By Janet Goetze
For the Hollywood Star News
For many people, Kennedy School is a good place for a movie, a Communication Breakdown burger or a hand-crafted ale. For others, it’s where they read about Dick and Jane, learned Palmer penmanship and ran the bases on the playground.
Many graduates retain such warm memories of school days that they gather at an annual reunion in the gymnasium to see former classmates and recall old times. For about the past 10 years, the reunion organizer has been Valerie Mitchell, whose only year at Kennedy was third grade from 1974-75, the last year it was open as a neighborhood school.
“I enjoy event planning, and I especially enjoy doing it for the graduates from the ‘40s and ‘50s,” said Mitchell, who still lives near the school. “They really enjoy it.”
Like many schools, Kennedy was a community center where adults voted. A “victory garden” provided vegetables during World War I and newspapers and tin cans were collected during World War II.
Mitchell remembers school carnivals with clowns and cake walks. She actually won a cake at one event, she said.
She liked the unusual ramps that connected the school’s various levels. However, steps were added beside the ramps in the building’s rehabilitation.
Some visitors are surprised to learn the school wasn’t named for the assassinated president but for John Daniel Kennedy, an Irish immigrant who began buying real estate after arriving in Portland in the mid-1880s. He owned land from 33rd to 42nd avenues, between Ainsworth and Alberta streets.
He built his home on Simpson Street across from the school. Kennedy subdivided his land in 1890, according to his grandson, John Kennedy White, who grew up in the house his grandfather built. He also attended the school with his sister, Sheila, and brother, Ben.
An economic downturn slowed development in the late 1800s, but J.D. Kennedy knew a school and church would attract families to his home sites. In 1913, he sold 4 acres to the Portland school district for $18,000, his grandson said.
He donated land for the original St. Charles Catholic Church on Northeast 33rd Avenue near Alberta Street.
In 1913, 29 pupils began classes in temporary buildings where J.D. Kennedy once had an orchard, according to information gathered by Tim Hills, historian for the McMenamin brothers, who eventually rehabilitated the school. Floyd A. Naramore designed the 1915 building, heralded nationally for the one-story design permitting easy expansion and quick exit in case of fire.
Jeanne Erickson Armstrong, who attended Kennedy in the 1930s, sent written memories to John White earlier this year, including her struggles with story problems in math class. However, she mastered them by fourth grade with the encouragement of Miss Grace Connolly, who arrived at the school in 1917 and, when she retired in 1959, was one of the school’s longest-serving teachers.
Steve Hutton, a Scotsman who was the school janitor, was beloved by all the students, Armstrong said. He once taught Armstrong and her friend, Marian Cofer, the Highland Fling for a school program.
Historian Hills also credits the janitor with helping southpaw Don Johnson, class of 1940, become a right-handed pitcher after he broke his left wrist. Johnson went on to pitch for the New York Yankees in 1947. He ended his career in 1958 with the San Francisco Giants. Johnson died in February in Portland at age 88.
Pete Ward, class of 1951, was another big league player from 1962 to 1970. He also was a manager for the Portland Beavers baseball team.
Other notable Kennedy alumni were Amo DeBarnadis, class of 1928, the founding president of Portland Community College, and Dr. Martha Rohner van der Vlugt, class of 1921, an early woman physician in Oregon.
Martha Jordan, the first African-American teacher hired by the district, arrived at Kennedy in 1948 and stayed for a dozen years before going on to become a district administrator for early childhood education.
By the 1970s, district enrollment was declining. Kennedy closed as a neighborhood school in 1975 but classrooms were filled until 1980 with students from other schools being remodeled.
The district planned to demolish the school but neighbors and former students saw the building as a community asset. Agnes Kennedy White, the daughter of J.D. Kennedy, and Melissa Cole Darby, who lives in the old Kennedy house, sought landmark status for the building,
The preservation effort was slow but successful. The McMenamins turned the building into a hostelry with restaurant, bars and movie theater. It was dedicated in 1996, the same year it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information: mcmenamins.com/kennedyschool