Graduates remember Signal Mountain Elementary School

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy. Former Signal Mountain Elementary School students met Oct. 14, 2022, to talk about a reunion. They are, from left, David Nason, Ken Holloway, Rita Smith Irvin, John C. Wynne, Karin Glendenning, Gary D. Beene and Anne Rhodes Hagood.

Some of our most durable memories are forged in elementary school.

If you grew up in the middle years of the 20th century, you are lucky if your first school is still standing.

Signal Mountain residents of a certain age are especially lucky, as the former Signal Mountain Elementary School on Kentucky Avenue lives on as an arts-focused community center.

The Mountain Arts Community Center, known as the MACC for short, is a charming stone structure with a castle-like entrance that served as a public elementary school from 1926 to 1999. At points, it housed as many as eight grades, other times as few as three.

One day earlier this month, a group of seven former Signal Mountain Elementary students, most now in their 70s and 80s, gathered to plan a reunion for next spring.

The seven couldn't stop buzzing about the memories activated by being inside their old school building while sitting at a conference room table made from old chalkboards.

They remembered the sweet smell of rolls baking in the lunchroom, the aroma of newly refinished floors, the excitement of rides on a fire truck; but mostly they remembered one another and their childhood adventures.

Gary D. Beene, a retired salesman who attended Signal Mountain Elementary in the 1950s, is the driving force behind the reunion plans, a dinner and reception during a yet-to-be-determined weekend in May 2023.

"It's our generation's time," said Beene, who added that he has talked to former Signal Mountain Elementary students from as far as Charlotte, North Carolina, Atlanta and Nashville who want to come to the reunion.

Beene said his family moved to Signal Mountain when he was in the third grade to help his mother's asthma. He was later part of the first class of students at the then-new Signal Mountain Junior High School, and was in the room when the eagle was chosen as the school's mascot, he recalls. (Signal Mountain didn't gain its own high school until 2008.)

David Nason attended Signal Mountain Elementary in the 1950s and 1960s. His mother was a teacher there then, and he remembers playing on the playground, which included an intimidating metal slide.

"We pretty much lived over here," Nason said of the school grounds. "There weren't any rubber chips or anything at the bottom (of the slide). If you fell from there, you could die."

Karin Glendenning remembers being cast as Gretel in "Hansel and Gretel" when she was in elementary school. She also had a playground story to tell. When in the fourth grade, she fell off the "monkey bars" and hurt her arm.

"I remember looking down and seeing my broken arm," she recalled. "It was at a strange angle, and my first thought was: 'I don't have to go to music lessons today.'"

Ken Holloway attended Signal Mountain in the early 1940s and remembers hearing people talk about the bombing of Pear Harbor while he was at school.

Some of his most vivid memories are of the school's war-time lunchroom.

"We had potatoes and green beans and macaroni, and, once in a while, meatloaf," Holloway said. "There wasn't a whole lot of meat, this was war years."

Rita Smith Irwin, whose family has lived in Signal Mountain for five generations, said her memories of attending the school through sixth grade focus on the quality of teaching there.

"We had teachers that were straight out of college," Irwin said. "They gave us a wonderful education. The classrooms were relatively small by student-teacher ratio. We were disciplined (at school) and we knew we would get disciplined again at home."

John C. Wynne started at Signal Elementary in 1949 and remembers taking a field trip to watch the inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on television in 1953.

"Not many people had televisions then," Wynne recalls. "We went over to a home off Fairmount Avenue, and they had a floor model television, and we watched the inauguration."

Anne Rhodes Hagood, who attended the school in the 1950s, remembers the cafeteria workers in their crisp, white dresses. Each had a folded lace handkerchief pinned to her dress with a rhinestone broach, Hagood recalls.

"I remember the scent (of food) going through that cafeteria line and starving to death," she recalled.

The group plans to have dinner catered in the old lunchroom for the reunion.

Someone has suggested they serve fresh-baked rolls for old times' sake.

"Life Stories" is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPcolumnist.