Built just after the Civil War, McCormick Middle School has held a place in the history of Wellington for nearly 150 years.
But the iconic school has also managed to hold a place in the hearts of many former teachers and alumni, the place where so many memories of their youth were formed.
When the tired old school shook free of its summer slumber and opened its doors on the first day of school this fall, it was the last time since it was completed in 1868 that it would welcome students back. The school, which houses the district’s fourth- through seventh-graders, will be shuttered soon, its students shipped over to a shiny new building on North Main over Thanksgiving break.
By spring it will be no more, the mighty McCormick razed to the ground, plowed over and cleared away for a park.
“There’s a lot of memories here, a whole lot,” said Scott Markel, vice president of the board of the Spirit of ’76 Museum, an emporium of all things Wellington.
Those who get sentimental over such things didn’t want to just watch her go quietly into that good night, however. Instead, school officials approached museum keepers and historical society members and came up with a plan: Let’s give her one last dance.
McCormick’s one last dance — and tour, lunch, and catching up with that oldest of friends, memory — is this Saturday.
Building up McCormick
The school was first known as “the Wellington School,” as near as Markel could find from old yearbooks, and housed all grades in its original form. That first portion was built at a cost of $30,000. A major addition was built in 1916, to house the high school; fourth through sixth grades got an addition in 1939-40, along with an auditorium and gymnasium, with the seventh- and eighth-grade addition in 1954-55.
In 1961, the elementary grades were moved out to the district’s then-new Westwood Elementary.
It was about then that the school’s name was changed to McCormick Middle, named for Roy McCormick, a Wellington alumnus from the 1920s who returned to teach from 1927 until 1945, when he became principal of the school. He held the job until 1963.
The last class of graduating seniors was in 1971 — the year Al Leiby, who is heading up the event, graduated. Leiby’s seventh-grade homeroom was in the same class where he attended first grade.
Leiby said the original idea was to open the school for tours before it is closed to the public for good. But it quickly turned into a grab-bag of nostalgic favorites — a last lunch, served in the cafeteria and prepared by actual school cooks and a last dance in the school’s gym. The Rock Island Band— with members from the original Rock Island Opera Company, a band that played many school dances back in Leiby’s day — will be playing Saturday.
The lunch ladies will be preparing a menu of favorite meals, according to “unofficial polls” on social media sites, Leiby said. The menu will include: “Happy Joses,” a Mexican pizza dish; sloppy Joes; “Johnny Marzetti,” which Leiby describes as “Hamburger Helper before they called it that — tomato sauce, macaroni noodles and ground beef;” turkey, gravy and mashed potatoes; and peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches.
Those sandwiches were by far Markel’s favorite, although he is unsure of the “secret ingredient,” guessing it might be molasses. They were served with chili.
“All I know is, it was not the peanut butter sandwich you got at home. I’m going to tell you, none of the cooks down there at the school are going to give that recipe out,” Markel laughed.
Visitors can tour the building themselves, discovering forgotten pockets like the wall in the auditorium’s projection room, where every member of the projection crew traditionally signed their name and year of graduation to the wall.
Former teachers who attend — and even their children, if the teacher has passed away — will be recognized, Leiby said. Markel said organizers are hoping choir and band alumni show up, and lead the crowd in the school’s fight song, “The Wellington High School fight song” played to the tune of “On Wisconsin,” and alma mater.
Digital displays of slideshows of vintage photos will be shown in classrooms where the museum’s extensive collections of decades of yearbooks will be on hand for browsing. Parking spots will be reserved for visitors bringing classic cars, like Leiby.
“I drove a ’66 GTO my senior year of high school and I’ll be driving a ’66 GTO to the last lunch,” he said.
While visitors are encouraged to take lots of photographs, the school will be commemorated on film in another way, too. Sometime after the event, filmmakers shooting the movie “Men of Granite” starring Shirley MacLaine will be in town to film on location in McCormick. The school’s gym — which includes a stage — was a perfect fit for the story of a high school championship basketball team in the 1940s.
The gym will also be open for alumni or anyone to shoot some hoops during the event.
“So the old girl is going to get two last hurrahs, the lunch and dance and a movie,” Markel said.
“We’re just trying to give everybody their favorite memory. If you went to your first dance with your girl in the gymnasium, bring her back and do it again.”
Contact Rini Jeffers at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.