Sep 4 2014

As has been mentioned here in the past, we are in the process of renaming several of the Kennedy School guestrooms to celebrate the people who attended, worked and taught at the school.

And because it is Back to School Day for children across the land, it seems apt to recall one of Kennedy's former principals. Here is the history plate that will be installed in the Gertrude Ramage room.

Was there ever a better name for an elementary school principal than "Gertrude Ramage"? It is a strong name, a slightly scary name, a name that commands respect. All excellent qualities in a principal.

RamageMrs. Ramage was the head of Kennedy School from 1967 through 1973. She had "an easily recognizable tone" of voice, one that struck fear in kids' hearts. Mrs. Ramage would patrol the hallways during class, peeking in through the door windows - the students were never quite sure if she was checking up on them or on their teachers. Not even her flower-print dresses softened her reputation as "a stern old lady." Nicknamed "Rampage," you did not want to be on the receiving end of one of her lectures.

And woe be unto any student overheard using the words "shut up," one of her most despised grievances. She would "go ballistic," a former student remembered. Kids being kids, they'd push Mrs. Ramage's buttons - while walking by her in a group, they'd dare a kid to mumble "shut up" and then they'd all take off running. When asked decades later about why this particular phrase riled her so, Gertrude responded, "It was just impolite and rude. I tried to teach a little manners, but it didn't seem to help." To the contrary, kids were still gleefully recalling this lesson 25 years after the fact! Well done, Mrs. Ramage. When asked if she thought the children had been scared of her, she said, "I hope not!" but then acknowledged, "Kids knew not to cross me."

The occasional bold child was no problem for the veteran administrator. But what did present a formidable challenge for Gertrude Ramage as well as all Portland school administrators, staff and students of the 1960s and '70s was the unprecedented change brought about by district overcrowding, the creation of a middle school system, and especially integration implemented by a new bussing program. Beginning in the late 1960s, students from underperforming neighborhood schools were bussed, sometimes across town, to schools touted by the district as offering better opportunities and instruction, including Kennedy. In less skilled hands, this forced student shake-up might have proved disastrous, but Mrs. Ramage recalled that her student body and faculty had very few problems. "You tried not to think of them as white, black, brown or green - they were children."

The early '70s ushered in another major change: school closures. As early as 1971, the Portland School District declared that due to a steep drop in enrollment, some schools would have to be shuttered. Cited as one of the oldest schools still in use and showing signs that dry rot and deterioration had taken a toll, Kennedy was among those singled out for closure.

There was a great outcry among alumni and neighbors, protesting the district's plan, which served to slow the process to the point that Mrs. Ramage retired as principal in December 1973 before any action was taken. Staff and faculty threw her a grand afternoon retirement party. But perhaps most appreciated were the many notes from current and former students, all written using the best of manners, no doubt.

A year and a half later in June 1975, the long-impending closure of Kennedy School became reality. It would never again re-open as Kennedy Elementary; however, following two more decades of community effort, red tape and negotiation, the building was saved from the wrecking ball when Mike and Brian McMenamin's proposal to revitalize the property was accepted. The school reopened under the McMenamins flag in October 1997. Mrs. Ramage returned for the occasion, and with her typical desert-dry wit, she  gracefully acknowledged the brew kettle with her face painted on it (see above), but quickly added she would not be sampling any of the contents.

Today, the hallways formerly presided over by the stoic Mrs. Ramage are alive with fun and merriment. But don't ever let us hear you say "shut up." We'll send you right to the Detention Bar out of respect for Principal Ramage's rule.

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#1 Kate Ramage

I'm so happy to see this lovely tribute to the indomitable, loving force that was Gertrude. One small point--it was Ms, not Mrs., and Gert was proud of her family name. Thank you, from her niece.