The Great Mural Mystery


Dan Wolfe

old FHS mural

It all started one fine day with a drive to Huber Heights in 2010 to visit the lady you should remember as Mary Marts, nee Secrist, an FHS graduate, Class of 1949.  As school secretary extraordinaire, Mary was an integral part of the inner circle of power that allowed her, along with Mr. Longnecker and Miss Folger, to function as the well- oiled machine we knew.

I’ll leave it to the bio already posted elsewhere to tell her story, but suffice it to say that Mary, having just turned 39 for the 40th time and in the midst of a bad post-second- husband-loss funk, was more than happy to tell me all about her part in the play.  That fascination aside, Mary seemed genuinely relieved to see her treasures of those days find their way to someone like me, with an interest in helping those stories live another life.  And that would explain how I came away from the visit with, among other goodies, twenty-some Fairview yearbooks – one for each year she did her secretary thing, starting in the mid-‘50s.

I scored her Rolodex, too, so if you ever want to know the Social Security number for anyone who ever taught us, just call me.

The time-capsule romp through those yearbooks was fun, but it was the image just inside 1957 that truly caught my attention.  It was the very first thing you saw when opening the cover, but with absolutely no accompanying text to offer an explanation of its meaning, context or significance.

And so started my grail quest.

With the absence of any written clues, asterisks or footnotes, I settled in to look long and hard at the artwork, to see if it had anything to say for itself.  No Waldo, no hidden pirate sword, no upside-down pineapple.  OK, it’s a freaking mural, already.  The photograph is black and white, but almost certainly the original was in color.  Just a thought here, but since we’re not in Kansas anymore, color felt right.

After a minute or two of viewing, a connection starts to develop … something déjà vu- ish, for lack of a more articulate or expensive description.  The background hit home first, as those buildings were eerily familiar.  Not so much in-your-face, yet somehow almost palpable.  Was I wrong or were the Dayton Art Institute, the NCR Auditorium, assorted what-passes-for local skyscrapers and the YMCA Building just there for the seeing?  Fine … that’s a start.  So we’re looking at Dayton.  I get that.

Once you see that, you’re more willing to think that could be the Miami River running across the center.   Have it your way … The Great Miami River.

Keep on keepin’ on.  What are those buildings closest to the front?  Stare long enough and you’ll be convinced you’re seeing Fairview’s main entrance off Philadelphia to the left of the central what’s-her-name and thanks to several hundred trips downtown on the trolley to take piano lessons out on East Fifth, I found myself seeing the courthouse, at Third and Main, to the right.

Well, dummy, if you’ve ever read the Dell Classic Comic version of Dayton’s history, you’d know that what was to become our Fairview, started out in the basement of the courthouse in 1900, before moving out to Fairview Ave. and Catalpa Dr.

At this point, you’ve guessed most of the consonants and it’s time to buy a vowel.

This is something of a morality tale put to paint and canvas.  Now let’s all agree at this time that the lady in the middle is so not any sort of idealized Miss Folger.  Just give that up right now.  I’m thinking she can only be some stylized personification of knowledge, wisdom, virtue, learning, blah, blah, blah … all that good stuff. And since  this seems to be a Fairview thing, she’s sharing those gifts with the younger girl and boy on either side.

See, Miss Herbst, I was paying attention.

But trust me … I have no idea what the marijuana plants on either side are all about. Honest.

The icing on the cake that this mural was, at the very least, about Fairview, lies with the calligraphy script running above the width of the work.  Education is the Foundation for Progress.  Wow, if that’s not high-minded enough, you need legacy injections.

What else does the work tell us?  I suppose that depends on how susceptible you are to the power of suggestion.  First, the style seems to be stiflingly WPA, so we could do worse than to think this piece dates to the mid-‘30s, oooor someone is having a laugh at our expense making us think it is.  Then, too, there’s that hauntingly familiar brickwork arch above it all.  Didn’t our Fairview have those architectural cues at every turn?   Why, yes she did, and thanks for asking.

So, if you’ve fallen for all this, hook, line and sinker, was this mural actually something that once hung on Fairview’s walls?

I don’t remember it, but unlike some, I was only there for four years.  But that said, I know plenty of former students who never saw those fantastic Metcalf stained glass windows on the central and east landings and they were definitely there in our time and barely escaped the landfill in 2011.  Seriously, using all 12% of my brain that still works, I can say the mural was not there in the ‘60s.  But then as now, you only see what you want to see, what you expect to see.

After a pause for dramatic effect, we have to remind ourselves again that it’s there, smack dab in the front of the 1957 yearbook.  It had to be somewhere in the collective psyches of those seventeen and eighteen year-olds to warrant such prominent placement.

Here’s as good a place as any to say that around this same time, I contacted as many older former students as I could locate, restraining orders aside, to ask them these very questions … do you remember it and where was it?  And for my trouble, I came away without the first nibble, much less any bites.  I must have chatted up a baker’s dozen FHS alumni from classes in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, as well as 1957.  Now, believe me, I get the whole diminished memory thing.  Oh, do I!  But wouldn’t you think it would ring at least one bell … resonate with one deeply embedded, fond recollection … assuming the Home Shopping Channel left the brain space?

