Willard Elementary School

Vita Leach
Vita Lancia Leach, 94, of Manasquan, passed away peacefully on June 22, 2022. She was born and raised in Paterson, and graduated from Eastside High School and Paterson State Teacher’s College where she was known as a “swell gal” to all. Vita wed Glenn Leach in 1950, and they enjoyed 62 years of marriage filled with family camping trips, beach time with friends, travel, and watching the horses at Monmouth Park. Vita’s pride and joy was her family. She loved nothing more than gathering everyone together at the Jersey Shore for the big Christmas celebration. She was our beloved “Queen”, and will be cherished forever in our hearts.
Vita’s career as a teacher spanned more than 30 years, and touched so many lives. Her last 20 years before retirement were as a kindergarten teacher at Willard School in Ridgewood. She is remembered by students and parents alike as their first and best teacher. Following retirement, Vita and Glenn became permanent residents of Manasquan where Vita volunteered at the VNA Thrift Shop; she served on the Board for many years and was honored as Volunteer of the Year in 2007. She was also actively involved in the Manasquan Seniors card-playing and exercise groups, and her church, Manasquan UMC. She was known as a true friend and helper to all with whom she crossed paths.
Vita was predeceased by her parents, husband, brother and sister. She is survived by daughters Barbara Hills, Gail Ansheles (Robert) and Jean Lohmann (Neal), as well as her eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

The Willard Way

THE HISTORY OF WILLARD SCHOOL: A Story of Challenge, Choice, and Change 

Compiled by Debbie Doherty 

The story of Willard School, as we call it today, began a very long time ago. The Village of Ridgewood was formed in 1894 with the coming of the railroad. At that time there was only one school within the entire village. It was a two room wooden school with no transportation provided. 

The village grew quickly and so did the number of school age children. The population in the Upper Ridgewood area, where the current Willard School is located, was growing as well. In December of 1911, $7,000.00 was approved by the Board of Education to buy a plot of land, nearly two acres in size, at the corner of Erie Street (now Morningside Road) and California Street. A one-room “portable” school house was put up on the site. In 1912 it served twenty-three to twenty-seven Upper Ridgewood children from kindergarten through third grade. Students in fourth grade and above could choose to attend either the Monroe Street or the Harrison Avenue Schools. Miss Nelle B. Smith, the only teacher and principal, taught all grades in split sessions with younger children attending class in the morning and older students in the afternoon. There was no plumbing, no office, and no teachers’ room, just one room that was heated by a wood stove standing in the center of the room. 

In July of 1915, another bond totalling $17,500.00 was passed for the construction of a four-room school to replace the original Erie Street portable. The new school which opened in October of 1916 had four classrooms and a teachers’ room. The Mission design allowed for additions to be planned and constructed as needed. Miss Smith continued as teacher/principal and three other teachers were hired. The entrance was facing California Street and the school became known as the Upper Ridgewood School. 

The Upper Ridgewood School neighborhood was quite different from what we see today. Erie Street, (now Morningside Road) ran past Glenwood Road and California Streets. All were unpaved dirt roads. There were thick woods across from the California Street entrance. Ault Smith, a Dutch immigrant blacksmith, lived across Erie Street in a large farmhouse built in 1893. Hillcrest Road existed as far as Avondale Road. Sherwood Road was a dead end and had a flourishing peach orchard. Avondale Road had many homes and Hamilton Road was in the process of being developed. Three area farms belonged to the Schrieber, Gessner, and Massenbrook families. The grounds behind the school toward Glenwood Road were park-like in design. 

Through the early 20’s the population and its educational needs continued to grow in the Upper Ridgewood area. The enrollment for the school year 1924-25 was 92 students. In the 1925-26 school year the enrollment jumped to 218 students. This increase was caused by the addition of the 7th and 8th graders to the school. At this time, a $125,000.00 addition was approved. It was designed to house an auditorium and eight classrooms including one for manual training and one for cooking classes. In September of 1925 the most modern school in the district was completed and occupied. At the request of the parents in the district, the school was renamed in honor of Dr. Harry S. Willard, a Paterson ophthalmologist. He served as president of the Board of Education for fourteen years. 

