Cumberland Times-News

May 26, 2012

What they’re doing seems to be working

Jim Goldsworthy, Columnist
Cumberland Times-News

— Years ago I watched someone plant a seed. Recently, I went to see a part of what has grown from it.

Dan Whetzel and Mike Lewis began in 1997 to work with some students from Allegany High School in Cumberland to produce a book about the old Lonaconing Silk Mill.

They probably had no idea of what would eventually come about because of it. (Well, I at least didn’t.)

It was a remarkable effort, including photos and well-written interviews with people who’d worked at the mill. More books of professional quality followed, including a particularly moving volume about Vietnam veterans.

Brian White started as one of Dan’s students, then became a teacher who participates in an award-winning oral history project that’s expanded to Fort Hill (Cumberland) and Mountain Ridge (Frostburg) high schools.

Dan recently retired as supervisor of social studies for Allegany County’s public schools, and his was the first face I saw when I went to Mountain Ridge for the unveiling of that school’s latest history project. It was happy and proud ... like you’d expect a father’s face to be at such times. (He may not think of himself that way, but I do.)

“Out of the Sticks, Into the Line of Fire” is a DVD produced by the historical research methods class. It chronicles the experiences of a dozen Allegany County residents during World War II — three of whom were friends of mine.

The class is taught by Matt Ravenscroft, whose parents are my Keyser High schoolmates Leon and Kathy (Tettenburn) Ravenscroft, who invited me to go with them.

Mountain Ridge is bright and wide-open, clean and neat and inviting. Leon, Kathy and I agreed it’s the type of place we’d enjoy going to every morning.

 You wish every kid in America could attend a school like it. Anyone who thinks surroundings don’t have a major effect on a student’s learning ability doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

My observations, and my conversations with Matt, band director Dave Kauffman and principal Gene Morgan, lead me to believe that those who are involved with the school — parents, students, staff, townspeople — are proud of it, and that good things happen there.

The school is only a few years old, but already is having a major impact on the community and in academics and in sports, and it reminded me of something my father told me.

Dad was the first graduate of Keyser High to become its principal, and he loved the school and his job. He lived to see a new Keyser High built south of town, and we took a tour of it shortly before it opened in 1998.

It’s a magnificent structure, and Dad said he’d love to have been its principal. I said I’d love to have been a student there.

There had been talk that Keyser didn’t need a new high school, basically that “The old school was good enough for me. It’s good enough for kids today.”

“That’s not true,” Dad said. “It was a beautiful school, and for as much as we loved it, it’s not good enough for kids today.” He said it wasn’t even good enough for my friends and me, when we went there in the 1960s and the building was less than 50 years old.

That’s my feeling about schools like the relatively new Keyser High and the new Mountain Ridge High. They can provide what the kids today should have. The same, I am sure, will be true of the new Allegany High.

In addition to the video, we were treated to a few Big Band Era selections from the Mountain Ridge Jazz Orchestra.

Music from that age appeals to me more than any other — even the music of my younger years. Maybe it’s because of my parents, who once took me to a Glenn Miller Orchestra concert that I didn’t want to end. I inherited their love of great music.

The Mountain Ridge band was amazing. I sat there rocking out and thinking, “If this doesn’t make you want to get up and dance, nothing will.”

The band played “Little Brown Jug,” which Kauffman said they’d only had one day to work on — but you’d never have known it. He told me he was proud of the way they handled it, and I told him that’s what real musicians do.

The preview of the DVD was fascinating and told viewers things they might never have thought about — including the reasons some of the vets quit school to go fight in the war.

After interviewing the veterans, the students hunted down film footage and other information that would supplement what they had gathered, relying extensively on the National Archives.

One of the veterans was my old golfing buddy Joe Freno, who died before the video was finished. Leon told me the kids who had worked with him were heartbroken.

A few of the veterans wore their old caps or other parts of their uniforms. One was in a wheelchair, and another pushed him through the cookies-and-coffee line at the reception. Both adults and kids went over to take their pictures. I shook their hands and thanked them for my freedom.

What I frequently see and hear when I occasionally visit one of our schools, or read about in the newspaper or hear about on television, convinces me that America’s future is a lot brighter than what some folks would have us think.

The things kids often decide to take upon themselves, without being coaxed into it, sometimes makes me want to cheer. It happens in Cumberland and the surrounding communities, and we frequently report about it in the Times-News.

Students today have opportunities that my schoolmates and I never would have dreamed of — which is something else my father said he would love to have been a part of.  There is still room for young people to seize those opportunities and run with them.

And as long as our school systems keep coming up with teachers like Dan Whetzel, Mike Lewis, Brian White, Dave Kauffman and Matt Ravenscroft, they’ll have those opportunities and the inspiration to take advantage of them.

Earlier this year, Ravenscroft received the Maryland VFW’s Teacher of the Year Award. He was nominated by the Oldtown VFW Post and placed 14th overall in the national competition. That’s pretty elite company.

Next year’s project, he said, will be Frostburg’s 200th birthday.

Copies of “Out of the Sticks, Into the Line of Fire” cost $15 and are available in the main office at the school or at Main Street Books in Frostburg.