Remembering North Star Elementary School

North Star Elementary, 1950. © Jana Ariane Nelson
North Star Elementary, 1950. © Jana Ariane Nelson

A few months ago a classmate’s mother celebrated her 100th birthday with a card party. That is, we were invited to create and send cards to commemorate her milestone.

Several of us remembered and shared stories of her late husband, Mr. Norton, the beloved principal of North Star Elementary School on Blueberry Road off Fireweed Lane in the Anchorage suburb of Spenard.

Following is a compilation of those memories.

Leah Hoffman, teacher, says:

Hi! We didn’t talk much about where the bear stayed the night before the carnival. It probably wasn’t legal!

However, there was a nice big room, and it was prepared well; the bear was set up in a cage as I remember. I think it belonged to Moose Moore who wrestled it at our school carnivals. Anyway, the bear did what came naturally and the room smelled like a skunk the rest of the year. The children probably didn’t notice it much, but their teacher with a sensitive nose did! We were up for anything with Mr. Norton as our principal. Nobody complained. We enjoyed it.

Like your mother, Jana, Mrs. Norton took this young teacher under her wing my first years in Alaska. She was always very empathetic that I had that big room where they had the movies every Friday since things were never the same on the next Monday!

Once she told me that in church when the scripture was read, she’d get interested and read the rest of it in the Bible and then suddenly church would be over and she would have missed the sermon! That was this gal who has seen a century of living. What a good, conscientious teacher she was.

From MaryJo:

My family moved to Anchorage from Seattle in December of 1951. After the holiday break, I entered the two-year-old school nestled among sparkling snow-covered mounds that hid blueberry bushes and scrub spruce trees. This blueberry bog and surrounding area included a now-frozen pond creatively known as Blueberry Lake. Today, the bog and pond have been filled and the low-lying area is known by the sterile and undignified name of “Midtown.” The original North Star building was initially condemned by the school district before being brought up to code and reincarnated in the mid-1970s as Steller Secondary School.

It was the middle of my third grade year when I first entered North Star School. After my mom completed paperwork, we went into Mr. Norton’s office to meet the principal. He was a big man with dark, smiling eyes, who spoke softly. As he walked with me to my classroom, I liked him right away and thought, “He likes kids.“

Grinning with excitement at being in a new place, I settled into my assigned seat and looked shyly at my new classmates. When I glanced at the front of the room, I saw alphabet letters in a style I recognized as cursive on cards across the front of the room.

“Oh good, cursive,” I thought with delight. Fun word, cursive. I liked saying it.

I was eager to learn more about the interesting curly and connected writing that the teacher in Seattle had briefly introduced before I left. A spelling lesson that morning soon overshadowed my enthusiasm as I noticed the other students easily writing their words in loops and curves. My printed letters felt stiff and clumsy by comparison.

“How do you know cursive?” I asked my desk mate between bites of my Spam sandwich at lunch time.

“Oh, we learned that in second grade,” she said, wiping the side of her mouth with a grimace. “I hate split pea soup!” She pushed it away.

“At least it’s hot,” I said, glancing curiously at the green liquid that had been delivered to her and others in our room. “We never had Spam in Seattle. Yuck!” A friendship was born and I vowed to learn cursive. With the help of my very nice teacher whose name I don’t recall, I worked to master the new handwriting. Every night for the next three weeks I practiced from the time I got home until bedtime with barely time for supper.

My favorite memory of North Star School is the ice rink. Every year after the temperatures dropped to freezing, Mr. Norton flooded the playground and created a skating rink. I don’t remember if there were skates students could borrow. It seemed like everyone skated. In a class, we learned folk dances on ice from a professional skater that Mr. Norton imported from town. We skated during recess and at lunch time. For me, there was never enough time for all the skating I wanted to do. I don’t remember the playground without an ice rink, nor do I remember swings and a slide although I’m sure they were there.

