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October 28, 1997

The Organic School After Marietta Johnson

by Joseph W. Newman

[Editor's note: This is the second of a 2-part series on the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education in Fairhope, Alabama. Back to Part 1]

A Venture in Cooperative Management

The Marietta Johnson Museum in Fairhope, Alabama. Photo by L.D. Fletcher

Children cried when they heard Mrs. Johnson had died, not only because they respected her but because so many adults said the school would close at the end of the 1938-39 year. Enrollment had dropped to below 100. Cash flow had slowed to a trickle. Faculty morale had fallen. Students, parents, and alumni had every reason to be concerned about the future of the Organic School.

Rather than trying to replace Johnson with a strong individual, several experienced teachers convinced their colleagues to operate the school as a "cooperative venture" -- an experiment in shared governance and shared financial risk. Acting as a committee of the whole, the twelve-person faculty would run the school and, foregoing salaries, divide whatever money remained after paying the bills.

The cooperative venture at the Organic School was, on the one hand, well within the spirit of Fairhope's reformist heritage. As part of the Fairhope community experiment, several major cooperatives sprang up during the 1910s and 1920s, including an ice house, transportation company, creamery, and general mercantile. The socialists who dominated the early community were among the prime movers in these ventures.

But on the other hand, Fairhope was changing, and the days of the cooperatives were already over. By the early 1930s, all the cooperatives had collapsed -- along with socialist influence in Fairhope generally. With the town's population approaching 3,000 as the decade of the thirties drew to a close, more and more residents were viewing Fairhope as just a nice place to live rather than a community with a mission of experimentation and reform. Thus the faculty decision to launch a cooperative venture at the Organic School was true to Fairhope's heritage but out of step with its recent past and present.

Difficulties with the cooperative arrangement surfaced almost immediately as governance problems aggravated the school's longstanding financial woes. Teachers grew tired of sitting through long meetings and handling administrative chores. Parents missed having one person in charge of the school, a designated leader who could answer questions and make decisions. As the faculty explained in a 1940 newsletter, "the need was felt for centralizing administration."

At a special parent-teacher meeting held at the end of the 1939-40 year, S. W. Alexander, a math and Latin teacher who had been at the school since 1930, reluctantly agreed to step forward and assume more control. Since 1935 Alexander had served as principal, which meant principal teacher or instructional leader at the Organic School. Now he was also administrator -- the school's de facto director.

The Corporation Steps Forward

Portrait of Marietta Johnson at the museum. Photo by L.D. Fletcher

Alexander lacked Johnson's personal charisma and political finesse. As a result, the Organic School corporation became more assertive in the affairs of the institution during the 1940-41 school year. Now composed of six members, the corporation still included Lydia Comings, who helped Johnson found the school in 1907 and incorporate it in 1909. Trying to lighten the school's debt burden, the members conveyed title to Comings Hall to the town of Fairhope. They rented the School Home, the dormitory that had housed boarding students, to the National Youth Administration in an attempt to generate operating funds. In a move that represented a major break with the school's past, members of the corporation began requiring local students to pay tuition, partly in cash and partly by helping with the upkeep of the campus.

The opposition of Alexander and the rest of the faculty to charging local tuition strained their relationship with the corporation. Even with their jobs and salaries on the line, faculty members resigned themselves to closing the school -- if the only alternative was operating it in violation of one of Marietta Johnson's most basic principles.

Determined to keep the school open, corporation members looked outside Fairhope for new leadership. In December 1941, just as the nation entered World War II, the corporation hired William E. Zeuch as director. With a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and a broad background in university and government work -- he had founded Commonwealth College in 1923 -- Zeuch brought practiced administrative skills to the position. While promising "no departure" from Johnson's idea of organic education, Zeuch ushered in fundamental changes in the school's organizational structure. These changes carried profound educational implications for the school's future.

