It’s been called “the heart of Kenmore.”
Completed Nov. 1, 1924 at a cost of $495,000, the Junior-Senior High School on Delaware Road “is of warm buff-colored tapestry brick with grey stone trim and in architectural beauty equal to that found in any city,” according to a history of the village written in 1926.
But next month, that heart will beat no more. Not as a school, anyway.
After 92 years and thousands of graduates, what’s now Kenmore Middle School will close as the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District shrinks from 12 to 9 schools.
A closing celebration begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday with an open house at the school, 155 Delaware Road. A program in the auditorium beginning at 8 p.m. will feature the school’s alumni chorus and band. And an adults-only gala begins at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Banchetti by Rizzo’s, 550 N. French Road, Amherst.
It’s a bittersweet farewell to what one former principal called “the finest architectural building in Kenmore.”
“In no better way can the growth of Kenmore be expressed than by this large, modern school,” according to the 1926 history. “Without doubt there is no single factor that has contributed to the growth of Kenmore more than its architectural facilities.”
Four generations of Heather Buyea’s family have passed through the halls of Kenmore Middle.
She graduated in 1985 and was preceded by her mother, Pamela Dodson, and grandmother, Jane Vaughan. Now, her son, Tyler, is an eighth grader and member of the last graduating class. Her husband, sister, uncle and great-uncle also attended the school.
Not much has changed over the years, she said.
“The floors are still creaky,” said Buyea, 44. “The wood floors still look the same. I remember all the lockers being the same color they are to this day.”
There is at least one difference. The school had a stricter dress code in the mid-1930s when her grandmother attended. Boys wore dress pants and girls wore skirts.
“Times were different then,” Buyea said. “Women didn’t go on to college.”
Yet next month, Tyler will go on the 8th grade field trip to Darien Lake, just like she did. Because they live in her husband’s childhood home, Tyler walks the same route to school his parents did.
But Buyea’s younger daughters will attend Hoover Middle instead.
“It’s sad that my kids won’t go down those hallways,” she said. “It’s sad that it’s the last village school. It’s the last time our kids can walk to school. Now, everybody has to be bused.”
Buyea, who sang in the middle school chorus, came from a single-parent household.
“I have to say the school was very supportive because it wasn’t really heard of back then – to have single-parent families,” she said.
She remembers the time her class stole the auditorium clock as an 8th grade prank but denied being involved herself.
“I don’t know if they ever replaced it, either,” she says, laughing. “I haven’t been in there. I’m afraid to find out.”
Students always knew when longtime former Kenmore Middle School Principal Florence M. Kern was approaching.
“I used to wear high heels, so the kids always knew when I was coming,” she said. “They’d say, ‘Here comes Ms. Kern!’”
Now retired and living in Hamburg, Kern was principal for 27 years, beginning in 1977 when the Ken-Ton School District had an enrollment of nearly 22,000 students. Now, enrollment is less than one-third of that, which is why the school is closing.
“It was just a great place to live, a great place to work,” said Kern, 77. “That’s why I stayed there as long as I did.”
She credited the school’s teachers and staff for achieving national recognition in 1995 after being nominated by the state as an outstanding middle school. “That was a big project for us,” she said. “We worked very hard to maintain that.”
She also fondly remembers the school’s strong arts programs, especially its band and choruses, and competing in the Science Olympiad and Geography Bee.
“There was a lot of parent involvement,” she said. “That’s what I loved about it. When you have parents involved, kids become successful.”
Few students were bused and many walked, which meant they could easily leave and return later for extracurricular activities in the gym, pool and on athletic fields, she said.
“It was the happiest time in my life,” she said. “I loved being there. A lot of people say, ‘What? Sixth, seventh and eighth graders?’ Yeah, but they’re great because you can watch them grow. Then you send them off to high school and learn about all their great successes.”
A history lesson
For over a year, social studies teacher Paul Davies has been sorting through Kenmore Middle’s boxed archives of yearbooks, photos, letters and other memorabilia.
“I knew if somebody didn’t do something with those things that they were going to be lost forever because as I investigated the school, no one knew where anything was,” he said.
Among the items he found was an American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in 2003 as a tribute to George Cookingham, a World War II veteran who served as principal in the 1960s.
Photos show “Junior Hi – Kenmore N.Y.” scripted on the side of the fighter and “Spirit of Kenmore N.Y.” on the side of the bomber.
“Take a look at this building, it’s in the center of the village,” Davies said. “It was the center of the village.”
For Davies, it’s been a labor of love. He’s been the driving force behind the open house Friday when much of the archive will be on display.
“I love doing this,” he said. “I wish I could keep all this stuff. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.”
His hope is some of the items will be donated to the Tonawanda-Kenmore Historical Society.
“Ultimately it’s the property of the district,” he said. “So it depends on what they want to do with it. I just hope they don’t get rid of it.”
The last eighth graders
A.J. Oliveri is proud to be a “Jaguar,” as Kenmore Middle’s mascot is known. The eighth-grader is also proud to be a member of the school’s last graduating class.
“We’re pretty lucky to be the last class graduating from this school,” he said. “It’s kind of crazy because this school has been around forever.”
Kenmore Middle didn’t accept any sixth-graders for the 2015-16 school year, opting instead to send them to their new middle schools. So the building has been quieter than usual.
“This year just seems a little different because it’s going to close,” said A.J., 13. “It’s a different atmosphere knowing the school isn’t going to be here next year.”
He was able to partake in the eighth-graders’ annual – and final – trip earlier this month to Washington, D.C. where over three days they visited Smithsonian museums and memorials and monuments on the National Mall.
“That was a really awesome experience,” he said of the tradition. “I’m so glad I went.”
He followed his mother, Dawn, the school’s PTA president, in attending Lindbergh Elementary, then Kenmore Middle. His favorite subjects are English Language Arts, gym, social studies with Mr. Chimera and technology with Mr. Atkins.
Most of the current seventh- and eighth-graders will move on to Kenmore West High School in September. And although A.J. will be starting at St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute, he plans to keep in touch with the “lifelong friends” he made.
“Once you hit sixth grade, you start to make new friends and they become like a family,” said A.J., a hockey player and member of the National Junior Honor Society. “And the school, which represents the house where you’re growing up with your new family, is being closed. It’s sad.”