News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 31, 2012

MARK BENNETT: A little pain, a lot of fun as Chauncey Rose fades into history

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Greg Gauer sidesteps boxes on the floor of his office on a Tuesday afternoon.

They contain still-useful elements of the daily routine at Chauncey Rose Middle School.

“That one’s going to Sarah Scott. That one’s going to Woodrow Wilson,” he says of the boxes, bound for Chauncey Rose’s sister Vigo County middle schools.

There are few other visible signs that Chauncey Rose will conduct its final classes in less than 48 hours. Aside from the boxes, Gauer’s office looks sharp, yet busy, with framed photos and inspirational messages hanging on its walls. Tipoff of the annual Faculty vs. Student Body basketball game looms in just 15 minutes, but Gauer — due to serve as referee — assures me he has a few minutes to talk about the last days of this school, a place that traces its origins to a 19th-century philanthropist who used his fortune to educate young people and care for the least fortunate.

Gauer appears ready to officiate, wearing a polo and sweats in the school colors of the CRMS Royals. He eases, a bit gingerly, into the chair behind his desk. Years ago, he sat in Chauncey Rose’s classrooms as a student, from 1983 to ’85. Two years ago, Gauer became its principal. One year ago, the Vigo County School Board voted 7-0 “with a heavy heart” to close this school at North 13th Street and Third Avenue, citing state budget cutbacks, the high cost of renovating the 40-year-old complex, and a declining enrollment from 672 in 1999 to 242 today.

That background lets Gauer view Chauncey Rose “through different lenses.”

Asked what makes the school special, he answers, “is the men and women who have taught here.”

The obstacles teachers encounter are well-handled at all Vigo County schools, Gauer quickly adds, but are “a little more pronounced” at Chauncey Rose. At this quintessential inner-city, neighborhood school, nearly one-third of its students walk to and from here daily. When Gauer was a Chauncey Rose student, he was the second of the family’s three children to attend, and the teachers “knew who my sister was. They knew my parents,” he recalls. Today, with changing family dynamics, “It’s an uncle, it’s a foster mom and dad, it’s a grandparent. [But] it’s always been, ‘Who’s child is this?’ You’ve got to have a good handle on where this child is coming from.”

And the staff does just that, he says, pausing briefly when a staffer pops in to have him approve an announcement for a farewell breakfast.

“These people know who our clientele is,” Gauer says, leaning forward. “They know who’s going to need that pair of shoes. They know who’s going to need that coat in the winter time. They know who’s going to need help with the utility bill in the winter. They know the young lady who makes the cheer team who doesn’t have the means to get that uniform.”

For many, the place they walk, ride or bus to has been a second home. Kids linger hours after school for tutoring, school sports or pickup basketball. “This place,” Gauer says, “it’s as if it never closes, like it’s always open.”

Yet, that rare moment is coming on Friday, when teachers wrap up their 2011-12 duties and Chauncey Rose ceases to be.

Gauer glances at the time, rises from his chair and walks toward the Howard Sharpe Gymnasium, one of two buildings the school inherited from Gerstmeyer High School, which closed at that same site in 1971, a year before Chauncey Rose opened. Along the way, students and faculty members flow into the hallways, headed for the basketball festivities.

Outside, on the sidewalk between the classroom building and the gym, a young boy looks up at Gauer and asks, “How’s the knee?”

“Well, I’m about to find out,” Gauer answers, grinning.

Like the walls in the hallways, Gauer’s office and the classrooms, those in the Sharpe Gym bear posters with messages of advice and encouragement. Near one scoreboard hangs a saying from Aesop’s Fables — “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

Before walking in, Gauer explains that he didn’t want this last Chauncey Rose school year to feel like a funeral. The staff worked hard to reconnect with parents and alums, gathering remembrances through a “Royals on Facebook” page, and posting monthly the submitted photos and reflections on a bulletin board outside the main office. And it welcomed the public to visit the school throughout 2011-12. But the administrators and teachers also balanced the reminiscences with fun and forward-thinking, because “these kids deserve that,” Gauer says. After all, high school at Terre Haute North awaits the current eighth-graders, while the sixth- and seventh-graders move on to Woodrow Wilson and Otter Creek middle schools, and staffers to other schools in the corporation.

All find seats inside the gym, as Gauer walks in and the rosters of the Faculty and Student Body teams are announced to raucous cheers.

On the sidelines, teachers — including Julia Foltz-Pelham — help the cheerleaders fire up the students.

The school was just 15 years old when she joined the faculty as a social studies teacher. That first year, she admits, was a culture shock from the “yes, ma’am; no, ma’am” atmosphere in the Texas and Fort Wayne schools where Foltz-Pelham taught for four years before coming to Chauncey Rose. “I almost turned in my resignation four times in the first year,” she says during a timeout in the basketball game.

Instead, she grew to love the school, and spent the past 25 years there, including its 1993 transition from a junior-high format to a middle school. In fact, the 52-year-old Foltz-Pelham has decided to retire after Chauncey Rose closes, “because there’s not another school like this in the whole world,” she says, above the sounds of the crowd. “This is the most giving, loving school in the whole corporation, and they have the least to give.”

Out on the court, the lead seesaws between the rival teams of male teachers and eighth-grade boys. Gauer celebrates big baskets by both, while imposing some strict, tongue-in-cheek calls on the Faculty hoopsters. Finally, the sweat-drenched teachers pull out a 37-35 victory with a last-minute score. Soon, students and staffers file out, talking, smiling and laughing.

As Gauer strides toward the exit, I ask him about that knee. Turns out, the 41-year-old — whose wife, Kristin, is a school nurse and kids, Kate and Matt, are students at Lost Creek Elementary — had knee replacement surgery.

Just four weeks ago.

“I’ll pay for this tomorrow,” he says of testing that rebuilt knee.

Some hurt. Some fun. It’s all part of a fitting goodbye for Chauncey Rose.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or