Understandably, the new director made stabilizing the school financially his top priority. Within two months after his arrival, Zeuch had launched a drive to establish an endowment he called the Sustaining Fund. Drawing on a long list of contacts from the Johnson era, the drive netted numerous small contributions from around the nation. John Dewey sent a check for ten dollars. But Zeuch concentrated on local alumni and friends, believing their support held the key to the school's survival. By February 1943 the fund had reached $4,000 of its $5,000 goal.

The price Zeuch paid to obtain this support was expanding the corporation and increasing its control of the school. The January 1943 issue of the school bulletin Integration announced a reorganized corporation of 20 to 25 members. In addition to the six old members, the new corporation consisted of representatives from faculty, parents and patrons, and alumni. The members appointed from the latter two groups included some of Fairhope's most influential citizens. Members of the corporation elected a three-person board of trustees, soon to be called the executive committee, to "carry out the policies of the corporation and to manage the purely business affairs of the school."

The new corporation kept a low profile at first, for Zeuch and Alexander worked well together as director and principal. Zeuch's business acumen impressed prominent Fairhopers. He reopened the boarding department and helped persuade the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation to purchase the mortgage on the school. Overriding faculty objections, he kept local tuition in place and was able to boast few families had withdrawn their children. As for Alexander, his devotion to organic education reassured those who wanted to see the school stick to Johnson's principles. Even with World War II pulling older boys away and complicating faculty recruitment and retention, the Organic School appeared to be on the rebound.

But ill health forced Zeuch to resign during the summer of 1944. Alexander carried on as principal, but during the 1944-45 year he too became ill. Alexander's death in November 1945 left no one in charge -- no one, that is, except the twenty members of the corporation and its three-person executive committee.

One member of the executive committee, Sam Dyson, a 1926 graduate of the Organic School and a successful Fairhope banker, soon emerged as not only the dominant force on the corporation but also the most influential person in the affairs of the school. His wife Helen, a graduate of Johnson's teacher training program, served initially as a first life teacher and then as both vice- president and president of the corporation. As of 1995, half a century later, the Dysons and their family were still maintaining involvement with the school.

A Scapegoat and Two Saviors

Searching for a new administration, corporation members once again looked outside Fairhope, only this time they put the position of director on the shelf and hired just a principal. In 1946 they employed Edgar E. Ritter, who came from San Francisco with a background in journalism and a master's degree from Stanford. The student editors of the 1947 Cinagro reported "with Mr. Ritter as principal, we have had a very successful and smooth running year." The corporation apparently thought otherwise. As financial problems returned to haunt the school, Ritter came under fire. At a special meeting called in May 1947 to deal with the budgetary crisis, the corporation accepted his resignation. In protest, parents withdrew as many as a third of the school's 100 students.

Unable to meet payroll and pay its other bills, the corporation considered closing the school. But Sam Dyson donated money to keep the school afloat in the short term and, after lengthy negotiations, the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation agreed to assume the debts and "sponsor the operation of the Organic School"-- provided the school corporation offered sufficient security. That security turned out to be all the school's property, which the corporation signed over in May 1947.

With the school's very survival at stake, the corporation prevailed on two veteran teachers, John and Clara Campbell, to reorganize the faculty and reopen the school. Having moved to Fairhope in 1928 to work with Marietta Johnson, the Campbells had built a base of friends and supporters in the community. Corporation members persuaded John, who held a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, to serve as principal, and Clara, a graduate of the University of Minnesota who enjoyed a reputation as an exceptionally fine teacher, to continue as a science and English instructor. The Campbells' direct ties to Johnson gave the husband-wife team great credibility in Fairhope.

With John in the principal's office from 1947 through 1951 and with Clara at work in the classroom and behind the scenes, the school returned to its organic roots, thriving educationally and surviving financially. The Campbells were able to reestablish the school as a viable institution in Fairhope. Enrollment rebounded to 120 as some of Fairhope's more prosperous families, particularly those descended from turn-of-the-century colonists, rallied 'round the school and continued to send their children there. A spirit of optimism returned to the campus.

