Fire, Rebirth, and a Photobombing

“I am convinced that by far the best and most enduring thing we can leave for our children and for the children of others is a good education — one that is sound and broad. That tells the story in one sentence. That is why I am for the school.” — C. Dudley Armstrong, speaking at the June 6, 1949 groundbreaking of the 725 Hamilton Road incarnation of Lancaster Country Day School. Armstrong donated the original nine acres in School Lane Hills where Country Day now sits.

On a chilly Monday morning in April 1949, a fire broke out in the basement of Lancaster Country Day School on North Lime Street.

“The bell started to ring and the teachers said we had to leave the building,” Marge said. “It all happened very fast and we couldn’t get our coats or anything. You could smell the smoke, and the scene on the street was pretty chaotic.”

Marge waited for the school bus, which proceeded to drop her off at home hours earlier than it was supposed to.

“I walked in the door and the first thing my mom said wasn’t what are you doing home, it was, ‘Where’s your coat?’”

Her coat, as it turned out, was too smoky to be salvaged, but from the ashes of Lime Street would rise something truly remarkable. Seven months after Country Day’s home burned down, it welcomed students to a new home. Armstrong, who had no children at the school, had donated nine acres of land, helped raise many thousands of dollars, and spearheaded the crash project whose result would become the school we know today.

The Big Dig
The Blaze
Wallowed in Mud
Just Completed Building
First Cheerleaders
A Serious Moment
Terrible Ten
Front Desk
class of 1957

Marge is Margaretta Light Edwards ’59. As her class gathers this weekend to celebrate their 60th reunion, they will come back to a building (or at least an address) that’s bound them together and held a special place in their hearts for 70 years.

In 1959, 12 seniors graduated from Country Day. The class has remained exceptionally close, and more than half of the gang of 59ers has gotten together every year since the Carter Administration.

Ten years before they graduated, however, two members of the Class of ’59 made their newspaper debut in an innocent photobombing of sorts.

Marge lived on State Street and her best friend, Sandy Hodge Cross ’59, lived on President Avenue, so the old school burning down was a boon to them, commute-wise. Before they walked into the school as students, however, they stumbled upon its future site as summer adventurers.

“We happened to be on our bikes and riding around and we heard this big to-do. We didn’t know what it was, so we walked up to the front of the line and checked it out.”

The big to-do was Trustee and Board President C. Dudley Armstrong’s ceremonial groundbreaking of the Hamilton Road school. The front-page picture in the June 7, 1949 Intelligencer Journal shows Armstrong, shovel in hand, next to two little girls, squinting in the bright sun and looking bored, confused, and skeptical in that way 7-year-olds have a unique gift for.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” Marge said. “We knew we were going to go a new school, but we had no idea what we were watching had anything to do with that.”

Third grade was Marge’s first year at the Hamilton Road incarnation of Country Day, and it’s hard not to view her first impression of the new building as a good omen. “The school on Lime Street was so dark,” she said. “And the new school was so bright. There were big windows and we got so much sun, and my biggest impression from second grade to third grade was of moving from that darkness into the light.”

Thanks to a weekly speaker assembly that brought in someone of prominence to talk to the students, Marge also got an early start on college prep that first year in the bright new school.

“One day the speaker came in and talked about Wellesley College. Her talk was for the juniors and seniors, but the whole school came to those assemblies, and I went home that day and said to my mom, ‘I’m going to Wellesley College!’”

And that’s exactly what Marge did, graduating from Wellesley with degrees in Biblical history and French. She went on to teach French, and became a tireless advocate for improving public education, working with a national nonprofit to further this goal.

In 2004, Country Day presented Marge with the Alumni Achievement Award in honor of this work.

Asked what she felt as a student was special about the school that endures to this day, Marge didn’t hesitate.

“The individualized attention. You could always ask for help if you needed it, and the teachers were genuinely interested and invested in their students. They cared, and we all knew they cared,” she said.

Marge was speaking for herself, but expressing a sentiment with which legions of her fellow alumni across the years would agree. As we celebrate Alumni Weekend, Cougar News would like to thank Margaretta Light Edwards for sharing her story, as well as every other graduate of Country Day, whose own memories and stories form the tapestry that unites us all.