Other things I remember about North Star School that are attributed to Mr. Norton are the ten-cent 16mm black and white movies with popcorn for a nickel on Saturday afternoons, hot lunch delivered to our rooms, and big rubber mats on the floor of the wide halls for tumbling as well as for hiding under during air raid drills. Oh yes, and I remember hearing about Harvey although I never met him.

Mr. Norton is the only elementary school principal I remember. Could one reason have been that he attended the same church my family did? I remember him occasionally snoring in church, although he always claimed, “I was just resting my eyes.”

Another classmate, Jana, says she, too, has no memory of a school principal before moving to North Star “and it was there that the designation of ‘principal’ took on a larger than life persona.”

In Jana’s own words:

Mother referred to HIM, behind his back, as “Papa Norton,” probably because he was such a colossal father figure to his many small charges. (Harvey would attest to that). This nickname was in no way disrespectful, being a familiar and honorary title given him as her boss. Mother worked as his part-time secretary from the fall of 1951 until 1954 when she renewed her teaching certificate.

Because Mother diligently recorded historical facts in her archival journals, I know exactly when North Star Elementary, one of three new elementary schools in Anchorage, was completed: February 1950. Those of us housed in the frigid metal monstrosities called the “Quonset Huts” in downtown Anchorage were thrilled to move into a freshly finished, painted, and MODERN grade school.

Mother’s journal describes North Star as I remember it:

North Star was a community-gathering place as well as a school. Norton, the principal, saw to that. He rented movies from downtown and showed them on a weekend night for a small charge. Popcorn was available. Parents and children enjoyed this first ‘theatre’ in Spenard. He organized a yearly country fair with entertainment, food, and various activities. In winter, he sprayed water and made a skating rink, bringing Juanita Wood, a once-professional skater, from town during her lunch hour to help the children learn to skate. The first hot lunch in elementary school was started at North Star, with Bernice Bantz and Eva Reese dispensing soup and sandwiches. When teachers would complain about some activity or task, Norton’s pat response was, “It’s for the kids!”

One year I was “volunteered” (probably by Mother) for clean-up duty after lunch. This involved pushing a cart holding an array of large gray garbage cans down the halls and visiting each classroom to gather up the remnants of lunch. The garbage cans didn’t get overly full, except for split pea soup days. On those days, not only did I have to endure the extra weight of the cart, but also the nauseating smell of gallons of uneaten split pea soup. I can’t stand that green stuff to this day.

Classroom dollhouse, Mrs. Graham’s 2nd grade class. © Jana Ariane Nelson
Classroom dollhouse, Mrs. Graham’s 2nd grade class. © Jana Ariane Nelson

During the Korean War we’d practice air raid drills in the hallways, hunched down under the same blue mats that I practiced my tumbling on for the ice shows. And every Thursday afternoon, I think it was, we’d spend a half hour or so listening to the “Standard School Broadcast” on the radio. I’m sure the boys hated it and fidgeted throughout the entire broadcast of classical music. But for me it was magic; I’d put my head down on my desk and fantasize that I was a world-renowned ballerina, gracefully pirouetting across the stage.

The Nortons had the first television I’d ever seen. We spent many Saturday evenings at their house; our parents visiting while all five of us kids sprawled out on the floor in front of a minuscule TV screen, watching Charlie Chan movies.

Thank you “Papa Norton” for such treasured memories: for ice shows, and tumbling, and chimp movies with 5 cent popcorn, for Charlie Chan, and classical music, for classroom doll houses, for your warm smile and your wonderful family, and for split pea soup.

Bill was the first classmate to respond to the birthday card party invitation with memories:

Mr. Norton was a titan in our lives, a beloved titan.

He made us behave. He was ever of good humor, and we respected him but did not fear any meanness in him. Even when we got paddled in Mr. Norton’s office, there was a twinkle in his eye.

He gave us a good life at North Star. The skating rink was tops. We didn’t play video games at recess, we ice skated. My sense of self-worth was elevated by the opportunity to play hockey on North Star’s team for all those years, and eventually the Anchorage All-Stars. The only team that could beat us was Creekside Park. We had incredible carnivals in the fall, where you could win a cake. At the winter ice carnivals, you could win a trophy.

