"Mind Your Own Business." This was the message that William Valentine scrawled across the blackboard whenever he entered a classroom. William Valentine was hired as Superintendent of the McCook Schools in 1889. In the nine years he served in that capacity he became one of the most beloved and respected of the educators that we have known.
From the beginning, education held a high priority for the citizens of McCook. The first building lots were not sold in McCook until the spring of 1882. Yet, by Sept. 1 of that year, McCook's first school opened, in the dining room of the old Commercial Hotel, with Mrs. Alma Churchill as teacher. By next year the school had outgrown the facilities at the hotel, so pupils attended school at the First Congregational Church, which served until McCook's first school building was completed in January 1884.
Our first school building was a frame structure, located on the site of the present Central Elementary School, and since it was located one block west of Main Steet, it was known as West Ward (This building was later moved to the site of the present West Ward School in 1906, to make room for a high school building on that spot -- the old high school building). There were four teachers, and an enrollment of 175 pupils. It was from this building that Gertrude Laws became the first McCook graduate in 1886.
In 1888, a brick school was built. This was known as East Ward, and was located on the site of the present East Ward building, on East 5th St. East Ward School served as both grade and high school. It had six rooms, an office and a Chemistry Lab. By this time the school population had grown to 485, with a total of nine teachers.
In 1889 the McCook School Board hired William Valentine to be Superintendent of the McCook school system. It proved to be a wise choice. Valentine was born in Massachusetts. He was an only child, and lost his father at an early age. He spent his early years in the cultural atmosphere of the Unitarian Church and the New England community. As a young man, he became secretary to Jenken Lloyd Jones, one of America's most prominent preachers of the day. Later, as private secretary to another noted preacher, Rev. Thomas Collier, he came west. He was acting as the Principal of a Nebraska City, NE. school when he received the call from the McCook School Board.
William Valentine was 33 when arrived to McCook, accompanied by his mother who acted as his housekeeper. He was a polished, cultured gentleman, and a brilliant conversationalist. Perhaps no one since has exerted such strong and positive influence on our community. He was described as "charitable and generous to a fault, always ready to help an unfortunate creature, man or beast, by kind word or deed."
Mr. Valentine's knowledge and appreciation of the good things of life were extensive. His versatility included architecture, painting, sculpture and music. He was known as a gifted actor, as well as lecturer, reader, and author. He had the ability to inspire his students by piquing their interests in many subjects. His extensive reading included what was going on in the world, then, and what would be coming in the future. His students were intrigued by his predictions of the "horseless carriage," the airplane, and motion pictures, all things, which, at that time, were merely experiments, going on in places far from McCook.
One of Mr. Valentine's teaching innovations was what he termed his "lantern class," which he held on Friday evenings during the winter. He organized a few students as his "Special Work Department" to assist him in these sessions. At first he used a "magic lantern" to project a few slides on miscellaneous subjects, shone on a curtain hung in a corner of the "assembly room." In this way he hoped to introduce students and public alike, to new subjects.
Mr. Valentine dared not use school funds for his lantern shows, since money was scarce during the 1890s. In fact, money was so tight that one year, Christmas vacation was prolonged one week in order to save coal that would have been burned during that cold weather period. Mr. Valentine charged the public 15 cents per person admission for the privilege of attending his lantern shows. This money was used to buy additional slides. In time, the collection of slides numbered several hundred and covered a variety of subjects. For instance, an evening performance might be devoted to London, or Paris, or darkest Africa, or English Cathedrals, or the ruins of ancient Rome or Greece. The slide presentations were accompanied by a lecture, usually by Mr. Valentine, though he encouraged some of the students to prepare these lectures from time to time. Eventually, students and townspeople were made familiar with the whole world, in what was, at the time, a novel and entertaining fashion.
Mr. Valentine was said to have had little or no trouble with discipline in the schools. He did not believe in corporal punishment, and didn't need to use it. His pupils "desired of all things to be in his good grace and feared, as they feared nothing else, to incur his displeasure ... because they wanted his good opinion ... they wanted him to think well of them." Yet, when on occasion he was forced to punish a student, anger and resentment rarely followed, because it was realized that his reprimand was well deserved.
Mr. Valentine was a fine administrator and one who insisted on living within his budget, which was spartan. For instance, in '89, when he arrived, teachers' yearly salaries, the largest item in the budget amounted to $7,575. Because of a budget crunch he was forced to make cuts. In 1895-96 teachers' salaries were reduced to $6,675. The Superintendent's salary reduced to $1200, Ward Principals to $65, Teacher's to $45, Janitors to $40. (Per year!). Expenditures totaled $8,300, or average expense per pupil of $12.50. (To the end of his stay conditions at the schools were crowded --- the 10 classrooms averaged 50 pupils per room!)
Before Valentine left McCook, he conducted a very complete and interesting census of his students and their parents. Among a long list of statistics: He found that in 1897, 25, or 4 percent of the children were foreign born. 114 fathers and 128 mothers were born in Europe (mostly Germany or Russia). Only four fathers and 15 mothers were born in Nebraska. (Twenty percent of the city's population was foreign born). Forty children had defective vision, 185 had suffered from a serious disease (scarlet fever and diphtheria in 109 cases, typhoid fever in 25 cases).
After Mr. Valentine's mother passed away, he chose to leave McCook, in 1898. He became a private tutor for a rich family, then dropped out of teaching. For a while he sold encyclopedias for a large publishing house out of Chicago and other cities. He went to St. Louis and became a reporter for magazines, and later was chosen to be editor of the Daily American, published by H. Spearman Lewis. Finally, he ended up in Fort Smith Arkansas, working on the staff of the Southwest American newspaper. It was here that he passed away on April 13, 1907.
In all his wanderings, Mr. Valentine loved McCook the most, and called this city home. His remains were returned to McCook and were buried in the Longview Cemetery, under the auspices of the McCook High School alumni Association.
A final tribute was paid to William Valentine on Dec. 11, 1930, when the new (and present) East Ward School was dedicated. It was said to be the largest crowd ever to attend a dedication celebration in McCook. He had been gone from McCook for some 32 years, yet more than 300 of Valentine's former students from the four corners of the United States were in attendance that day, to hear Frank Colfer, J.F. Cordeal, A. Barnett, and L.W. Jennings praise the former superintendent and pay tribute to him by christening the new $75,000 structure "Valentine School" (which name can still be seen over the front door, though over the years common usage has reverted the name to just East Ward School).
His former pupils rededicated themselves to the high ideals instilled by a beloved teacher, guide, and friend. Though it is more than 100 years since William Valentine passed our way his admonition "Mind Your Own Business" seems as valid today as it was in 1889.
Ref: Millicent Slaby & Mrs. W. Stokes, in Gazette Golden Anniversary, 1932;
Trails West, by Ray & Rutledge; McCook History, by Marian McClelland (Museum)