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Library houses Reagan, Sandburg books

In a photo made April 25, 2012, Mrs. Colville's first grade Silas Willard School class grade book, dated March of 1918, showing the highlighted name of Ronald Reagan achieving good marks at the age of 7, is seen at the Galesburg Public Library in Galesburg, Ill. The grade book, along with one from Douglas School with Carl Sandburg's early scores, were discovered in the basement of Silas Willard School and donated by district 205 to the library.
In a photo made April 25, 2012, Mrs. Colville's first grade Silas Willard School class grade book, dated March of 1918, showing the highlighted name of Ronald Reagan achieving good marks at the age of 7, is seen at the Galesburg Public Library in Galesburg, Ill. The grade book, along with one from Douglas School with Carl Sandburg's early scores, were discovered in the basement of Silas Willard School and donated by district 205 to the library.

GALESBURG, Ill. — Grade books containing records for Carl Sandburg and Ronald Reagan are now in the possession of the Galesburg Public Library. The old books, which were found in the basement of Silas Willard Elementary School in 2009, will be kept in a controlled environment and be made available to students and researchers through digital technology.

District 205's Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Joel Estes brought the books to Monday's meeting of the District 205 Board of Education. Images of the pages containing the grades of two of Galesburg's most famous former citizens were shown on a screen.

The 1913-1920 teachers' grade book from Silas Willard School (Room D) was in remarkable condition. The grade roster from March 1918 for Mrs. Alice Colville's class included Reagan's grades when he was a first grader. Estes said Wednesday Reagan's grades were for reading, spelling, arithmetic and his overall average. His grades ranged from 93-100.

Estes said the school district was aware for some time it had the Silas Willard book. It was kept in one of two safes when the district's offices were in the former Allen Park School on South Farnham Street. Estes said only one safe was kept when the offices were moved to Lincoln School, 932 Harrison St. He said many old records were kept in plastic tubs in the old gym at Allen Park, which became a giant storage room.

Estes and three staff members set out to find the Reagan book when it was discovered it was no longer in a safe and quickly located it in a plastic tub in the basement of Silas Willard. Lisa Unger, district receptionist, asked Estes if there were any other famous people who attended school in Galesburg. He replied that Carl Sandburg was the only one that immediately came to mind. Unger asked if they could look for Sandburg's grade book and Estes told her and the others they had 20 minutes.

Knowing that Sandburg was born on East Third Street, just down the street from Douglas School, the focus turned to looking for books from that old grade school.

"Lisa was looking through this (Douglas School) book and said 'the only Sandburg I can find is this one named Charlie Sandberg,' " Estes said. He told her that was the name Sandburg was known by as a young student. In addition, the spelling of the last name at that time included an e, rather than a u.

District 205 school board member Barry Swanson said that Sandburg biographer Penelope Niven wrote in "Carl Sandburg: A Biography": " 'eager to be Americanized, he (Carl), (sister) Mary and (brother) Mart (Martin) changed the name in grammar school.' "

The Douglas records, from 1882-1903, are quite fragile.

"It's stitched with cotton thread and the string is coming loose," Estes said.

Class rosters from 1885-1889 include Sandburg's yearly progress. While the Pulitzer Prize winning author/poet/Lincoln biographer's grades steadily improved, Estes said Sandburg initially had problems with, of all things, spelling.

"I think the really fascinating thing, besides the grades themselves, is by the time he got to fifth grade, he only spent the fall in fifth grade and was promoted to sixth grade," Estes said. "It appears to me kids weren't automatically promoted grade to grade. They had to earn their way."

He said some students were promoted after only seven months, while it took others as long as 14 months.

"In Sandburg's case, by the time he got to sixth grade, I think he was 12 years and 9 months old. There were kids in his class who were 15," Estes said.

District 205 officials attempted to contact both the Reagan and Sandburg families to make sure they were supportive of the grades being made public. They heard back from Nancy Reagan, who was enthusiastic about the idea.

"We didn't hear anything back from (Sandburg's daughter) Helga Sandburg and she's the only living Sandburg relative," Estes said.

One might wonder why the books, found in 2009, have just now been donated to the public library.

"All along I was planning on having the board donate the books to the library," Estes chuckled. "It was just one of those things, I didn't get to it. They've sat in my office that whole time."

A couple of things prompted Estes to get to the books. First, he will retire after this school year, so, as he said, "it was now or never."

Estes had a piece of paper on top of the books. A person who came into his office, not knowing what was under the paper, set a bottle of water on the books. Estes hastily asked them to move the bottle and realized it was time to get the books to a safer environment.

 

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