We didn’t fool around with Mr. Norton. In the spring, we liked to go out on the little pond by the playground and see if we could break through the ice. If we did and got wet, Mr. Norton made us wear girl’s pink or green corduroys the rest of the day.

Because of today’s restrictions on physical contact of any kind in the schools – hugs or paddles – we questioned whether or not to include Harvey, Mr. Norton’s famed (or infamous) paddle in our memories of North Star School.

Bill summed up the consensus:

I can see the familiar twinkle in Mr. Norton’s eyes as he looks down at us debating what should remain of his legacy.

The bottom line is Mr. Norton without Harvey is like the Pope without a beanie. They are inseparable. If you went to North Star School, Harvey is a part of your consciousness. And one mustn’t ignore the essential elements of one’s consciousness.

Sooner or later everyone met Harvey, at least the boys did. If we got a little out of line our teacher would say, “Do you want to go meet Harvey?” Of course we didn’t, so we shaped right up. But sometimes we didn’t shape up well enough or quickly enough, and paid our due.

When I was a young lad I made a wooden replica of Harvey and engraved on it, “Have paddle will travel.” It hangs on a wall in my home to this day.

Jeanne remembers:

Wasn’t there a time when we alternated school days at North Star until Woodland Park School opened? Some kids went on M-W-F and others on T-TH-S? I remember missing the Saturday morning No School Today radio program because of this.

I remember one teacher (I think it was Mrs. Graham) who would read us a chapter from a book after every noon recess. This is how I became acquainted with The Black Stallion books.

I remember playing at recess with a pair of boxing gloves. I punched a boy in the face and gave him a bloody nose. Boy, was I scared.

I remember being afraid of going outside at 4th grade recesses because the boys were trying to kiss the girls. I had no reason to fear – nobody tried to kiss me. I still suffer from the emotional distress that caused…

Georgia writes:

When I was in second grade, Woodland Park School construction was still underway. We went to school at North Star full days on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. In January the new school opened. I got to speak at the dedication, representing the second graders. The full text was probably “Thank you for the new school.”

I loved the memory jog regarding the Saturday radio show, “No School Today,” starring Big John and Sparkie. Can’t remember the duo now, but their names are etched in the back corner of my gray matter.

From Jim:

I don’t ever remember meeting or knowing Mrs. Norton. I remember being in a few classes with Tommy and I remember his father, Mr. Norton.

During the summer between 5th and 6th grades I volunteered to go to the school on Saturdays and help run the 16 mm projector to show movies in the library with the help of another kid whose name I can’t remember. There was a popcorn machine and we sold popcorn for 5 cents a bag. The week before school started, the movie was “Harvey” starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie ended and as the kids filed out, I was putting the popcorn machine back into a closet across the hall. I noticed that there was still some popcorn left in the bottom of the machine so I decided to fill a little bag of my own. I didn’t realize that Mr. Norton was standing behind me. He asked me if I had bothered to put 5 cents in the container provided for the money and I said, “No sir.”

The first day of school the next fall, he invited me and both 6th grade classes to meet him at the entrance to the school. He asked me to bend over and I got to meet the REAL HARVEY (blue paddle with holes in it). It was just one swat but probably the most embarrassing moment of my life. He then explained the virtue of honesty and integrity to the rest of the students.

Leslie’s memorable year:

Gosh, I was only at North Star for sixth grade but how well I remember that year. I had Mr. Barrington (?) and he threw chalkboard erasers at us if we weren’t paying attention. I got to be on the tumbling team and loved the peanut butter and honey sandwiches for lunch.

I still remember one time riding in the car with Mr. and Mrs. Norton. Patty, Tom and I were in the back seat and the Nortons were quizzing me about our new life as civilians. I would answer their questions with, “Sir or Ma’am” because as a former “military brat” we were trained to always do that. Finally Mr. Norton said he would stop the car and I would have to get out if I said Sir or Ma’am one more time. I really thought that was strange. But I guess someone had to clue me in on civilian speak.

