Time passes, things change. There are goodbyes to be said. In Pine Bluff they are demolishing my elementary school, a touchstone. Maybe I can make it there before the last brick is carried away. I’ve lost touch with many of my classmates — my fault, not theirs — but I never lost touch with Gabe Meyer. Understand, please, I never met the man in whose honor the school was named. He was a little before my time. But I owe him.
Gabriel Meyer was a German immigrant en route to somewhere else, and who got stranded by a flood in Pine Bluff. The year was 1856, his 22nd year. Young he was but evidently endowed with a shrewd business sense. Electing to remain where the rains delayed him, Meyer began in retail and branched into agriculture, and to say he prospered is to understate: his mercantile and farm skills made him one of the wealthiest men of his time and place, in 2014 dollars a multi-millionaire.
Meyer was possessed with something else, however, a quality that would pay dividends to his adopted town many times over. Gabe Meyer felt he owed, that he ought to pay back to his new country, his new town. Scarcely a dozen years after his arrival, his townsmen elected him to the school board, and eventually to the city council (he served a quarter-century) and to the Jefferson County Quorum Court. He was, too, a mainstay of southeast Arkansas’s vibrant Jewish community, Pine Bluff its Jerusalem, which enriched the region’s civic and cultural texture enormously. Meyer’s out-of-pocket generosity became the stuff of local legend. When came the time — in 1921 — to name the new elementary school going up at 23rd Avenue and Linden Street there was little discussion.
So Gabe Meyer would have been in its late 30s when my parents drove me from our home on West 22nd Street to enroll me in first grade. I would remain through the sixth. They did their best with me, my teachers, and if I can’t recall all their names I can remember Miss Seymour, Miss Wall, Miss Frederick (or was it Fredrick?) and Miss Cross, and perhaps they were all “Mrs.” and we just slurred the pronunciation. My apologies to the two whose names at the moment I can’t summon, and if none of them is still with us, well, a tip of my hat to their descendants, literal and figurative.
(And here I should pause to salute the alumni of another Pine Bluff elementary, Sixth Street, which is also falling to the wrecking ball. Like Gabe Meyer, it’s been judged too old, too inefficient, too asbestos-laden to let stand. Its graduates have their memories, too).
Oh, sure, there were some tense moments during my Gabe Meyer years, the usual stuff — bigger kids, bullies; vaccinations; a tumble from the merry-go-round or the swing; would that girl wear my disc? (Does anyone else remember what discs are?) But mostly pop quizzes. They were wonderful years. I treasure them. Which is one reason (there are others) that I always drove past Gabe Meyer whenever I was back in Pine Bluff. And on one fine afternoon, what the heck — I parked and walked inside, to learn that it had found new life as a Head Start center. While I hardly needed a guide, as I remembered every nook and cranny, the staff graciously showed me around. Speak, memory. And if memory serves that trip to Pine Bluff was a stopover en route back to Little Rock from an assignment at Cummins Prison. How many kids did Gabe Meyer steer away from Cummins?
So as Gabe Meyer the school falls, it seems appropriate to raise two points, two tugs to the contemporary from an almost-century old structure, courtesy of Gabe Meyer the man. One is the egalitarian impulse that motivated Meyer, the notion that public schools, universal education and access thereto, was as essential a component of a civilized society as oxygen. He would have said it was the oxygen. The rush to charter schools would, I suspect, have baffled him.
And this: Gabe Meyer arrived at Pine Bluff a stranger in a new land, his English, to what extent he spoke it, heavily flavored with Bavarian. Did the town throw open its arms, or regard him with suspicion, demand to see his papers, his green card? Plainly it quickly came to revere him. In our frenzy over the undocumented, the “other,” how many Gabe Meyers are we prepared to risk losing?
No, I never met Herr Meyer, Mr. Meyer, Gabriel Meyer. Gabe Meyer. But, oh, I owe Gabe Meyer.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.