Do you remember your elementary school principal? I don’t. Many Ben Franklin School alumni, however, can tell you the name of their principal, as well as a story or two about that gentleman.
That is the legacy that current principal Chris Turnbull is facing.
As part of Ben Franklin’s ongoing 50th anniversary celebration, members of the Lawrence Township community were invited to an open house on Saturday, Sept. 24, to tour the elementary school and hear stories from five of the school’s nine former principals.
The public event came one day after eight of the former principals took part in a school-wide assembly and visited individual classrooms.
Most of the former principals continue to live in the area, but Russ Stanley (principal from 1985 to 1989) traveled with his wife from Florida for the anniversary celebrations.
Turnbull said it was “very humbling to meet the former principals.”
Turnbull quipped that – after meeting Ben Franklin’s first principal and local legend, Larry “Mr. K” Ksanznak, and getting to know the spry octogenarian – he returned to his office and immediately typed his letter of resignation. Luckily for everyone at Ben Franklin Turnbull did not turn in that letter!
During the Saturday open house, Mr. K talked about how the population of Lawrence exploded while he was principal from 1961 to 1964. The school started with 320 students and grew to 970 within a few years. Ben Franklin was a K-6 school in those days.
He said that it seemed like, at one point, three or four new families were moving into Lawrence each week. He said “the teachers were so good” about making each new student feel welcome that Ben Franklin was soon being called “the Friendly School” – a nickname the school continues to hold today.
Joe Stroman served as Ben Franklin’s principal from 1966 to 1968, and then worked in the school district in Bensalem, Pa., for 43 years. After being presented with a bracelet with a school motto about success being the result of hard work, he remarked, “I think the bracelet says hard work has a lot to do with where you get and how fast you get there.”
Ernest Smith (principal from 1968 to 1974) credited the school’s secretaries with “setting the tone for the school.”
“Seventy-five percent of the people who come into the school meet the secretary,” Stanley agreed.
Ben Franklin has had only two secretaries since 1963 – Marie Gernhart, who retired in 1992 after 29½ years at the school, and current secretary Cindy Brecko.
Stanley, “at the ripe old age of 80,” was last year voted onto the board of education in his part of Florida. He believes “kindergarten, first [and] second grades [are] where most of the children’s love for education and love for reading happens.”
Richard Graja (principal from 1974 to 1985) reiterated what he told students the day before. As a resident of Lawrence Township since 1961, “one of the great pleasures I get in life is when I see people who were children here at Ben Franklin [serving as] police, volunteer firefighters, leaders in the community.”
Each of the former principals had a hallway in the school named in his honor. During the Saturday open house, they were presented with a copy of their own “street sign.”
Members of the public were able to ask questions of the former principals. Questions ranged from “When did Amos the mouse become the school’s mascot?” to “What was the food like in the cafeteria?”
(Answers: Amos was made mascot during the time Robert Copeland was principal, 1989 to 1995, while Dr. K said that, in the beginning, the food at the school was made by members of the community and it was very good.)
After the Q&A session, everyone went outside to hang ornaments on the school’s new 50th anniversary tree. The tree looks tiny at the moment, but it is a Cleveland pear tree that is expected to grow to as much as 30 feet.
The tree was adorned with ornaments representing each of the past 50 years. Students did research and made ornaments unique to each year. The ornaments will stay on the tree until June 2012.
The school is still working to plan additional 50th anniversary events, including possibly reviving the old tradition of Ben Franklin competing against Lawrenceville Elementary School in a soccer game.