Bethesda celebrates centennial

LAWRENCEVILLE - In 1905, Bethesda School was a tiny one-room schoolhouse with only one teacher for seven grades. It had no gardens, no library, no charts and only a tiny playground on its half-acre of land.

One hundred years later, Bethesda Elementary has blossomed to include 60 classrooms, four computer labs, 1,143 students and 169 staff members. The school is having its centennial ceremony today to celebrate its history and growth.

More than 450 former students and teachers are expected to attend the rededication ceremony held today at 2 p.m. in the Bethesda Gymnasium.

Among the honored guests will be the school's oldest living student, 90-year-old Ralph Thompson, and the school's oldest living teacher, 87-year-old Agnes Wells. J.W. Benefield, the second-oldest surviving teacher, will talk about playing donkey basketball and teaching agriculture at Bethesda during the 1950s.

While many attendees are local, there will be people coming from across the Southeast for the ceremony. The enthusiastic response of alumni demonstrates the importance of the school in their lives, said Principal Nancy Morrison.

"More people have R.S.V.P.'d from word of mouth," Morrison said. "We're hearing people talk about it at the barber shop, at the grocery store, at the churches. The school really was a hub for the community for many years."

Members of the student council will lead tours after the ceremony to show alumni how the school has changed. For the occasion, all of the students were assigned to decorate the hallways, gym and classrooms based on community and school history. This will include a replica of the pot-bellied stove that once heated the school.

Since it opened a century ago, the school underwent two major changes. In 1931, it moved from the Bethesda Methodist Church grounds to its current 17-acre location. Its last high school class graduated from the school in 1957. Thereafter, Bethesda became an elementary school.

Many of the alumni had stayed in touch with their classmates decades after they graduated from Bethesda.

"When I started working on it, I really thought it was just going to be like a big birthday party," said Martha Tyndall, one of the coordinators of the event. "But what I see coming out of it is a coming together of caring spirits who are just excited to be remembered and excited to be part of a celebration of history and community."

The ceremony will include remarks by Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks and District 5 school board representative Louise Radloff. It will recount the school's history by decades, featuring separate speakers for each of its eras.

Students, alumni, faculty and staff will gather to celebrate both the past and present of one of Gwinnett's oldest schools. The Bethesda of today would be unrecognizable to those first students in the one-room schoolhouse.