The Corporation Centralizes Control

When age and health forced John Campbell to step down at the end of the 1950- 51 year, business influence increased in the school's affairs when several local businesspeople who had staged a fundraising drive for the school took seats on the corporation. A new organizational chart unveiled in May 1951 showed Sam Dyson, who now held the titles of president and general manager, at the top. Beneath Dyson lay a network of committees on which faculty members were represented but as a decided minority. The committees governed every aspect of the school's operation, from buildings and grounds to educational policy. As a history of the school published in the Fairhope Courier put it, businesspeople now "took the responsibility of supervising [the] administration."

It seemed "Mr. Sam," as Dyson was known, was always on campus. He took an interest in every task, great and small, from painting buildings to cautioning teachers not to stray from Mrs. Johnson's principles. At his best, Dyson was a tireless worker, a constant booster of the Organic School. At his worst, critics charged that he seemed to regard the school as his pet project, brooking no opposition to his plans and tolerating no challenge to his and his wife's interpretation of organic education.

As for the directors, the succession who came and went found their power hinged on their relationship with the corporation. In 1951 and 1952, immediately following the Campbells, no fewer than three people served brief terms as director, including Kenneth Cain, Marietta Johnson's adopted son.

Other directors, though, served longer terms, and in many respects the school appeared healthy during the 1950s. Enrollment climbed to 200 toward the end of the decade. Yearbooks portrayed a school that was adhering to some of the more obvious aspects of organic education. Folk dancing, for instance, remained a highly visible feature, and students continued to work in the shop. Visitors to the campus could never mistake the Organic School for a "typical" school, public or private.

Yet the school had changed and was continuing to change in ways that disturbed many alumni from the Johnson era. Johnson's policy of delaying reading instruction until age 8 or 9 had fallen by the wayside during the 1940s. Her policy on student evaluation fell in 1951, a year of revolving-door directors, when the corporation yielded to parental pressure and instructed teachers to grade students and issue report cards to parents. By the early 1960s, the school seemed to be drifting with the tides on Mobile Bay as directors and faculty members entered and excited and as the moods of the corporation changed. Several times, for instance, the school switched back and forth between the life classes Johnson insisted on, which grouped younger students by two-year age cohorts, and the traditional single-year groupings known as first grade, second grade, third grade, and so forth.

Trying to position the school to appeal to an increasingly conservative local clientele, those in charge gradually steered it away from Johnson's principles, charting a course that reflected uncertainty over where to go but determination to get there.

Child Misfits and Republican Politics

The detailed records kept by Dr. Goodwin Petersen, director from 1960 through 1962, provide a snapshot of the school as it approached 25 years of operation without Marietta Johnson. Petersen, who held a doctorate in education from Stanford, repeatedly voiced concern over the quality of students and faculty and over the heavy-handed role of the corporation, which was now usually called the board of trustees or managing board.

Many students, Petersen contended, did not possess the "academic and creative promise" to succeed at the Organic School. In fact, the school was accepting probationary students from other schools, which reinforced the "child misfit" image Johnson worked so hard to counteract.

Plagued with high teacher turnover, Petersen fretted over teachers who either didn't understand or didn't agree with Johnson's principles. Himself hardly faithful to Johnson's principles, Petersen was nevertheless a strong leader and assertive director. Predictably, he locked horns with the corporation and resigned after two years to accept a faculty position at Northern Illinois University. A report he issued during his last year pointed out that the same group of people who made financial policy for the school also made educational policy -- and without any expertise, the report implied, in the latter area. Petersen also pointed out that teachers had no personal representation on the board. Before he left the school, Petersen angered Sam Dyson by charging the board with violating a provision of its 1951 charter that required members to seek reelection after each three-year term.

