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Alumni gather for last photo at Del Mar’s first school

DEL MAR — Nearly three dozen former students of Del Mar’s first school — and those who attended when it later became St. James Academy — were on hand for a June 5 reunion to reminisce in front of the 10th Street building before it is demolished.

Mary Arballo Magana, 93, said there were only four students in her class as she moved through the public school beginning in the early 1930s.

“I married a male student and the other girl became my sister-in-law,” she recalled.

M’Liss Wheelock was a member of the last class to graduate from St. James in 1971 before it closed and moved to its currently location in Solana Beach.

She remembered playing tetherball on the blacktop, dancing around the maypole and hot dog day, a special treat for students who could by a hot dog, chips and a small container of chocolate milk for 10 cents.

“And the bathrooms haven’t changed,” she said.

“My name is still in the bathroom,” said MaryAnne Petrilli, a St. James student who brought her 1960 nursery school class photo.

Students from the Del Mar School pose for their photo in 1939. Courtesy photo
Students from the Del Mar School pose for their photo in 1939. Courtesy photo

Mari Koss, whose father once served as Del Mar’s mayor, recalled sneaking into the Catholic school after hours with her two best friends.

“The three little villains, the nuns used to call us,” she said.

“Sister Estelle Marie was the first nun to wear a short habit,” recalled Rhonda Strandwold Wittenberg. “We got to see her ankles. I remember we swung her on the swing.”

“And one day it snowed and the nuns let us go out and play in it,” she added.

Other shared memories included pulling weeds from the lawn in front of the 11th Street convent, meeting onsite with a Brownie troop, watching the moon landing during class and walking down a trail to the nearby tide pools to examine starfish and other creatures for science projects.

In all 34 people attended the event co-organized by former Encinitas Mayor Teresa Barth, Magana’s niece and daughter of Bill Arballo, also a former Del Mar mayor who wrote about the early school days in his book, “Del Mar Reflections.”

“The school consisted of two rooms,” wrote Arballo, who was on hand for the reunion. “Miss McDonald taught the younger children, and Mrs. Niemann was in charge of the others.

“Richard Martin, James Minot and Harold Elliott were often dispatched to the cloakroom by Mrs. Niemann for disturbing the class,” he added. “There they raided their classmates’ lunch boxes and tinkered with the triangles and drums stored there between music lessons.”

The public school on the west side of Camino del Mar opened in September 1921 with 36 students in grades one through eight. A kindergarten class was added in 1946.

Ruth Grove Niemann came to Del Mar in 1919 as an unmarried lady. She served as teacher, superintendent, secretary, nurse, counselor and janitor before retiring as principal in 1956.

By 1945, there were three teachers at the school. Each room, including a basement, held two grade levels.

In 1947 the district bought a 5-acre lot on Ninth Street now known as the Shores property for a new school. The 10th Street property was sold and from 1952 to 1971 was home to St. James Academy.

Barth and her classmates remembered being in school the day President John Kennedy was shot.

“The nuns had us all get down on our knees to pray and say a rosary because at that point we didn’t know if he had survived or not,” she said. “Then our parents all had to come and pick us up early.”

Many also recalled treats often supplied by the Mettee family, owners of the well-know VG Donut and Bakery because many of the children attended the school.

“VG’s doughnuts were a big part of every event,” Barth said.

The school buildings were remodeled in 1973 to serve as an interim City Hall. After more than four decades the facilities are being leveled to make way for a civic center complex.

“It’s time,” said former student Don Terwilliger, who recalled frequent air raids during World War II.

“Classes were suspended when the principal blew a whistle,” he said. “We had to take a small mat that each student kept in his or her desk and gather behind the school under the group of trees that are still there.

“For reasons that still baffle me we had to kneel on our mats, keep our heads down, put a finger into each ear and open our mouths as wide as possible,” he added.

Barth said she used Facebook and announcements in community newspapers to get the word out about the reunion.

About three or four of the attendees said they went to school there during the 1930s and ’40s. Another half dozen were students in the 1950s. About one-third attended from grades one through eight.

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