In the fall of 1927, Mary Jordan’s mother walked into the newly constructed Spencer-Penn School’s auditorium for the first time.
“She said, ‘It was the biggest room I’d ever been in,’” Jordan recalled her mother’s words.
During the second quarter of the 1900s, that spacious auditorium was one of the most spectacular rooms in the community. Surrounded by five tin-ceiling classrooms, the tall ceiling in the auditorium was unlike any other. A lightweight board that appeared to be layers of pressed paper covered the ceiling. A grid of two-by-fours prevented it from sagging.
The flooring in the school also commanded attention, hosting a two-and-a-quarter-inch maple tongue-and-groove pattern.
Living in the rural countryside, not much changed through the years. When Jordan later attended the school, she had much the same reaction as the generation before her.
“I said, ‘Wow! This is the biggest room I’ve ever been in,’” Jordan said.
As a child standing in awe of the architecture surrounding her, Jordan couldn’t have known that several decades down the road, she would enter the same auditorium once again, this time spearheading a community effort to save the structure from oblivion.
She couldn’t have known that building would be her life and her calling, a calling that this week she leaves for the fourth time.
After a handful of renovations and a number of grade-level changes throughout its 77-year history, the Spencer school that was once part of the Henry County Public Schools division, permanently closed its doors in 2004.
The school’s closing opened a void in the community's social and civic life. During its more that seven-decade stride, the facility became a communal gathering place for sporting events, fairs and performances.
Sensing the need for the structure, a group of concerned citizens formed the Spencer-Penn School Preservation Organization. Comprised of people with a passion, the group mainly consisted of former students and teachers, many of whom had never undertaken such a large project.
A community effort
Jordan, who taught at the school for 32 years before retiring, became president of the grassroots movement.
“None of us knew what we were doing, and that’s the truth,” Jordan said. “I watched Home and Garden [channel], and that’s the only experience I had.”
Not letting their lack of experience deter them, the group moved forward with a fundraising plan to purchase and renovate the school. The decision left some community members scratching their heads.
Jordan recalled one conversation she had with a local attorney.
“When we came and said we wanted to buy the building, he said, ‘I know they can see it. I know they’re enthusiastic. But I don’t know how they’re going to do it,’” Jordan said.
But the president of the organization understood the concern.
“If you look at the percentage of communities successfully taking over old school buildings, it’s not very high,” Jordan said.
By November 2004, the group closed on the purchase of the property, which included the main school building, an adjacent cottage and approximately 8 acres of land.
Updating that auditorium
The school underwent a series of massive renovations, one of which focused on the auditorium of Jordan’s childhood.
In 1961, the school system enclosed the auditorium stage to create a principal’s office and the auditorium itself was converted into a library. Typical with the time, the design covered the hardwood flooring with asbestos tile.
The group developed an action plan, which utilized both volunteer help and contracted services.
“I kind of planned all of the renovations and signed all of the contracts with the contractors,” Jordan said.
First, the a group of volunteers restored the 1927 wing to its original floor plan by removing two dropped ceilings, the library and the stage enclosure. Then, workers removed the asbestos tile and refinished the original maple flooring.
The stage suffered substantial damage when it became a principal’s office, which forced renovators to replace the ceiling and one wall. They also cut a door into one side of the wall to give performers access to the stage and built a stage extension with steps on each side.
Several electrical and plumbing updates and additions also took place.
The group converted the auditorium into a banquet hall, which seats up to 170 guests for receptions, parties and dinner theater events, or 250 guests for concert seating. They also raised funds for renovations in the 1948 and 1962 wings of the building.
Can’t get away
When she said she felt the facility would thrive, Jordan retired a second time.
“You can retire from volunteering, right?” Jordan said.
A new executive director came to Spencer-Penn and stayed for 14 months. After that, another person stepped into the position but required training.
Jordan returned for four months to train the new executive director, then retired for a third time. However, the second executive director also worked the position for 14 months.
In 2014, Jordan returned to the center for the fourth time, but actively looked for someone to take over as executive director. About that time, Susan Sabin started teaching summer camps at Spencer-Penn.
Much like Jordan, Sabin’s family history went back to the first years of the school’s existence.
“When I was a kid, my grandmother told me stories of when she went to Spencer-Penn. My parents went to Spencer-Penn. Most of my cousins went to Spencer-Penn,” Sabin said. “I remember playing on the playground and learning to play the piano here.”
The more Sabin taught at summer camp, the more involved she became in the facility’s programs. When an assistant director position opened two years ago, Sabin landed the job.
Jordan saw many special aspects in Sabin that would make her a good candidate for the next phase of the centre’s life.
“Susan is a fantastic person. She’s good with people. She works hard. She knows social media,” Jordan said. “I told her when I hired her that I was old as Methuselah, and I could keel over any day.”
One more exit
Earlier this year, Jordan again announced her retirement, effective Friday, and Sabin’s new role as the center’s executive director.
“People have often called this [center] my baby, and it is my baby. But this baby needs to grow up. Now is the time to send her off to college,” Jordan said.
Jordan plans to come back once a week to perform a variety of tasks around the facility, like mulching, but she will spend the majority of her time traveling, completing projects around her house and making memories with her four grandchildren.
“Spencer-Penn has been very good to me. I’ve met so many people and I’ve taught a lot of people,” Jordan said. “It’s a joy in itself. It’s kept me busy. It’s kept my brain active. It’s been good to me. I appreciate all the people who I’ve gotten to know.”
As the center prepares for the transition of leadership, Sabin looks forward to entering her new role, while also pulling from Jordan’s guidance over the past several years.
“Mary has been a friend of mine for years, almost as if she’s family. She’s such a caring individual and notices the little things. She always makes sure you’re okay,” Sabin said. “I’ll take some of her pieces of that.”
Now thriving with summer camps, monthly music nights and special events, the center serves as the community hub Jordan envisioned 15 years ago.
“It’s very gratifying,” Jordan said. “Spencer-Penn is exploding. There are so many classes and events going on. The history of Spencer-Penn is in tact whenever someone comes in that door.”