Not so much.

So what happened in the mid-‘50s that could help Miss Marple figure out yet another murder in Cabot Cove?  Didn’t the additions of the new cafeteria and auditorium to the north and the science labs, home ec space and study halls on the east wing come on- line about then?

As a matter of fact, yes.

Then my spin here is that the Class of ’57 would have been the last one to have walked the halls of the school as it was built in 1929, perhaps in 1954, before it got all new- and-improved, and dollars to doughnuts says this mural was there for the seeing, if only fleetingly.

Just nod your head and let the nice man keep going with his banter.  It’s best that way. So, if that’s one down and one to go, just where did this mural grace the walls of their Fairview?  Unless you have access to Abby and the rest of the forensic lab, you’ll want to apply that dreadful scientific method we tried to sleep through back in that Basic Concepts assembly.  I know … insert ugh and sigh here.

Following that yellow brick road, it’s a given that it had to be someplace appropriate to its weighty statement.  A certain assistant principal would have seen to that.  But realizing that it was every bit of five or six years after the building opened for business, the best of the best spots would have already been taken.  Plenty of ruffles and flourishes were built right into the stone, since The Great Depression hadn’t happened quite yet.  Not a one of us can say for sure what the original auditorium looked like, where we knew only our spiffy modern cafeteria.  Probably no gargoyles and parapets, but if there was space for something profound, it would have been there already.

And keep in mind, or wherever you store such things, that brickwork arch above the mural as we see it in the photograph.  While we agree there was no shortage of such embellishment, many arches were part of vaulted ceilings and hallway intersections, with no solid, blank wall space behind them, as would be necessary for this application.  That certainly narrows the field.

I know what you’re thinking.  It was above the doors to the library.  Wrong-o.  There’s no arch there, but I like the way you think.  It would have made sense there.  So it had to be somewhere that didn’t offend Mother Theresa’s noble sensibilities.  To my way of thinking, that leaves three possibilities.

How about the space just above the cafeteria doors?  Way back when, that would have been an entrance into the auditorium.  Maybe a contender, but from what I see in tintypes from our days, the curvature of all the first-floor arches is not the same.  How about the floor just above that, where back in antiquity, you could either go north to the auditorium balcony or east to the gym balcony?  Also maybe, but somehow it just doesn’t speak to me … not quite the high-rent space for something so grandiose.

What does that leave us?  There is that stairway area at the east end of the Hillcrest side.  Now again, keep in mind that was a dead end back then … no addition yet, but a very glorious open space nonetheless, where students and their minders would have entered when they walked to the school from the south and east.  Not the formal “official” entrance, but a very busy one for sure.  And somehow I think this bit of real estate was special for TGF.  About the same time, the Fine Arts Association commissioned and installed the Longnecker-Folger tribute, Rookwood ceramic fountain there on the first floor … just outside that den of iniquity where all the teachers smoked their three-minute cigarettes.

Riddle me this … could it have been on the second floor, directly above that, as you came up that staircase from the landing, with the sunlight of the south-facing, long vertical window to illuminate and warm the void?  I like where this is heading.

The curvature of the arch is right; the scale seems appropriate; it might even have seemed to pass Miss Folger’s muster, but we still need a smoking gun to seal the deal.

You rang?

The next time you have your magnifying glass out to read the instructions on your prescription bottle, take a look at the bricks in the mural photo and any of several shots from more recent times of the same area and you’ll have all the proof you need. The bricks that had to be cut with the correctly-angled slivers, the disparate mortar gaps and even the piece de resistance, a chipped brick right where it should be.  This is where the applause light comes on.

After that, the rest, while denouement, is still fun to ponder.  Why wasn’t it there in our time at Fairview and where did it end up?

Spoiler alert!  There are no perfect answers.

Maybe the WPA style just seemed dated.  Maybe it no longer looked right once the hallway to the east opened up into the shiny new rooms to the east.  Who knows, it just could have been something as simple as a terrible accident one day when the construction crew for the addition misjudged how a stepladder might round the corner in going from one job to another.  Then too, maybe the work just no longer spoke to folks after a very good twenty-year run.  Your guess is as good as mine.

And where is it now?  Don’t know.  But what I do know, even without consulting a spiritual advisor, is that it didn’t just get pitched.  Regardless of any happenstance you can imagine about it coming down for the last time, there’s just no way the staff and teachers on Fairview’s roster at the time, would not have allowed for any summary disposal of the work.  No way.  No how.  You would have heard the hue and cry.

My theory?  Once it was all too clear it would never again see the light of day at Fairview, it made its way, rolled ever so nicely and handled with the utmost tender, loving care, into a 1956 Pontiac and then to the attic of a nice frame house down on Radcliff Rd., just off Salem.

I’d like that.

Well, there’s the bell.   I won’t keep you.  Just let me tell you that I plan on watching Antiques Roadshow for a long time to come.

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