School's relics teach hands-on history

Time capsule dug up, updated at Leith Walk

May 19, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

When Michael E. Busch was a lad of 7 in the spring of 1954, his class marched from a small white schoolhouse with a wood stove in Northeast Baltimore up to the construction site of a grand new school. There he was chosen to help lay a time capsule in the cornerstone of Leith Walk Elementary School.

Busch, now speaker of the House of Delegates, recounted the events yesterday to an assembly of a thousand Leith Walk pupils.

"My claim to fame is that I was the boy holding the trowel," said Busch, holding a black-and-white picture showing the scene. "You see a boy with an Orioles cap, and that boy was Michael Busch. Leith Walk laid a foundation for me."

Busch and another former Leith Walk pupil, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a fellow Democrat who also grew up in the leafy neighborhood, were at the school to witness a display of the contents of the copper time capsule. Contemporary items were added, preparing the capsule to be set in place again for another 50 years.

From 1954, the capsule contained signatures of everyone involved, from kindergartners to architects, along with faded business cards. Among items to be added to the capsule are a school T-shirt, photos of each class, and a flag flown over the U.S. Capitol that was presented by Ruppersberger.

The year that Leith Walk Elementary School opened at 1235 Sherwood Ave. near The Alameda was a momentous one for Baltimore and education.

The Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools were unconstitutional, and the Orioles made the leap into major league baseball to play in the newly opened Memorial Stadium. Population and prosperity were peaking in the city and the large scale of the new school - surrounded by green fields - reflected a society that provided, according to Busch, "good and pleasant memories."

Also noted during the assembly: the cost of gasoline was 17 cents a gallon then.

Principal Edna Greer supervised preparations for the re-dedication of the time capsule, which will again be sealed and planted inside the bricks with instructions to open it in 2054.

"Let's all make a date," Greer told the assembly of children. "I'll be about 110 years old."

The word of the day at the school, which Greer repeated all morning, was posterity.

After the children sang a ditty about the 1950s that Greer composed - concluding with "S is for the school decision of '54 that affected every girl and boy" - it was Ruppersberger's turn to reminisce.

He told the pupils his principal was Ruth B. Miller and that he was captain of the safety patrol.

"That was my first leadership position," Ruppersberger said, finding it hard to leave the bright halls of his former school for a congressional hearing. "I got to pick my lieutenants. Community, memories, the old neighborhood - this is where it starts."

A highlight of the celebration was a skit about Busch, 57, and Ruppersberger, 58, as boys in 1954 that brought down the house. The skit, written by two fifth-grade girls, featured the grade-schoolers Dutch and Michael together, with the future politicians saying, "We keep up on all the changes going on in the neighborhood." That was one bit of literary license - the two did not know each other in school.

In the skit, when a girl says she doesn't think Busch will amount to anything, the young Michael (portrayed by Kenshard Burley) says: "Oh yeah, you'll see. One day I'll represent all of the people. I'll run the state of Maryland."

Another girl responds: "You can't even run around the block."

The playwrights, Tellie Simpson, 10, and Sumaya Wilson, 11, bashfully acknowledged the applause, with Ruppersberger and Busch enjoying their wit as much as anyone.

The Supreme Court decision that year, which helped change the landscape of American society, did not change life at the school overnight. Both Busch and Ruppersberger said Leith Walk pupils were predominantly white in their days there. Most pupils at the school today are African-American.

Greer, who is African-American and about the same age as Busch and Ruppersberger, grew up nearby and attended a segregated public school.

She said the lawmakers seemed to return to their boyish selves. "Those men were so excited about being here, they got here early."

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