After Petersen's departure, the school entered a period of relative stability under Frances Hughes, who served as director from 1962 through 1969. The stability of the Hughes era paid dividends. Enrollment ranged between 110 and 140 students, down from the late 1950s but about the same as under Petersen. Hughes endeared herself to the managing board by returning her salary checks, a gesture at once admirable for the genuine dedication it reflected and troubling in its commentary on the financial affairs of the school. The board's acceptance of Hughes' generosity seems almost opportunistic because, during her administration, a major bequest from the estate of longtime school supporter Georgianna T. Ives gave the board the resources it needed to embark on a capital improvement program.

Sam Dyson was named joint executor of the Ives estate, and Helen Dyson served as president of the managing board from 1966 through 1974. In an era before historic preservation was an issue, several architecturally significant wooden buildings from the Johnson era were demolished and replaced with plain but serviceable concrete-block structures. Other parts of the physical plant were repaired and remodeled. The board was also able to reclaim the school's assets from the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation, which reconveyed title along with a new land lease in 1967.

Fairhope's 99-year leases on colony land were one of last remnants of the original community experiment. Now downplayed by real estate agents as a "quirk," a "minor inconvenience" to those who wanted to move to Fairhope, the single-tax leases had become a relic of turn-of-the-century idealism. Fairhope remained one of the best places in Alabama to hear nonsouthern accents spoken, but those who voiced them were now more likely to be comfortable retirees than committed reformers. By the end of the 1960s, stability and security had become the selling points of the community of almost 6,000. The town that elected a socialist its first mayor had turned into a stronghold of Goldwater-Nixon Republicanism.

A Segregation Academy?

The Organic School entered the decade of the seventies with stable enrollment and a child-misfit image. What could it offer the community that the Baldwin County public schools, now considered good-to-excellent by Alabama standards, could not? Racial segregation, for one thing.

During the early 1970s, large-scale, court-ordered desegregation of public schools finally came to south Alabama. The Baldwin County school system, where only 10 percent of the students were African-American, complied with court orders in a relatively orderly and peaceful way. But across the bay in Mobile County, where the African-American population stood at almost 40 percent, massive resistance and white flight broke out.

The Organic School, like other private schools on both sides of the bay, profited from the discord and reaped higher enrollment, peaking at 168 in 1973- 74 when racial tensions were running highest. Although the managing board adopted and published a statement of nondiscriminatory admission policy, the Organic School remained virtually all white.

Meanwhile, the board continued to compromise Marietta Johnson's organic curriculum. In order to offer a wide variety of academic courses to larger numbers of students, the board made ceramics and folk music optional. For a time, the shop Johnson thought of as the "most important place on the campus" was closed.

One constant in the school was the Dysons' involvement. The 1977 Cinagro devoted a full page to Marietta Johnson and another page to Sam and Helen Dyson. Mr. Sam, now chair of the board of Fairhope's largest bank, won praise as a "daily worker" at the Organic School, wearing his plumber's hat one day and his financial advisor's hat the next. In 1976 he established a permanent trust fund for the school from the Ives estate. The fund, with a principal that reached approximately half a million dollars by 1995, still underwrites about half of the school's budget.

Dashed Hopes of Revitalization

The experiences of Mike Kingsmore, principal from 1979-1982, paint a revealing portrait of the school 40 years after Marietta Johnson's death. Arriving from Ohio with a military background and 12 years of service in teaching and administration, Kingsmore soon became a convert to organic education. To a greater degree, perhaps, than any other administrator since John Campbell in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kingsmore tried to realign the school with Johnson's principles, only to run into the brick walls of insufficient funds and resistance from the managing board.

A controversy between Kingsmore and the board brewed at the start of the 1980-81 year and quickly boiled over into the pages of Fairhope and Mobile newspapers. At first the scenario seemed all too familiar. Enrollment had fallen below 100, and the board, as usual, was blaming the principal. Defending himself, Kingsmore pointed to the inflationary economy of the early 1980s and the board's recent decision to raise tuition by 31 percent. What made this situation different, though, was the "flood of protest and indignation" triggered by Kingsmore's announcement of his resignation, an outpouring that "left the school virtually paralyzed," according to the Eastern Shore Courier.