It was a special honor when, as seventh graders, Ginger, Marsha, and I were invited back to perform as alums at the Ice Carnival. I still have my ice skates if an yone wants to go ice skating.

Gene says:

Classmates, reading your posts about school brought back NO confirming memories about Mr. Norton – except I recall his family from church where Ralph Weeks was pastor. And their daughter Pat was a trumpet player in AHS band with me. If there was truly a “Harvey,” I never met him nor knew about him. But the Standard Radio BroadcMrs. Graham’s 2nd grade class.

Mrs. Graham’s 2nd grade class. © Jana Ariane Nelson
Mrs. Graham’s 2nd grade class. © Jana Ariane Nelson

Mrs. Graham was my second grade teacher. My only memory from that class, other than she seemed to weigh 400 pounds and was older than even my grandmother (remember: this is from a second grader) was that, when we see in a sky of clouds a patch of blue as large as a Dutchman’s britches, then we’d know that it would be clearing.

Still waiting for that exact size clearing to appear to me…

Daughter Pat (Patty) Norton weighs in:

Oh my goodness…it’s like dominoes! One memory brings another and another and another! I can’t stop smiling! We really did live in an unforgettable era in the old town of Anchorage in the fifties and sixties.

Jana, thank you so much for Growing Up Anchorage. I’ve not been on the website for quite a while and have just seen your new look. LOVE your picture and what you have written as an introduction to the good old days! The stories from everyone are awesome!

Somewhere I have a picture of the two of us, Jana, on a mechanical horse (the kind you put a dime into) which was taken at one of North Star’s country fairs when we were probably 7 and 8. When I come across it someday I’ll send you a copy.

Leslie, one of my kids asked for my skates. Maybe I’ll get them back and we can go ice skating one more time.

MaryJo, I didn’t realize that my dad’s “resting (his) eyes” was so widely known!

Gene, I remember riding down the Seward Highway with a bunch of kids in your convertible with the top down…something we’d probably think twice about doing today! Also, so many memories with the AHS band.

Jeanne, did you save copies of the Eagle’s Cry? I did, if you want to see any.

And Bill, thanks for that moving tribute to my dad…my daughter read it this morning and was about to cry! It’s hard to believe my mother is almost 100. She is really quite well but very fragile. She hasn’t seen the invitation to the Birthday CARD Party, which was to be sort of a surprise. But I think I will probably give it to her early. She remembers so many things from old Anchorage and so many people!

Thanks for the memories. They keep coming.

Bill gets the last word, speaking perhaps for all of us:

You’re very much welcome, Pat. We all loved and respected your dad. You know someone has really touched your life when you still remember and talk about him over 50 years later.

Your dad made our time at North Star School a lifelong, happy memory. I was thinking that your mom might just like to have some of these tales of your dad read to her. A bit of a birthday gift from all of us whose lives he touched.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Norton!

North Star Elementary 4

North Star staff, early 1950′s:
Upper Row, left to right:
John McKinnon, Rupert Shreve, Glenn Norton, Esther Camp, Marilou Mills, Mary Randall, Meryl Graham, Beryl Neuwirth, Bea Jones, Ruth Davis, Eva Reese, Bernice Bantz, Rue Puhr

Lower Row, left to right:
Denney Griffith, Ella Mae Fournier, Leah Hoffman, Mary Guffey, Maybelle German, Rick Sherman, Kathryn Campbell, Mattie Harrison, Billie Tarbert, Bea Wilson

For more stories like this one, check out

MaryJo Comins lived in Anchorage from 1951 until 1995, graduated from AHS in 1961, attended the University of Montana, married and began raising a family before completing her BA in English with a sociology minor from the University of Alaska Anchorage in 1974. 

She taught writing and creativity classes in Anchorage and Eugene, Oregon.  Among her writing credits are the Anchorage Times, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Magazine, Cruising World Magazine, and Alyeska Pipeline’s in-house magazine.  MaryJo received writing awards from Alaska Press Women and an honorable mention from Writers Digest.  She enjoys acting with community theater groups in Anchorage and now Eugene.

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