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Schools faced overcrowding in early days
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Gainesville School Board is rolling up taxes this year, saying teachers are having to do more with less as enrollment continues to climb.

When the school system was in its infancy in 1907, its main building on Main Street, site of the old Gainesville College and Main Street School, was overcrowded. Superintendent E.J. Robeson was hustling around trying to accommodate students and staff. They removed old desks from some rooms to make room for newer ones that didn’t take up as much space.

Neighborhood schools, which were at the forefront of the desegregation controversy in the 1950s and ’60s, emerged even back then. There had been differences of opinion as to whether one big school could accommodate all the students, or build a smaller school in each ward. Those who argued for one school building prevailed, but crowded conditions had begun to change some minds.

The Gainesville News came down on the side of ward or district schools: “Ward schools put the children of the city closer to school so that the attendance is always better than when the children have to walk or ride so far. The rapid increase in attendance of the city public schools means that ward school buildings must come, or that more room is to be provided at the main school building.”

Perhaps to weed out some of the lesser interested students, the system was requiring any who had dropped out the year before to be retested before they could be admitted.

The city of Gainesville had begun its school system in 1884 with the founding of Gainesville College, successor to Gainesville Methodist College, on the site of what became Main Street School and now the county jail site.

Meanwhile, teachers in the county school system were scarce, reported Hall County School Commissioner W.M. Johnson. He attributed this to low teacher pay.

College Avenue, so named because of the colleges that were established there, ran directly across Main Street into the school. Much of the property nearby was still undeveloped in the early 1900s. The area around College Avenue, and what was then East Broad Street all the way to what was known as South Prior Street was to be auctioned off. It had been divided into 53 lots. “Fifty-three beautiful lots to whites only,” read the advertisement about the auction in the local newspaper.

It boasted of street car service, and “You can live on the fat of the land at a very moderate cost. Gainesville is the best city in Northeast Georgia with fine mountain water, pure air and the biggest produce market in the South.”

Pete Whiten’s name might not be among the most prominent in Gainesville’s history. But as city manager from 1958 to 1970, he helped guide Gainesville through some of its most crucial times.

Pete came to Gainesville in 1953 as clerk and immediately made an impact by converting the city’s bookkeeping system from hand entry to machines. A far cry from today’s electronics, but a bold step for a small town back then.

Carrollton lured him away to a city position for a few months, but he happily returned to Gainesville to become city manager in 1958.

The next few years were challenging for Gainesville as it took on Urban Renewal, then Model Cities, federal programs that weren’t universally accepted, but intended to make life better for Southside residents.

He would be welcomed in this day of tight budgets for as government officials go, he would be considered a tightwad with taxpayers’ money. Pete helped put the city on a sounder fiscal foundation after years of looser spending and accounting. He was recognized throughout the state for his financial expertise.

A hard worker, his hours routinely extended after dark because of back-to-back meetings or extra effort on his part.

Quiet and modest, he rarely talked of his service in World War II. He earned a Silver Star for rescuing two wounded men in the platoon he commanded while under fire in Germany.

He was a hero, too, to his family and the citizens of Gainesville. He left the city manager’s job in 1970, but continued in public service for eight more years with the state Department of Human Resources.

Pete died at age 96 last week.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.

 

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