For most people, the one-room school house with the coal stove is part of Harford County's romantic past. For Violet Merryman, who had to stoke that stove on Sundays to get it warm in time for her students on Monday, that romance is tinged with memories of cold winters and a drafty classroom.
But it is still the stuff legends are made of. Fifty years ago, Mrs. Merryman, then Miss Davis, began her career in the Harford County school system. Since her stint in the one-room school at Chrome Hill in Rocks, she has been a principal, a supervisor of other teachers and most recently, a member of the school board.
But Mrs. Merryman, prim and proper with her neat gray curls and crisp blue suit, has no intention of becoming a legend herself -- at least not yet. She may have retired from the school board, but Mrs. Merryman, 71, said she intends to remain active in the county, working for the Harford County Historical Society and the county Office on Aging.
Still feisty, Mrs. Merryman retired last month but not before stirring up a bit of controversy. At her final school board meeting, she abstained from voting on the school budget because she thought the price tag for renovating three older schools was too low. It would have been easier to go along with the rest of the board, but Mrs. Merryman has never been one to shirk what she sees as her duty.
In her first year on the board, nearly 10 years ago, she fought to create a regular planning period for teachers. Now teachers have a half-day each month -- free of classes -- to plan curricula with other teachers. This time gives teachers a chance to step back from the daily routine and think about the future.
"I think teachers have liked to know that they had an advocate on the board," she said.
Mrs. Merryman first served on the school board in 1983 when she was asked to finish the term for another board member who had become ill. She was a
vice president during the 1985-1986 school year and president in 1986-1987.
Joyce W. Bennington, who retired from teaching in 1989, said teachers trusted Mrs. Merryman to represent their interests. "We were so pleased to have someone who had been in the trenches to speak for us," she said.
Mrs. Bennington was an inexperienced teacher at Havre de Grace Elementary when she first met Mrs. Merryman. She remembers feeling a bit nervous that she was going to be observed by a supervisor but said that Mrs. Merryman was understanding.
"As a supervisor, Mrs. Merryman was very patient and kind with teachers and students," Mrs. Bennington said. "And any teaching techniques she would share would be down-to-earth and very practical techniques that she had used herself as a teacher; she never recommended theories that sounded great in a textbook but didn't work in a classroom."
Mrs. Bennington said she recommended that the Fountain Green Elementary, now under construction, be named for Mrs. Merryman. This would have been the first county school named for a woman. But Mrs. Merryman, with characteristic modesty, asked that her name be withdrawn.
Mrs. Merryman said she worried briefly that "eyebrows might be raised" when she was appointed to the school board because she would be the first former school system employee to take a place on the board. If anyone did look askance at her appointment, they never told her, she said.
No one would have had the nerve.
Raised on her parents' farm near Rocks State Park during the Great Depression, Mrs. Merryman said she learned early to make the best of what she had. Determined to become a teacher, she worked her way though the Maryland State Teachers College at Towson, now Towson State University, paying for her tuition partly by hemstitching curtains and countless linen napkins. Fifty years later, Mrs. Merryman still laughs. "I stitched bureau scarves 'till they were coming out my ears."
Mrs. Merryman said she always knew she wanted to go to college and have a career. A woman's choices back then were limited.
"After a woman graduated from college she could be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary," she said.
A woman could also get married and raise a family. Mrs. Merryman married Harry Clayton in 1963. And while they did not have any children of their own, Mrs. Merryman sincerely believes that the children she taught and the children she still visits in classrooms have been as dear to her as her own would have been.
Doris Knopp was in the second grade at the one-room school house when Mrs. Merryman came to teach. Mrs. Knopp, who still lives in Rocks near the school she attended as a child, said she had to almost always be on her best behavior because Mrs. Merryman was also her Sunday school teacher at William Waters Memorial Church.
"She taught everything to the different grades -- arithmetic, spelling, reading and social studies -- in the one room," said Mrs. Knopp.
Allen Adams, remembers winters so cold that children at the one-room school house had to warm their hands around the potbelly stove before they could begin writing.