Let's Draw! Let's Write! Let's Sing!

When I was in second grade, my father moved our family from Milwaukee to a farm in Marquette County.  From a city classroom of about 25 seven-year-olds, I now shared a classroom at Sheldon School with just 17 other students, including my older sisters (in grades 5 and 7) and my younger brother (in first grade.)  

What a challenge that must have been for all those teachers – graduates of two-year “normal” colleges – to plan lessons for all subject areas of all eight grades.  Instead of physical education classes, we had recess in the morning and at lunch-time, and our school yard was big enough for soft-ball and other improvised games, such as kick the can and ante-over (where we formed teams and threw a ball over the schoolhouse roof.)  In winter we took our sleds across the road to a hill that the neighboring farmer was happy to let us use.

Thanks to Wisconsin School of the Air, we had an introduction to the fine arts as well.  Once a week we had “Let’s Sing” with Professor (Edgar) Gordon, and on a different day of the week we drew inspiration from “Let’s Draw” and “Let’s Write.”  These three on-the-air classes gave the teacher a little break, though at the time that wasn’t one of my concerns.  Like the other students, I sat at my desk, listening intently to the radio at the front of the classroom as voices from Madison inspired us to use our talents.  

I remember singing old-time favorites like “Home on the Range” under the long-distance direction of Professor Gordon; I can remember the big sheets of manila paper which covered my desk when it was time to draw; and I still have the scrapbooks of my collected essays, stories and poems from “Let’s Write.”  

In a book I checked out of the library, 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea, I learned that “the wireless” came to Wisconsin 100 years ago, in 1909.  The first broadcast came from Beloit where a physics professor, Charles Culver, sent a wireless telegraph of a track meet.  In Madison, Earle M. Terry, another physics professor, is generally regarded “the founding father” of wireless communication.  The author of this fascinating history of public radio in Wisconsin is Randall Davidson, who has been affiliated with Wisconsin Public Radio since 1990.

According to a website for Wisconsin Public Radio, the Wisconsin School of the Air made its debut in 1931 “with 10 weekly programs for in-school use. WHA is assigned studio space in the State Capitol (which still exists today). WHA carries the first regular remote broadcasts from a University of Wisconsin classroom.”  http://www.wpr.org/hd/hd_innovation.cfm

I found it interesting to learn that “Chapter a Day,” still a popular favorite of WPR listeners, began in 1927.  One of the longest running programs in radio history, it began when a radio guest cancelled and the host decided to read a library book to fill the hour. It was an immediate hit and listeners requested more.  Twelve years later it became a daily program.

In a June 1989 article from the Wisconsin Academy Review, Ralph Johnson wrote about the Wisconsin School of the Air:  “In mid-September 1931 Harold B. McCarty announced to the WHA Radio staff, ‘We're going to have a School of the Air. It will start on the fifth of October.’ In three weeks the first week's programming was prepared,

which set the pattern for decades to come.”  Over 50 years later when McCarty reminisced with WHA staff members, he said he was inspired by the success of a program in Ohio and that he knew of several Wisconsin teachers who had had some success in educational broadcasting.  One of them was “Pop” Gordon, who became the Professor Gordon I remember.  

Drawing, painting and other forms of art have never been my strongpoint, though I do love spending time at the Milwaukee Art Museum and I am the Number One fan of my grandson’s refrigerator artwork.  But “Let’s Sing” and “Let’s Write” – almost sixty years later – my response to both is a fervent: “Yes.  Let’s.”


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