This article is written by Kara Uhl
Samuel Woodfill Elementary’s cornerstone was laid on July 22, 1922. The school is named for Army Maj. Samuel Woodfill, who, at various points in his life was stationed and resided in Fort Thomas, and was one of the most decorated soldiers of World War I.
In 1924, a life-size painting of Sergeant Samuel Woodfill was gifted to Woodfill Elementary by Woodfill’s wife in recognition of the school having been named after her husband. The portrait now hangs in the Fort Thomas Military and Community History Museum.
“When teaching about Samuel Woodfill I would start by giving the students several adjectives and character traits,” says Tina Reynolds, who taught fourth and fifth grade at Woodfill for 33 years. “They would then research to find ways that he exemplified those traits. No matter how many different qualities I would try to bring to focus, the students would always want to trade for courageous and brave. They loved to read and learn about battles when he protected his company going ahead of them killing enemy soldiers.”
In 1934, kindergarten classes were added to the district and by 1941, Woodfill was beginning its 20th school year. When researching Woodfill’s 100-year history, Deanna Beineke, director of the Fort Thomas Military and Community History Museum, provided dozens of School Facts newsletters filled with Woodfill history (as well as a wealth of knowledge).
In 1941, Principal Sheila Johnson wrote in School Facts that Woodfill strives for a routine of study as well as play for physical and social development, and training in community living. The school presented an operetta, “The Magic Piper,” and the Samuel Woodfill School Junior Red Cross was formed – students sewed and knitted sweaters and afghans, made wooden and soft toys and covered Braille books. The PTA helped purchase a radio and phonograph and started a library of records.
In 1944, Woodfill earned a Schools-at-War Flag as a result of 90 percent of the children having bought war savings stamps the preceding month. During WWII, Woodfill was required to ration, and students also collected scrap metal, keys and paper, and books and magazines for the U.S.O. and Merchant Marines. Students wrote letters and cards to men in service, collected clothes for Russian Relief and mailed Christmas gift boxes to children in England.
By the 1950s, May Day, which was tied to the district’s Health and Blue Ribbon Program (which started in the early 1930s), was a widely anticipated event. To earn a blue ribbon students had to have regular physical examinations, receive all their vaccinations, and achieve particular health standards.
“I remember my mother donating her spring irises and lilacs to decorate the trellis behind the King and Queen,” says Ann Dahl who attended Woodfill from 1952 to 1959, and later was a Woodfill teacher. “They were sixth graders, and their attendants were from the lower grades. It was a big deal to have earned your blue ribbon for good health and we wore them proudly. The sixth-grade girls danced around the maypole, which was a rite we all had looked forward to since we were 5-years old. And everyone did the “Hokey Pokey” under the direction of the inimitable Betty Moats.”
Moats was a well-loved kindergarten teacher who referred to her students as “her angels.” Dahl remembers Moats bringing in TVs for her “angels” to take apart, or a big log for them to drive in nails.
This, from Moats, in the 1954 School Facts: “To your child Kindergarten has not been a ‘play’ class, because he has been learning and developing. As he has used hammers, clay, or crayons, he has developed the use of hand and arm muscles, which he will alter use in handwriting. Kindergarten has been an adventure for your child. It is the beginning of an exciting new phase of life—the school years. I hope the Kindergarten has helped your Angels learn how to live, not tomorrow as adults, but today as children.”
In 1954, Woodfill’s fourth graders went camping, a highlight of their year. They shopped for groceries, chopped wood, built and tended fires, cooked their lunch and hiked.
In 1955, Woodfill added an addition that included four classrooms, restrooms, a kitchen, combination cafeteria/auditorium, and an independent gas heating plant was dedicated. A public address system servicing the entire building was also added.
Dale Mueller, former Highlands High School teacher and football coach (having won 260 games at Highlands and 11 state championships, he’s considered one of the most successful high school football coaches in Kentucky history), enrolled in kindergarten at Woodfill in 1959.
“I was (always will be) a mama’s boy and went to kindergarten at 4 years old and would turn 5 in October,” Mueller says. “I missed my mom terribly and cried every day for five days. Our kindergarten teacher, Miss Moats, who called us her angels, talked to my mom and said it might be better if I came next year so I claim to be a kindergarten dropout. That decision was a great decision for me and I believe had a great positive impact on my life.”
Some of Mueller’s favorite memories involve his two best friends at Woodfill, Paul King and Dean Eckert, and his first-grade teacher, Mrs. Shaw.
“She was my favorite teacher throughout my academic career,” Mueller says. “Mrs. Shaw loved me and made me feel so welcome at school. She had high expectations of her students and I knew that she believed in me. She knew how much I appreciated her because my mom was a teacher and she told her but I still wish I could thank her again today.”
