 welcome. 


Jefferson Elementary School welcomes the entire Berkeley community, and especially Jefferson alums, to join them on Saturday between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., to celebrate 100 years of the school.