If you live in the Olentangy Local School District, chances are you’ve heard about its rapid growth — the statistics and numbers that reflect its rise from a one-building district to the eighth largest in the state. But hearing about the transformation and living through it are two very different things.
The numbers can’t tell the human side of Olentangy’s story, but a select group of people know the tale. They are the bus drivers, teachers, secretaries, aides, food service employees, maintenance crews and administrators who worked at Olentangy in and prior to 1989 — the last year the district operated entirely out of what is now Shanahan Middle School.
They call themselves the “Olentimers,” and there are more than 70 of them around today, including many who still work in the district. They recently shared their memories of what it was like at Olentangy before the growth spurt that added more than 16,000 students and 23 school buildings to the district.
Bob Thompson began his employment with Olentangy in 1980 when he was hired as the assistant principal for grades 7-12. In those days, however, staff members often took on dual responsibilities and Thompson was a man who wore many hats. In addition to being the assistant principal, Thompson simultaneously served as Olentangy’s athletic director, its director of transportation and its middle school principal. As Thompson tells it, Olentangy wasn’t exactly the ideal working environment from a facilities perspective back before Shanahan was remodeled and brought up to date. But it was all part of Olentangy’s charm.
“In those days, surrounding schools sometimes referred to Olentangy as “Old n’ Scrungy,” a nickname not totally undeserved,” Thompson said. “There was a maintenance and custodial staff of only four. The roof leaked so badly that there were buckets and trash cans quickly — but strategically — dispersed in the hallways and classrooms to catch the rain during storms … and there were roaches the size of Chihuahuas!”
Thompson and others also recalled one rather unusual feature at the school. In fact, it was the memory most cited by Olentimers. For some reason, which no one could explain, parts of the school’s hallways were carpeted. Over the years, the carpet became rippled, worn and separated from its backing, as JoAnne Lane, who was first hired to teach at Olentangy in 1974, remembered. The old carpet made for adventurous hallway trips, she said.
“If you had a cart you were rolling down the hallway, it would bounce and turn all the way down! It was so noisy,” Lane said. “It was good that in later years it was replaced with tile because it became rather dangerous.”
And while carpet was available at the school, other more traditional school building features were sometimes absent. But the staff and students always persevered, or at least adapted. “Because there was no PA system or fire alarms in the temporary module units back then, the school librarian would open her window and wave her arms at us, yelling ‘fire drill!’ Lane said.
Getting classrooms ready for students also required a bit more elbow grease in those days. That job fell to teachers like Jayne Ensminger, who was hired in 1984 at an annual salary of $17,000. “I painted my classroom and bookshelves and covered my desk and filing cabinet with contact paper because they were rusted,” Ensminger recalled. “I had to write a requisition to the school board for a set of dictionaries.”
Making do with less often made for long days, and in some cases, more Olentangy memories, as is the case for Heidi Steitz, who started her career in Olentangy in 1987. “One time I worked too long after school and couldn’t get out of my classroom because the floor outside my door had been waxed. I ended up crawling out the window! Good thing it was on the first floor,” Steitz said.
Still others recalled the teaching staff’s daily pilgrimage from the high school side of the building to the elementary side for lunch. The servings were bigger on the elementary side, said Lana Lowary, an Olentangy teacher since 1981. Often those servings included food that came straight from the cafeteria staff’s own gardens, added Dwight Dewese, a math teacher with the district since 1985.
It is that type of quaint charm that the Olentimers cite as being among their favorite memories. The traditions and personalities — the annual school board-hosted staff picnics and middle school secretary Sarah Wilson’s routine of placing a warm homemade cookie in the teacher’s mailboxes, for example — that made Olentangy such a great place to work.
The same is true of longtime district bus drivers like Jo Ellen Rogers and Linda Reda, who remember when they were required to park their buses at home after school because the district did not have enough space for its fleet of 14 buses. The district has 165 buses today.
As Olentangy was changing, so too was Delaware County. In 1989, large portions of the county were still zoned as rural agricultural, which meant a good portion of the student body was involved in farming. That aspect of the district sometimes made its way into the classroom, recalled Olentangy High School drama teacher David Hinds.
“There used to be mud in the hallways every morning because the kids worked on their farms before coming to school,” said Hinds, who has been working at Olentangy since 1985. “Some students would bring their rifles to school to show us how to clean a gun for their demonstration speeches and no one thought twice about it.”
But the most consistent theme cited by those who remember is the sense of community that came with working in a small, one-building school district. Everyone at Olentangy in the pre-growth days did, in fact, know your name.
“Back then you knew the students by name and face,” recalled Roland D’Amato, a math teacher for the district since 1987. Those students included one Gary Vernon, better known today as country music star Gary LeVox of Rascal Flatts. “All his teachers kept telling him he needed to have a plan B for when he gave up his silly fantasy of being a country singer,” D’Amato said.
“Those pre-growth years were a very happy time,” added Dave Maloney, a teacher for the district since 1988. “We were small, everybody knew everybody else and the caring and real love for each other was always evident. We knew about families, did things socially and it was a closely-knit staff.”
Olentangy was truly a family of its own in those days, recalled Barb Wenzel, an Olentangy teacher since 1989. “The thing that is most memorable is the incredible closeness and camaraderie of the staff, as well as the Olentangy families.
We knew all the children and who their parents were as well as the younger siblings. The students and families also knew every teacher and many of their spouses as well.”
Given the district’s expansion since 1989, Olentangy could have been a challenging place to work. But to the contrary, it was a great place to work, said Thompson, who shared a sentiment expressed by all of the Olentimers — pride.
“Through unwavering support, and hard work, Olentangy has become one of the best school districts in the nation, and I feel extremely fortunate to have been part of that process,” Thompson said.
And while Olentangy is no longer a small district, it has retained much of the atmosphere that existed before its fast-paced expansion. In fact, many of those same traits that made Olentangy special when it operated out of one building remain today — wonderful students, a dedicated teaching and support staff working in partnership with involved parents and a supportive community, said Mark Raiff, district executive director of academics.
“Because our growth has been so rapid, many of the staff members who worked here in 1989 are still working for the district today. Their presence has helped us maintain that sense of small-town, family-oriented schooling. We’re just a bigger family now.”