Mueller says his teachers and friends at Woodfill definitely had a positive impact. “I went to Woodfill, Highlands, Cornell, and got my Masters at Xavier and appreciate all four schools but am most thankful to my teachers at Woodfill for what they did for me,” he says. “I was completely prepared for middle school and had excellent academic skills. They also helped develop my confidence and self-esteem and was ready for me whatever was going to come next.”
Rich Boehne, E.W. Scripps Co.’s former CEO and board chairman, also attended Woodfill in the 1960s. His mother, Thelma Jean Boehne (who is now 92 years old and still lives in Fort Thomas) spent 19 years as a teaching assistant (and prior to that, several years as a member of Woodfill’s PTA, including president).
“I had terrific teachers at Woodfill and, thankfully, had the opportunity to thank most of them over the years,” Boehne says. “The fundamentals they taught enabled my career. I’m deeply appreciative.”
Take Rozellen Griggs, for example, Boehne’s fifth grade teacher. “Her influence went well beyond the subjects and lessons,” he says. “One example: We all made Valentine’s Day cards that year and most, including mine, were traditional with lots of hearts and arrows and frills. One student made a card with the face of a man on it; big dark mustache and dark eyebrows. All the other kids made fun of him and his unusual expression of a valentine. Rozellen stepped in, gave him a big hug and heaped praise on him for his creativity. Her display of love and appreciation for the outcast—for the one who dares to challenge the norm—had a big effect on me. She told me many years later that the kid had a messy home life. The image on his card? His father? Grandfather? She didn’t know but she assumed the image emerged from a stressful place in the mind of an 11-year-old boy, and it needed to be honored. Thank God for teachers like Rozellen.”
This year will be Principal John Gesenhues’s 17th year at Woodfill. His first as principal, he previously spent 12 years as a teacher at Woodfill, followed by four years as assistant principal.
“I have always loved how accepting our Woodfill community is,” Gesenhues says. “We truly embrace people from all backgrounds, cultures, and walks of life, and try and make them feel a part of Woodfill.”
In 1969, Dahl was having dinner at her parents’ house after a day off from college interviewing for teaching jobs in Northern Kentucky when the phone rang.
“It was Harold Miller, then superintendent of FTIS, asking me if I had a job yet,” Dahl says. “I answered, ‘No, sir’ and he replied, ‘That’s good. We’re going to vote on you at the Board meeting tonight. Second grade, Woodfill; Madeline Corman is going to be the librarian.’ That was it. No interview, nothing. … I came back as a fresh-out-of-college first-year teacher, teaching second grade along with my wonderful first- and second-grade teacher, Ruth German. Still, there were my principal, Sam King, my beloved kindergarten teacher and Keep of the Angels, Betty Moats, as well as several others teachers and staff members from when I was a student.”
(Debbie Heibert, King’s daughter, says, “he loved his job and all those kids and ‘his’ teachers.”)
“I think I was the first Woodfill alumna to return, and couldn’t have asked for a more wonderful group of mentors and guardians.” Dahl says. “They instilled in me a sense of loyalty, and I never ever wanted to teach at any other school.”
Dahl has fond memories of Woodfill’s festivals. She remembers selling tickets as a student and “trying to toss that ping pong ball to win a goldfish, which was usually deceased in a week – and later consoling my students on Monday upon the death of their fish,” she says.
Dahl taught every grade from second to sixth until 1996, and saw the building go through many incarnations.
“When I was a student there, the four-room addition facing US 27 was built, with a new cafeteria underneath. Later, the two-story addition which included a new gym was built on the Grant Street side, and walls between the classrooms in the original building were knocked down, later to be built back.”
Reggie Glaser’s five children attended Woodfill (“a close-knit community where everybody cared about each other’s kids,” she says) from 1975 through 1991.
“My second youngest son, Justin, wanted to be in the plays, but was a nervous wreck,” Glaser says. “Danny Kemplin calmed him down and gave him the confidence he needed. And guess what, he was in three Broadway tours, the last one being Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and he was the Beast!”
Glaser says all three of her boys were in the chess club Ed Long started for sixth graders.
“By the time my youngest son was in school, Ed lowered the age to fourth graders and Eric was the Chess Club champion in the fourth grade,” Glaser says. “He later went on to be drafted by the Red Sox as a pitcher. When interviewed one time about his pitching he said it’s all strategy, which he learned in grade school in the Chess Club.”
In 1979 School Facts mentions “a big Halloween parade, in which most students dressed up in costumes,” a Woodfill tradition that continues to this day. Third graders visited the Kentucky Horse Park and Frankfort, fourth and fifth graders went to the Cincinnati Nature Center, and sixth graders went to Long Branch Farm, Washington, D.C., Frankfort and Old Fort Harrod.
