Earlier this summer Agatha (Aggie to all her friends) got first pick of the newly-renovated apartments carved out of the historic Richland Elementary School, a project spearheaded by Northeast Oregon Housing Authority, headquartered in La Grande.
The former Richland Elementary School has been transformed into a community center and residential apartments for seniors and people with disabilities. Seven 1-bedroom apartments and three 2-bedroom apartments are featured in the new structure, along with the public library, a gymnasium and the local grange community center..
It still has the look of a small town grade school on the exterior, but this modernized apartment complex has all the amenities you could wish for. And if you listen carefully you might catch the echoes of children’s laughter, recess bells chiming, and pencils scratching on spelling tests, or even smell the unmistakable odor of chalk dust in the air.
Agatha’s new home holds special meaning for her and long-time companion Walt Saunders. He spent many years in that room, teaching his young fourth graders the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. He later switched to teaching math and science to local eighth graders, before retiring.
Walt says he loved that old elementary classroom because of the long bank of windows where he grew “the most beautiful African violets ever.” He claims his secret was having 32 youngsters walk by the flower pots each day to exhale Co2 on them.
Walt, 88 and Agatha, 94, met in the old school house during their regular exercise walks around the gymnasium.
“It was my job to open the place up for the local walkers, get it warmed up and make sure they had music to listen to,” said Walt.
Walt was born and raised in Richland, and until age 42 ranched on his place outside of town. Unfortunately a horse accident left him severely injured and out of the physically grueling ranching business forever. That was when his first wife encouraged him to enroll at Eastern Oregon State College (now university) to become a teacher, “which was something I had always thought about anyway.”
He returned to Richland Elementary as a teacher in 1970 and stayed until he retired in 1989.
Agatha was born in Switzerland, immigrating with her parents to the Sacramento Valley when she was 13 years old. She and her late husband owned milk trucks, but during World War II, the cost of tires and fuel drove them out of business. They had earlier purchased a ranch in Vale, and after several other stops over the years, they finally made the move to Oregon in 1970.
Both Agatha and Walt lost their spouses in the late 1980s, but didn’t meet until those days walking for exercise in Richland Elementary. Agatha said she loves her new home and the feeling of “community” she has there. Friends and neighbors regularly play bunko ,and plans are in the works for future potlucks and social get-togethers.
“We are all especially happy that the old school is alive again,” Walt said. “We didn’t want to lose it or see it torn down. This is a great use of a great old building.”
There are two vacant apartments at the Richland School Apartments. For more information please contact Sharon Haefer at Northeast Oregon Housing Authority at 541-963-5360, ext. 26 or toll free 1-800-452-8638.
By Di Lyn Larsen-Hill – Family Self-Sufficiency Coordinator at Northeast Oregon Housing Authority