Community, KCPS honor Thacher School with monument

The Thacher School, which one stood proudly on Independence Avenue, was demolished in 2015. Photo by Abby Hoover

By Abby Hoover

Friends of Thacher School, Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) employees, and community members met at 5008 Independence Ave. in Historic Northeast to honor the former school with its own monument on Thursday, Nov. 18.

The building was torn down in 2015 to make way for new facilities for current KCPS students. Northeast Middle School, at 4904 Independence Ave., now uses the land as a sports practice field.

“I know this is something that’s been long due, and I’m happy that we’ve been able to accomplish it,” KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell said. “I know there’s a historical component to this that goes well before I was ever thought of, and even thought of in terms of being a superintendent here in this school district. So I’m really excited that I get to be a part of this presentation today.”

Thacher School, designed by KCPS architect Charles A. Smith, opened in 1900. Smith designed more than 50 schools during his career, including Northeast High School, which sits north of the site on Van Brunt Boulevard. The building was named after Civil War Major Luin Kennedy Thacher, who also served on the KCPS school board. The school operated for more than 100 years before its closure in 2010.

During the construction of the school, a time capsule was buried. It is currently on display with its contents at the newly renovated Kansas City Museum. 

“Included in the time capsule were old newspapers, an 1899 syllabus of grade work and handwritten poetry,” Bedell said. “The time capsule also contained a note from that principal, explaining that the time capsule had been stolen, recovered and reburied, probably so the thief could steal the silver dollar that had been buried inside.”

In 2010, the district vacated the building, but the community mustered a loud effort to save it. Dorri Partain, a member of the Northeast Kansas City Historic Society, along with board members of the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association, spearheaded a campaign to save and reuse Thacher School with an online petition, media interviews and appeals to the school board.

Bedell said in 2015, the school board made the difficult decision to tear down the school after fire damaged the structure. Some of the original limestone decorations from Thacher’s facade were preserved to be incorporated into the memorial at the former school site.

“KCPS knows that losing Thacher was difficult for the community, but tearing down the building allowed the district to prioritize new facilities for current students at both Northeast Middle and Northeast High School,” Bedell said. “We also know that something significant within this community around soccer is something that’s important in our schools and it’s also something that helps with our student engagement.”

With many old schools to maintain, KCPS has always been committed to trying to strike the balance between preserving history and giving students the modern education spaces they deserve, Bedell said. 

“We appreciate the support of the Northeast community and involved alumni,” Bedell said. “Our schools thrive when the community takes an interest in their education.”

Currently, KCPS is working on the Blueprint 2030 plan, which will redesign the school district in a very non-traditional manner to better prepare students for the non-traditional world they’ll be graduating into.

“We all need your support and engagement in this process as we define what the next 10 years of the school district will look like,” said Manny Abarca, KCPS school board Treasurer and representative of Sub-District 3. “We will probably have to make tough decisions similar to these ones, but the reality is the only way for us to make those decisions is with your support and engagement. So please use this as an opportunity to lean in with the school district and make sure that you’re getting involved.”

Abarca acknowledged Northeast Chamber of Commerce’s Bobbi Baker-Hughes, a strong supporter of the effort to save the building.

“At one point in time, literally handing me a check from in the audience of a school board meeting saying, ‘Use this and try to buy the building,’” Abarca said, thanking Pastor Ann Rundquist from Gathering Table Church across the street, Joyce Jones from Speedy Cleaners across the street, Patricia Hernandez from the Indian Mound Neighborhood Association, and Dorri Partain and Jason Millbrandt from the Northeast Kansas City Historical Society.

The neighborhood association, in collaboration with the school district, was able to reuse some of the materials after the demolition to create neighborhood markers along the Independence Avenue corridor.

KCPS Superintendent Mark Bedell and School Board member Manny Abarca bury the time capsule. Photo by Abby Hoover

The community buried a new time capsule at the base of the marker, remembering the school, the fight to save it, and providing a snapshot of the community in 2021.

“I wanted to offer my documents while I’m here, a letter that kind of captures from my perspective all of those who were engaged in our efforts here, not only to preserve a school building, engage the community, but also do some community building through this process, I think we were able to accomplish that.” Abarca said, then held up a silver dollar. “But also the irony of this token that was missing from the original time capsule to put one back in this time.”

Dorri Partain, a founding member of the Save Thacher group, offered several items for the time capsule, a photo of Major Thacher as school board member, a Save Thacher name tag, a flyer produced to promote the building’s reuse, and a compiled biography about Major Thacher and the building of the school in 1900.

The Northeast News supplied copies of several articles written about the school in recent years from their archives. Abarca thanked the Northeast News for picking up the story when the community was trying to save the building, sharing ideas for a community center.

Alumni SueAnn Slavens, Susan Meehan and Tracy Reinisch received bricks from the demolished building. Photo by Abby Hoover

Friends since kindergarten at Thacher School, Susan Meehan and SueAnn Slavens returned to the site of their school decades after they walked the halls for the last time.

“SueAnn and I went from grade school all the way through high school, kindergarten all the way through graduating from Northeast Senior,” Meehan said.

They began kindergarten in 1951, and Meehan walked to school with her neighbor, who she’s still friends with today.

“They came from all over, but we just were all very close and stayed that way, even though some of my best friends don’t live here anymore,” Meehan said. “And the principal while I was there, she was phenomenal. My teachers, I remember all their names. I remember all the crazy things we did together.”

Meehan’s mother was the president of the PTA at Thacher, and she saved a large book about all the activities they had for students. She remembers the school hosting a May Day celebration for students and getting her picture in the paper dressed as a flower.

“Thacher Grade School was our foundation, that’s where we started,” Slavens said.

Tracy Reinisch, a Thacher student from 1982 to 1987, reminisced on her experience. 

“It pretty much was the best place in my childhood,” Reinisch said. “I escaped up here, you know, to play on the playground. It’s basically my childhood, [losing] it broke my heart … I don’t know, it’s more emotional for me, of course, and loyalty. I grew up in this neighborhood.”

While the effort to Save Thacher was ultimately unsuccessful, the community’s determination and pride in its history have been memorialized for the future.

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