- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
The tiny tots peer tentatively over a stairway railing. Some appear bewildered. Others look distracted or fascinated or bored.
Their teacher, blinking behind studious eyeglasses, stands behind them. She smiles. Perhaps she is proud of her brood at the experimental University Nursery School. Maybe she will just be glad when this Christmas 1948 photo session is over.
Almost 70 years later, some of those former tots, dressed for summertime, pose while clutching a more modern stairway railing at the University of Texas. On June 30, 2017, they seem genuinely delighted to grin unabashedly at this moment, meant to celebrate the 90th anniversary of what is now called the Priscilla Pond Flawn Child & Family Laboratory.
That teacher, Phyllis Richards, is here, too, this time with eyes wide open and clearly contented with her grown-up brood.
Preschool reunions of any kind are not all that common. They are even rarer if the former students are in their 70s and their teacher is 97.
After the Christmas photo — later printed in the American-Statesman at an undetermined intervening date — was snapped, Richards earned her doctorate and was appointed director of child development in UT’s department of home economics.
Richards, who helped spark Head Start nationwide, has been able to observe the long-term viability of her work at what is commonly called the Lab School, since she has known her charges since they were 2 or 3 years old.
The reunion occurred in the sleek, light-brushed Seay building on campus at Speedway and West Dean Keeton Street. In 1948, the school convened in a two-story house — long gone — a few blocks away on University Avenue. Among other amenities, students recall a screened porch for afternoon naps.
Bill Raschke, 71, remembers a playground, too, with a swing set, jungle gym and a big tree with a scar painted black (probably to prevent an arboreal disease).
“I was always afraid of that tree because of the big black scar,” says Raschke, who earned his chemistry degree from UT and now runs a small biomedical company in Southern California.
Jane Cornick Jamison first attended the preschool in 1947 and has maintained close connections with the other former students. She remembers, “My mother would come and sit in her car and watch us play.”
Jamison later majored in child development at UT, so she had Richards as a college instructor as well. Then, after earning her master’s degree, she taught one of the preschool classes at the Lab School, becoming Richards’ colleague.
The June tour of the indoor and outdoor classrooms ended with a re-creation of the 1948 stairwell photo with the seven former students and their teacher. Then they headed upstairs for a Tex-Mex lunch, iced tea and a chat about their youthful years. They capped the day off with a cake decorated with a reproduction of the 1948 photo.
A reporter asked Richards about her teaching highlights from 1948 to 1987.
“The best answer is that striking sparks in people, finding out what turns them on to learn and grow,” she says. “And you find that with the children, whatever age they are, and even the university students, it’s always a challenge. You never tire of it. I was lucky to teach here that long.”
For the past decade, her students from that first class have met every few months for lunch with Richards. At Christmas, she invites them to her retirement home for a dinner. Regular attendees are Austinites Nancy Williams, Quita McMath, Danny Kohler and John Miller, all of whom attended the June reunion.
Richards shared some last thoughts about her time at UT: “I have some very good memories and friends that I taught in the Lab School that went on to do great things. Which is what we do at UT, right? I’m very proud of all of them. If you went and asked them about their occupations, you’d be very surprised.”