March 13, 2010 11:33:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Today, the Dem Dragons mascot still lifts his mighty green wings in greeting on the wall opposite the entrance into Demonstration School, situated on the edge of the Mississippi University for Women campus. But the calming blue and teal-hued hallways are silent. Unless, of course, one has very good ears. For some say the happy echoes of children who attended the MUW "laboratory school," first established in 1907, can still be heard.
On April 10, a few of those nostalgic memories will surface in "If These Walls Could Talk," a play written by Pam Rhea for the Junior Auxiliary of Columbus 60th annual Charity Ball at Trotter Convention Center. Rhea''s own children attended Dem School, as it is affectionately known, and her brother, Ron Towery, served as principal for approximately 14 years. She herself was an active PTA president, so it almost seemed natural to pen a tribute to the school that "graduated" its last elementary students in 2004.
"I spent a lot of time there; it''s a precious place," Rhea reminisced. "I wanted to emphasize the good that it did." After consulting former staff and students, Rhea crafted a script that peeks back in time -- to principals and instructors like Mary Hutchinson, Maude Walker, Alma Turner, Virginia Mae Ferrill, Mary Ita Hardy, Virginia (Bitty) Lindsey, Fran Brown and others. Long-time school secretary Willa Savelle is also included.
The doorway to history is opened in the first scene by "Gladys" and "Frank" -- a charming Emilie White and her dapper husband, Jack (who actually has a master''s degree in theatre history). "Gladys" is a returning MUW alumna who did her student teaching at Demonstration, as did so many W students at the first teacher-training school in the state. Surprised to find the front doors unlocked, she and "Frank" enter, and the past reappears.
Recreating long-ago school days will be adult cast members Laura Beth Berry, Rachel Smith Hurt, Sarah Heinkel, Barbara Vaughn, Katy Henshaw, Jennifer Locke, Linda Bobbitt and Karen Cooley. Children in the play include Dalton Ford, Evelyn Claire McIntyre, Hunter McMillen, Jones Ray, Ashley Stephens and Carolyn Walker.
Abby Davis is chair of the 2010 Junior Auxiliary Charity Ball.
"I''m so excited to see Pam Rhea''s play come to life," she said. "We have a very talented cast that is all volunteer. We''re so very grateful they have agreed to give of their time to help us in serving the children of Lowndes County."
"Every character is based on a real person, and Pam did hours of research to give us these anecdotes," remarked director Heather Ford, who, along with musical director Molly Stafford, oversees rehearsals. "The people portraying these characters are all so talented and really bring them to life on stage. It''s JA''s goal each year to bring a play that entertains, as well as enlightens people to some facet of Columbus'' past; we think this play really fits the bill."
As secretary at Demonstration for more than 22 years, Savelle worked with three different principals and scores of children.
"My duties were quite varied," she smiled, recalling splinter extractions and treating boo boo''s. "The children were so cute. It really was a fun job. I was really very lucky to have been there, and we had a wonderful crew to work with. That''s the advantage of a small school -- every teacher knew every child and every child knew every teacher."
One notable incident referred to in the play is a 1989 visit by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Eudora Welty. Ironically, Hurt, who portrays the late Mary Ita Hardy in the play, was, in real life, a Dem School fifth-grader acting in Welty''s "The Shoe Bird" for its famous author.
For Rhea, crafting the scenes was a challenging labor of love.
"In a play, your scenery, your props and your lines all have to convey what you want to say from your heart. It''s been a wonderful experience: I have a much bigger appreciation now for people who do that type of writing. ... This is just a teensy-weensy percentage of what there is. I hope one of these days, when I have time, I can write a full-blown memoir of Dem School days."
"I wouldn''t miss it," Savelle said of the April 10 play. "We''re going to have a whole table from Demonstration School!"
Caring for community
Junior Auxiliary''s year-round service work with children is supported by the Charity Ball and annual Report to the Community. Projects include providing school uniforms and clothing for hundreds of students annually, as well as in-depth clothing for families who have suffered from fires or floods.
Proceeds also fund "What Tadoo," a child abuse education and prevention program; "In My Shoes," a disability education and awareness program; JAM (Junior Auxiliary Mentors), providing one-on-one tutoring; GEMS (Girls Empowered to Model Success), mentoring eighth-grade girls; annual scholarships; a Reality Fair; and character-building programs such as "Imagine U" for younger grades and "Choose Your Path" for middle school students.
The ball annually recognizes two Columbus adults for their service to community. The identity of the Charity Ball king and queen is closely-guarded until the event. Their court, 21 high school seniors who have performed approximately 2,000 hours of service in their schools, churches and city, will be presented at 8 p.m. The Royalty Breakfast begins at 9:30 p.m., and Swing Shift entertains until midnight.
Davis said, "I''ve been overwhelmed by the generosity of this community in their support of Junior Auxiliary. Our patrons and corporate sponsors have continued to give, even in this economy; and our associate and life members have come out in force to support us for this anniversary ball. We''re looking forward to thanking them all in person."
Patron seating tickets for the 2010 ball are $35. Balcony tickets are $15. Royalty Breakfast tickets are $16 and must be purchased in advance. For tickets or information, contact Amy Sharp at 662-889-0807. Charitable donations to Junior Auxiliary of Columbus may be mailed to P.O. Box 11, Columbus, MS 39703-0011.
"We still have a few floor seats and some balcony seats available for those who may want to remember their Dem School days and enjoy the great entertainment by Swing Shift," urged Davis. "See you at the ball!"
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.