Newspaper reporters investigating the controversy played up the concentration of power in the hands of the managing board. Readers learned the principal and faculty were rarely, if ever, allowed to attend the board's meetings. How, then, could the board blame Kingsmore for the school's financial difficulties? One board member opined the principal had an "inability to carry out instructions." In response, Kingsmore's advocates accused the board of deliberately mismanaging funds so the school would close and its property revert to the Fairhope Single Tax Corporation. The ten-acre downtown campus was now a prime piece of real estate, and rumors were already flying about what would happen to the property when -- not if, but when -- the school failed.

Although Kingsmore weathered this particular storm and remained popular with parents and teachers, early in 1982 he announced his plans to leave the school as part of an economy plan. The situation seems doubly tragic, for while the managing board was passing on Kingsmore's leadership, it was also passing up a chance to make the school economically self sufficient. That chance came in the form of an offer from millionaire industrialist Harold Dahlgren.

Dahlgren, a Texan who made his fortune in the printing business, discovered the Organic School in the late 1970's through his wife Emily, an artist and native of Fairhope. After becoming friends of Johnson's adopted son Kenneth and his wife Dorothy "Mama Dot" Cain, the Dahlgrens enrolled their children in the school and began to contribute liberally. In 1981 they donated $70,000 to retool the shop and restore the old high school building, which was rededicated as Dahlgren Hall at the start of the 1981-82 academic year. The Cains looked hopefully to the Dahlgrens, envisioning them as modern counterparts of philanthropists whose support Marietta Johnson had won for the school.

The Dahlgrens offered to make the school financially independent --provided Harold received a seat on the managing board. The board declined. Dahlgren had been critical of the board's micromanagement of the school, speaking out as Goodwin Petersen had about the board's making educational decisions without the necessary expertise. In addition, the Dahlgrens' connection to the Cains made them suspect to the Dysons and their friends on the board, for the Cains and the Dysons headed two rival camps of Organic School supporters. To this day, those associated with the school feel pressure to declare themselves as allies of either Mama Dot or Mr. Sam. The ill will between the two factions has cost the school dearly, in this instance a once-in-a-lifetime chance at financial security.

Decline, Near Death, and Rebirth

After Mike Kingsmore left, the school went downhill fast. Kingsmore built up enrollment to 119 before his departure in 1982, but the number of students dropped steadily as the managing board scaled back the school in a series of economy moves. The last high school class graduated in 1983, after which the board phased out secondary programs. By the fall of 1986, a downsized Organic School could claim grades K through 6 only --and a mere 25 students. Many Fairhopers were convinced the end of the school was surely in sight.

Board members, though, were working behind the scenes to keep the school alive. In August 1986 the board announced plans to sell the school's physical plant to the city of Fairhope and vacate the campus in May 1989. The city had made the board an offer it could not refuse: $334,000, which would be enough to rebuild the school at a new site, with money left over for other expenses. Relocating the Organic School was an important part of the city's master plan, the mayor of Fairhope explained. Faulkner State Community College would open a branch on the old ten-acre campus and, after extensive building and renovation, draw as many as a thousand college students into downtown Fairhope, where the economy was already booming with the addition of trendy restaurants and boutiques.

Because the Organic School had not served as the symbolic heart of Fairhope for several decades, it struck some supporters as sad but fitting when the school finally acknowledged its changed circumstances and moved away from the geographical heart of the community. The new campus, dedicated in 1989, sits hidden and isolated, plain and modern in its concrete-and-brick construction, while downtown Fairhope displays rows of historic buildings for a steady stream of shoppers and tourists. Visitors to the old campus can see the restored Bell Building, which now houses the Marietta Johnson Museum and its rich collection of archival materials. Mama Dot Cain, who founded and developed the museum with her late husband, often joins staff members in greeting researchers, alumni, and other visitors.

