Liz Campbell can remember walking up the steps and through the red double doors of Mills Elementary when she started her first school year as a teacher there in fall 1990.
Campbell noticed then the year 1919 on the front of the school and wondered if she’d still be teaching there when the school turned 100.
“And here I am,” Campbell said, with a laugh, in a phone interview with H&N on Friday.
“Mills was 70 years old when I arrived.”
Campbell, who is in her 30th year teaching at Mills, didn’t initially plan to spend her career here. But she fell in love with the families that make Mills feel a part of the community.
“Teachers often move to other schools, still within the city schools,” Campbell said. “My heart lies in Mills. All of my years have been right here.”
And she’s overjoyed to help celebrate the school’s centennial anniversary, and part of a mighty consortium of Mills’ Mustang staff planning a community celebration Wednesday.
Campbell, Principal Fred Bartels, and several other staff members gathered in the basement of the school Friday to pose for photographs with a new mural in progress by local artist Joshua Clem, showcasing their Mustang pride. Students and teachers had a hand in the project as well, evidenced by hand prints checkering the wall.
Campbell said it takes a village to celebrate a milestone this big, including many fellow teachers and both retired and current staff.
“This whole celebration – it really has been all hands on deck,” Campbell said. “From people in the kitchen to the custodian to the para pro’s, to administrators to the teachers in the classroom.”
The school, which is the oldest still in service in the Klamath Falls area, will unveil the mural Wednesday, in addition to hosting a tree planting, time capsule ceremony, and alumni-read starting at 1 p.m. A community reception will follow.
“All of the students and all of their families are invited to write some things about Mills Elementary,” said Bartels.
“We’ll be putting all of those into a book and we’ll be putting the book into a time capsule.”
The celebration is part of the school’s effort this fall and during spring 2020 to honor the building’s history, and the neighborhood that has supported it all these years. Students celebrated the anniversary as well on Halloween by dressing up in 1920s attire. The school will continue to hold dress-up days throughout the school year leading up to a celebration of the building’s 100 ½ anniversary on May 6, 2020.
“For this community, the anniversary really is an opportunity to celebrate everything that has been up until this point, but also to look forward to the amazing things that are going to continue to happen,” Bartels said.
“I really feel like the anchor of any community or any neighborhood is the school,” Bartels added, “and any opportunity we can have to just show togetherness about how proud we are of the school is time well spent.”
A Mills century
The Mills school itself is nearly 108 years old and started at another building in 1911 at the corner of Wantland and Division avenues, located across from what is now The Grocery Pub. The building was known as Mills Hall, and also served as a community hall.
Students were relocated to the current Mills location 100 years ago in 1919, when the Klamath Falls City Schools district board took possession of the building from the contractor on Nov. 6, 1919, according to the Evening Herald, a Klamath Falls newspaper.
“In the times we live in, having something as solid and longstanding as a good, old-fashioned brick school really helps kids feel grounded in the community,” said Todd Kepple, Klamath County Museums manager.
“One of the things especially younger couples look at is what kind of school serves the community,” Kepple added. “If a kid is going to a school building that has some history to it and has kept up to date with technology, then kids come away with just a real, good solid background.”
It’s that kind of solid background and community at Mills, as well as supportive families, that also has kept Campbell returning each year to teach young minds.
“It is a place where we have served thousands of children and at least hundreds if not thousands of families through thick and thin – life’s tragedies, through political times that have been good for the Basin, that have been not so good for the Basin,” Campbell said. “We’ve had our families come and go, our staff come and go, and yet, this Mills school building – it is still here. It is a place that people come back to.”
She sees it often where adults who attended Mills will return to find their photo on the walls of the hallways lined with framed memories.
Campbell believes that having those memories intact for multiple generations to see is something special.
“We’ve been here for 100 years, we haven’t been torn down,” Campbell said. “We haven’t been relocated. Our school hasn’t been re-purposed for another use. Serving students continually for 100 years – that’s not the norm. It just isn’t.”
Campbell loves Mills and the families and children who she’s worked with over three decades.
“When you spend year after year here, the parents become the grandparents and the children become the parents,” Campbell said. “It’s that continuity and building on these children’s lives. It’s very powerful. I look forward to each year, with the children I’ve never met and the families I’ve never met and meeting the new ones.”
It’s especially important to Campbell that her own students occasionally return to the school, a reflection that “Mills matters” to the both individuals and the community at-large.
“It’s a very gratifying feeling because you know that you did make a difference,” Campbell said.