By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
After 100 years of school being in session, current and past staff and students will be returning to the Mercer School in Princeton today to celebrate the school’s centennial.
One of the many coming to celebrate the school’s 100th birthday will be Patty Van Sutphen, who spent more than three decades at the school as both a student and a staff member.
Though she retired from her position in 1989 after 32 years of service, Van Sutphen continues to be attached to the school. Van Sutphen’s daughter and her two grand children are also school alumni and will be attending the centennial celebrations with her.
Van Sutphen was barely out of school herself when she took the secretarial position at the Mercer School
“I was 18-years-old,” she said. “I had graduated from Princeton High School in 1956, and I started working there in August of 1957. I didn’t attend college; I just went out of high school and started working there.”
Van Sutphen said she felt comfortable taking the position at Mercer School because she held fond memories of the facility from her days as a student.
“I was a student at the Mercer School from grade four through eight,” she said. “I just enjoyed classes and other people there. I loved the building and everything. The teachers were all wonderful and so were the students. I wanted to be a school secretary and that job was just opened. That was really great since I had attended there. I just like secretarial work and being with students.
Seeing students grow up over the years was one of the things Van Sutphen enjoyed the most about her job.
“I loved meeting all the students and seeing the new ones every year,” she said. “That was the best part of it. I got to know a lot of them personally. That was what I really liked. A lot of them still remember me. If I am downtown they will still come up to me, tell me who they are and ask if I still remember them. I prefer the school atmosphere. The atmosphere at a school is much better. I would see the teachers. They would always stop by the office and talk. I would see the students during activities. If they had a program or something I usually attended it and enjoyed it.”
Van Sutphen tried not to miss a day of school and returned to her position a month after the birth of her daughter.
“I didn’t miss a days work when my daughter was born,” she said. “She was born during the middle of summer. She was born in July and I started back in August when she was a month old. My mother kept her during the day when I was at school when she was little. Now I keep my grandchildren for her so she can work at the central office.”
When her daughter began attending Mercer School, Van Sutphen said there was plenty of time for mother-daughter bonding on the car rides to and from the school each day.
“I loved having her at school with me,” she said. “We had the same holidays and time off. We started together and got off together. I could be there with her. I treated her the same way I treated all the rest of the students. She didn’t have to ride the bus, instead she rode with me every day. I enjoyed having that time with her every morning and every evening.”
One of Van Sutphen’s favorite teachers at the school was her daughter’s third grade teacher.
“Margaret Weatherford who taught third grade mostly at the school,” she said. “She was just a nice person. She wasn’t my teacher but she worked there as a teacher after I started, and she was my daughter’s teacher. She was just wonderful.”
In addition to her secretarial work, Van Sutphen sometimes filled the role as a counselor, nurse and surrogate mother to many of the students who came into her office.
“I loved meeting the people and seeing the kids every day, seeing them grow up,” Van Sutphen said. “A lot of them treated me like a surrogate parent. They would come into the office and talk to me a lot if they had the opportunity. Occasionally they would talk about their home life. Sometimes they wanted to talk about how mean they thought their teacher was. I would listen to anything they wanted to talk about. Sometimes they were sick and they had to stay in the office until someone picked them. I might have to put a bandage or something else on them. I got to know the kids who got in trouble really well because they were often sent to the principal’s office and had to wait with me. Sometimes they were scared and would cry because they had been sent to the principal’s office. I just talked to them. ”
Van Sutphen said she saw changing times reflected in the students and school policies through the more than 30 years she worked at Mercer School
“At the beginning, girls had to wear skirts,” she said. “When I first started children had to be dressed up more, but over the years they started wearing pants and shorts and things like that. There was no kindergarten classrooms when I first started, but I don’t remember when they brought kindergarten children in. There were a lot of changes in activities in some of the things, especially in physical education and other classes. When I first started working they used the paddle but they had quit by the end of my time working there.”
By Van Sutphen’s estimation, she saw approximately 16,000 students come and go through the doors of Mercer School during her 32 tenure in the front office.
“I just loved watching the children grow up, see the changes in them,” she said. “To me it was ideal. I couldn’t have found a better job. I got to see a lot of their siblings come through after them as well. I got to know a lot of families. I have met so many people over the years. We had about 500 students over the years and times that by 32 years you meet a lot of people during that time period. I saw a lot of children of former students come back as well and got to watch their children grow up.”
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