Fairhope, now a city of 9,000, retains a refreshing spirit and a touch of the avant-garde. It is, by and large, a tolerant place of literate people. But the former experimental community, once the number one single tax colony in the nation, now rates in Money magazine as the nation's number two retirement community. Rising property values -- the very thing that vexed Henry George, the spiritual leader of Fairhope's single tax colony -- are almost a source of pride in the new upscale Fairhope.

The results of Marietta Johnson's educational experiment parallel the results of Fairhope's community experiment. The rules have changed, yet a certain atmosphere remains. Students at today's Organic School no longer wait until they are eight or nine to learn to read. That rule is rendered obsolete, teachers explain, by the early exposure children get to print in the electronic media. Yet reading instruction still seems easy and natural. John Dewey's observation that "children teach themselves" still fits.

Even though report cards now go home on a regular basis, teachers try to minimize competition and working for grades. Folk dancing is still part of an organic education, even if students now dance only two hours per week rather than the hour every day Johnson looked forward to. Students still work in the shop, but now for only one hour per week instead of one hour per day. Students continue to spend time outside -- bicycle rides and walks in the woods are especially popular -- although they spend less time than Johnson's students did.

Current director Mordecai "Mawk" Arnold, a retired military officer, graduated from the Organic School during the 1930s, while Johnson was alive. Moreso than any other recent director, he seems committed to her principles. He is even willing to work out special financial arrangements with parents of modest means who want their children to attend the school. With a less autocratic managing board apparently behind him, Arnold is trying to recapture more of the founder's vision.


We should avoid simply repeating the Fairhope wisdom that the Organic School has never been the same since Johnson's death because no one has been able to fill her shoes. Of course the school hasn't, and of course no one has. But to stress this point is to minimize the contributions of many capable teachers and administrators who deserve more credit than they have ever received for keeping the school alive and sticking fairly close to Johnson's principles.

Nor should we overemphasize the sentiment, also commonly voiced in Fairhope, that a lack of money has always been the Organic School's greatest problem. To be sure, this point can help explain much of the school's history, including some of the educational changes the institution has undergone over the last 60 years. Recurrent financial crises have pulled the managing board deeper and deeper into the school's educational affairs, resulting at times in autocratic lay government and a drift in first one direction and then another. Money is a key factor in virtually all institutional history. But as economists remind us, the way people choose to spend their money is a reflection of their attitudes and values.

Looking beyond both the money factor and the Marietta Johnson factor, we can see the Organic School was able to grow in Fairhope because -- and probably only because -- the educational experiment was initially an integral part of a community experiment. Ideologically, the school and the community sustained each other in their early years. A strong reciprocal relationship developed. So long as a sufficient number of Fairhopers regarded their community as experimental -- as a community with a point to prove -- local ideology provided a critical margin of support for the school.

Fairhope changed, though, and as it did, the school also changed. Instead of a quasi-public school with a clear mission, the Organic School became a private school in search of a population to serve, marketing itself at different times to Fairhope's local aristocracy, to the parents of child misfits, to segregation-minded whites, to almost anyone who could afford the tuition, and now to those who just want something different for their children. Over the years, the Organic School has sometimes drifted so far from Johnson's educational idea, she almost certainly would have disowned it. And although the school now seems to be returning to its original moorings, it still sits apart from the community. Appropriately so, for at the end of the twentieth century, Fairhope basks comfortably in the Gulf Coast sun, an antiquarian version of its heritage on display for a mix of suburbanites, retirees, good old boys and girls, New Agers, and, yes, a few never-say-die reformers who remember when.

Joseph W. Newman, Ph.D., is professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of South Alabama.

For copies of Johnson's Organic Education: Teaching without Failure, contact the Marietta Johnson Museum at 990-8601.

Mawk Arnold, current principal of the Organic School, has informed the author that seven minority students are now enrolled -- the highest percentage in the school's history.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL1