Dear Vance: When I was a kid, my parents made me attend Safety Town out in Whitehaven. Do you know anything about this place?
— M.J., Memphis
Dear M.J.: I feel sorry for children like you. Each summer, most of the Lauderdale boys and girls were sent to a place we called Tetanus Town, a toxic-waste dump and scrap-metal yard outside Frayser. Splashing in the barrels of chemicals and crawling through the heaps of rusty iron was supposed to toughen us up for real-world experiences, and the fact that I am the only surviving member of the Lauderdale clan is a testament to my survival skills — and my ability to run away from home whenever the Tetanus Town bus arrived at our gates.
Safety Town was considerably nicer — a miniature "village" of sorts, complete with streets and sidewalks and tiny houses and churches and businesses. Tracing the history of these little "towns" is rather tricky, even for me, because some newspaper stories suggest that the Safety Town built in the late 1960s at Southland Mall was the first in Shelby County, and other articles imply that the version erected in the parking lot of the shopping center at Knight-Arnold and Perkins was first. I do know that, in the early 1970s, other Safety Towns sprang up in Raleigh, Germantown, and Collierville, so it's hard to make sense of it all.
What was the point? "This program will give youngsters, under supervision, real training in moving safely about a community, knowing what to do in case of danger," county sheriff Bill Morris told reporters in 1970. The little community was sponsored by the local police and fire departments, Jaycees, the PTA, Kiwanis, and all sorts of other civic groups.
As you pointed out, M.J., children enrolled for one week at the various Safety Towns over the summer, where they learned the proper rules and guidelines for riding bikes, crossing busy streets, walking along sidewalks, calling the police, and shooting it out with bandits during a bank robbery.
No — I made up that last part!
But the Parkway Village Safety Town did add a "real world" experience, by constructing a miniature jail, where kids who broke the rules were "imprisoned." For how long, I can't say, but I found a newspaper article that reported, "The jail was a big hit with students." Oh, I bet.
The kids also watched films on home safety, fire prevention, and other topics, but since the program was designed for pre-schoolers, they were spared the horror of those bloody driver's education films, thank goodness. Afterwards, at their "graduation," they got hamburgers, lemonade, a fake driver's license, and even a diploma.
The Special Collections Department at the University of Memphis Libraries has a thick folder crammed with photos taken at the Southland Mall Safety Town in the early 1970s. The one shown here especially intrigued me. Is that costumed creature supposed to be Snoopy? No offense to Charles Schultz, but a cartoon character that engaged in aerial dogfights with the Red Baron and slept on the steep roof of his doghouse doesn't seem the best role model for a place obsessed with safety. Plus, it's always a good idea, if you ask me, for children to avoid adults dressed in creepy costumes.
I'm sure you had a good experience at Safety Town, M.J., but give me Tetanus Town any day.
The Lion's Den
Dear Vance: I just purchased an old yearbook for the Pentecost-Garrison School in Memphis, and had never heard of such a place. What can you tell me about it?
— T.B., Memphis
Dear T.B.: The rather formidable name suggests this institution was some kind of military school, but in fact it was one of our city's finest private schools for boys, and the name derived from its founders, cousins Althea Pentecost (above) and Beatrice Garrison.
The Lauderdale Library has the entire set of yearbooks published by the Pentecost-Garrison School — all two of them. In the 1950 edition of the Lion's Tale , headmistress Pentecost talked of new additions to the school, including a nice gymnasium, and bragged about various scholastic accomplishments: "Today, schools in the East which once frowned upon Southern schools eagerly seek our students. Our honor students have, in the past and at present, given good accounts of themselves." Indeed, just glancing through the book reveals a "who's who" of big-name Memphians in attendance there, including J.R. "Pitt" Hyde, Fred Smith, Bayard Boyle, Humphrey Folk, Allen Morgan, Metcalf Crump, and many others.
Pentecost concluded, "Undoubtedly our future is assured. The success of the yesterdays is but the stepping stone to the future." But not much of a future, as it turned out. In the next edition of the Lion's Tale , the "Message from Miss Pentecost" began by saying, "And now, Good-bye!" Yep. The school closed in 1951. It had quite a history.
The story goes that back in 1914, E.H. "Boss" Crump ran a newspaper ad seeking a tutor for his children, and Althea Pentecost took the job. She liked teaching so much that in 1915 she teamed up with her cousin, "Miss Bea," and opened a school for boys in a residence on Monroe, with just eight students in four grades. Five years later, they had so many kids they moved to 43 South Idlewild, and then five years later moved again, this time to 28 South Idlewild.
Enrollment and finances increased steadily over the years, and in 1940 Pentecost-Garrison purchased land at 2485 Union and constructed a stunning new building. The ground floor contained 12 spacious classrooms, with a lunchroom in the basement and other facilities here and there. Just about the entire second floor, so I understand, was devoted to living quarters for Garrison and Pentecost.
Garrison died in 1944, but the school hummed along for another decade under the direction of Pentecost. An old Press-Scimitar article bragged, "It is the only school of its type in the Mid-South, and has specialized in preparing boys to enter the Eastern boarding schools such as Choate, Andover, Hill, Exeter, Middlesex, and Groton with an educational foundation broad enough to bear up under their rigid courses." Enrollment had increased to almost 250.
Then all of a sudden Pentecost sold the property to the Southern College of Optometry. She told reporters that the new East High School had hurt her enrollment, and besides, she said, "I have been teaching for 36 years — morning, afternoon, and evening — and I cannot continue this responsibility. My health will not permit it."
This did not sit well with the school's alumni, board, and neighbors. For one thing, the new school had been built with the understanding the property would endure for years and years as a private school. Much of the work and materials had been donated. And Memphians were concerned that our city was losing its premier educational establishment for young boys. Memphis University School, you must remember, had opened back in the late 1800s but had been closed since 1936.
Eventually, a sort of compromise was reached. This gets complicated, so pay attention. Pentecost-Garrison School would close, but its students would move to a new school on Poplar operated by Second Presbyterian Church, called Presbyterian Day School (still in operation today, of course). In a few years, MUS would also reopen its doors, at a sprawling new campus in East Memphis.
To make the neighbors happy, the optometry college instead moved into new quarters in the Medical Center. The Pentecost-Garrison School campus was taken over by Lausanne School, so that corner was still home to a small private school, though now for girls instead of boys. And Miss Pentecost herself moved out of the building into a modern new home on Central, where she lived until her death in 1966.
Lausanne moved to new facilities on Massey Road in 1959. The old Pentecost-Garrison building changed hands several times and is still standing on Union, these days home to the Memphis City Schools' Teaching and Learning Academy. And back in the 1920s, when Misses Pentecost and Garrison were running their school on South Idlewild? Well, one of those homes was demolished to make way for an apartment tower, but the other, at 28 South Idlewild, today houses Garbo's, the popular women's apparel store.