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Nursery school grads recall enchanting days of learning

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 28, 2001


GULFPORT -- The alumni of Shaffers' Nursery and Kindergarten are grown up now, but on Saturday they still could be enchanted by memories of alphabet songs and Golden Books.

"It's overwhelming to come here and see this," said Kaydee Pape, 37, surrounded by toys, musical instruments and books.

"I think that was my (drinking) glass," said Justin Buck, 29, a 1976 graduate and one of nearly 50 former students to attend Shaffer Nostalgia Day at Scout Hall. The Gulfport Historical Society became interested in having the reunion to celebrate the school's founding more than a half-century ago.

From 1950 to 1983, Joe G. Shaffer introduced education and socialization to children 2 through 6 years old. "He was an exceptional teacher and role model," recalled former student Bill Ellis, 30.

Shaffer, born in Lima, Ohio, in 1908, first taught at Athens College in Greece, where he met and married Valentine Hadjiry.

After settling in Tarpon Springs in 1945, Shaffer served as assistant principal at St. Petersburg's Country Day School. The couple opened their school five years later at their home at 5659 Shore Blvd. S.

Toys filled shelves at the house. "Instead of growing flowers, the Shaffers grew children," said Ruth Jefferson, former director on a county board that licensed children's centers.

The Shaffers and their live-in friend, Helen Mengerink, cared for close to 50 children from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. six days a week. Rates per child were $40 monthly. Overnight stays cost $1.50. The Shaffers never had to advertise.

"They were an institution around Gulfport," said Joan Hammill, 64, one of the Shaffers' four children, all of whom hold degrees in education.

Children began each day frolicking outside on monkey bars and in a sand box. Over time, the children worked the Shaffers' yard into white sand.

After play, students gathered inside and the "child of the day" led the pledge of allegiance. Shaffer, who walked with a limp and wore white dress shirts, read during story hour -- books such as The Camel Who Took a Walk. Shaffer often repaired other beloved books, dog-eared from use.

Students learned poems and colors. Shaffer stressed the alphabet, numbers and manners.

"Whoever was good that day got to feed the sea gulls," said Hunter Pape, 35, Kaydee's brother who traveled from Brooksvile for the ceremony.

Wayward children were sent to Mrs. Shaffer, who ran the nursery. "The Mrs.," as she was called, rarely had to use her paddles after displaying them.

"She was . . . the counselor and disciplinarian," Pam Lanning said of her mother.

After class, students ate a seven-course, hot lunch prepared by The Mrs. Menus featured redfish fillets and eggplant veal mousecake. Herb rice and buttered broccoli were among the sides.

"She cooked all those wonderful lunches for all us rugrats," said Amy Pelletier, 44. "I still dream about those days."

Birthday celebrants ate at a red-checkered, linen-covered setting with three friends.

About 1 p.m., younger students eased into a nap caressing a book. Table games busied older children outside.

"As children awoke (3 p.m.), they re-entered the play yard after selecting their flavor of Popsicle," said Lanning, 63. "The favorite . . . was root beer."

Until mothers came, children played on a rickshaw, a rope swing and a train partially constructed by Shaffer. The last to leave was the "cow's tail."

The Shaffers established after-school care in the early 1960s. An addition to the home about then provided a new classroom. Chairs, high chairs and benches filled the addition. Students were seated by age in four rows that graduated in movie-theater style.

At graduation time, firefighters spoke and made presentations. The Gulfport Police Department also awarded graduates world banks.

On Dec. 9, 1983, the school held its final class. "It was numbing," said former employee Leslie Krul, 51. "I went to the (Gulfport) pier and thought emotionally."

Joe Shaffer died on Jan. 24, 1984, of heart failure. He was 75. The Mrs., now 85, is sometimes a volunteer at Palms of Pasadena Hospital.

Standing near a picture of Shaffer on Saturday, Kaydee Pape said "everyone had great respect for the Shaffers. The children wanted to please them."

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@gate.net.

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