The PTA and parent volunteers have always had a strong presence. Money raised from 1983’s International Fall Festival was used to purchase 20 microslide viewers and slides, an eight-wheel paper roll holder, a stereo for the music room, a color TV, a freezer for the cafeteria, and lumber for a stage addition. Parents volunteers have long been a Woodfill tradition as well. From the 1983 School Facts: “The room mothers, as always, were a tremendous help to the teachers for parties and field trips, and a large group of mothers took turns serving in the cafeteria.”
By 1988, Boys Scouts and Girl Scouts were popular after-school activities. According to School Facts, highlights of the year included new playground equipment purchased by the PTA and installed by several fathers, Special Olympics, Schoolmates in Australia, Lunch with Parents, Book-It, Just Say No Club, N.A.S.A. guest speakers and field trips to Drake Planetarium, Hyde Park Observatory and Huntsville Space Camp.
“My most influential role models have been the Woodfill educators that gave me my wings back in 1989,” says Dawn Hils, Woodfill’s most current tenured teacher. “Mrs. Ann Dahl, Mrs. Janet Willig and Mr. Ed Long were longtime Woodfill teachers who set me on a solid path as an educator, but even more importantly, modeled the importance of loyalty to our school. The notion of Woodfill as a family is rooted in those who spent entire careers and stayed fully invested here. Mr. Howard Fischer, the principal who hired me, set that tone of loyalty and love, and those who followed have modeled it for each other. Similarly, we’ve had generations of families who have stayed invested in Woodfill Elementary through their involvement in our PTO. There is a definite sense of genuine care and commitment to the legacy.”
Former Student Elizabeth Loechle says students would get so excited when Fischer would stop by a classroom, taking the time to look at projects and papers. “He always greeted us with a smile and encouraging words,” Loechle says.
In 1989 and 1990, Loechle’s third and fourth grade teacher was Alice Miller, another well-loved teacher who had to retire early after a cancer diagnosis. Miller died shortly after her retirement, in 1995.
Loechle says Miller “was the kindest, sweetest teacher with a heart of gold. I remember her being so soft-spoken and would give hugs and you could tell just really enjoyed her job and the students she taught. I attended her funeral and there was so many former students there that she obviously touched.”
Lisa Bowman, who did her student teaching in 1992 with Miller, says it was a “wonderful blessing” to be placed in Miller’s third-grade classroom.
“Alice was such a compassionate and loving teacher, and so very patient with the students too,” Bowman says. “Alice taught me that not only were the academics important, but it was also important to nurture and love every child. She made every student in her class feel special and cared for.”
Former student Debra Kinstler says the same: “Mrs. Miller was a wonderful and devoted teacher. She made every student feel special.”
Sarah Miller-Hair, Miller’s daughter, says her mom loved her job and was great at it. “I wish should would have had more time,” she says.
Bowman, who taught a multi-aged classroom at Woodfill in 1993-94 before moving to Johnson Elementary, also student taught with first-grade teacher Donna Redlinger. “Donna’s love for music and her sense of humor showed me how to connect with the little ones and how to allow them to really enjoy learning,” she says. “We always had fun in her class! Woodfill was an awesome school, where the teachers and staff were a family, parents were involved in their children’s education, and students loved coming to school each day.”
Reynolds says Woodfill was, and still is, her family. “We experienced births, deaths, illnesses, promotions, moves, adoptions, marriages, and so much more together,” she says. “The difference between my coworkers and others I observed is that we showed up for each other all the time. We did life together all the time and not just eight to three. Without asking, I would be surrounded by teachers, staff members, parents and administrators when I needed them the most. I would have my biological family holding one hand and someone in my Woodfill family holding the other.”
In May 1995, Reynolds went into labor teaching at the original Woodfill school building. On Field Day at the end of that school year, she took her one-month-old to school to introduce her.
“I vividly remember the principal holding her while the students enjoyed a PTO cookout and played kickball on the side playground,” Reynolds says. “Today, my now 27-year-old daughter [Samantha Reynolds] is a Woodfill second-grade teacher and her classroom in the new building is located right where that playground was. Our roles have changed but we are still Woodfill family!”
Hils says it is her hope that Woodfill’s school community retains its sense of history and loyalty to the idea that it is one family.
“We are more than the latest and greatest methods and materials used to deliver instruction,” Hils says. “We are a group of leaders and difference-makers, with an ever-present sense of appreciation for those who came before us.”
Gesenhues says he’s looking forward to continuing the excellence that Woodfill has shown over its many-year history.
“I hope that we will always be a place where families feel safe to send their children, and that they know when they come to Woodfill they are cared for and experience a world-class education,” he says.
The entire Fort Thomas community is invited to share in memories of their time at Woodfill during the school’s beloved Big Top Festival and 100th Birthday Bash, Sunday, September 28, noon. to 6 p.m.