Shortly before the opening day of school, on September 9, 1926, the school was totally destroyed by fire. Clocks found in the rubble were stopped at 4:13 p.m. though flames were not noticed until it was nearly dark. Many of the children were unaware of the fire until the next morning. A man living on Avondale Road was the first to report the fire. Mrs. Telleger of Morningside Road (the newly paved and renamed Erie Street) called in to confirm that indeed the school was on fire. Mrs. Fine, another local resident, reported to police that she had heard an explosion before the flames were seen. A large crowd gathered and watched helplessly as the fire completely destroyed the new building. The cause of the fire was unknown. 

Students from Willard School were relocated throughout the village for the new school year which was delayed until September 13, 1926. Classes for K, 1, and 2 were held at the Community Church in two half-day sessions. Grades 3, 4, 5, and 6 were bussed to the Harrison Avenue School (located near the current Travell School). Seventh grade classes met at Monroe Street (now George Washington Middle School) and the eighth graders were sent to Beech Street (now the Ridgewood Education Center). 

To meet this challenge, the village immediately authorized a $200,000.00 expenditure to replace the destroyed school. The plan was similar to that of the burned building and included ten classrooms, an auditorium, gymnasium, a library, an office, a nurse’s room, and a teachers’ room, all located on the first floor; with basement rooms including one for manual training (shop), and one for domestic science (cooking). The cupola was added to the design of the new building. The school reopened in October of 1927. 

The school property was enlarged in 1928 by the purchase of two and a half acres facing Morningside Road. The cost was $26,000.00. The property included a home where Mr. Garry Vanderberg, a longtime janitor at the school, and his family lived for many years. 

By the late 1940’s, many of the trees which were an integral part of the beautiful park-like grounds surrounding Willard School were becoming diseased. Twelve trees were removed, and the rest trimmed back in the summer of 1950. A new hard-surfaced play area was constructed and additional landscaping was done. At the same time, the worn chimney on the school was repaired and a new crown was constructed. 

In January of 1952, Miss Ruth Johnston, the principal of Willard, helped mark a milestone in Willard School’s history by registering the school’s 4000th student. At that time plans were being developed to add four or five additional classrooms to the existing structure. In February of 1953, the Board approved a plan for a five room addition with a short hall and bathrooms to be constructed on the west side of the school. Except for a final coat of paint and a few blackboards, Willard’s addition opened on September 10, 1953. The first and second graders moved into this new wing where they were located until 1990. In the following paragraphs, two Willard students, Holly Engle and Alix Caldwell, describe the activity they witnessed during the construction process. 

The Story of the Willard School Addition 

February 29, 1953. We are going to have an addition on our school. The men are topping some of the trees and cutting down others. The ones that are going to be cut down have a piece of red material on them. It is fun to watch the men working. One man stands up in the tree with a rope around him. He has a saw and a holder for it. One man has on a red cap and a green and black jacket. 

March 10, 1953. It is fun to walk on the logs. After a while the logs get muddy. It is hard to walk on them. 

March 30, 1953. Now they have the steam shovel here and they are turning over the dirt and scooping out the tree trunks. The steam shovel is gray. 

April. The big cement mixer arrived right outside our window. It made a funny noise as it was mixing the cement. The cement ran into the wooden forms they had built. Then the cement blocks were set into the wet cement. In no time at all the wall was up. 

April 7, 1953. Now they are laying the bricks and have many strips of wood where they are building. It has been raining a lot so they haven’t been doing much outside work. 

April 27, 1953. After we got back from vacation, we found many things had happened. The floor boards were in and the reinforcement was in and there were more bricks up. 

April 29, 1953. Now the lolly columns are in. These are uprights that will support the roof. They are iron and are painted orange. 

June 2, 1953. They have the bricks all up and the window and door frames in place. Before we know it the building will be finished. They have the top of the hallway from the new part to the old school finished. The floor is in. They have started to do the roof on the main part.

June 4, 1953. They are putting a white board on the top. We think it is the beginning of the cornice. 

June 8, 1953. All the ducts for the heating system seem to be in. 

June 10, 1953. The scaffolding was taken down today so they must have finished the cornice and roof. Except for the windows and doors, the outside of the addition seems to be finished. 

Class size grew steadily through the early 1960’s. Basement rooms were converted for use as classrooms and the gym was partitioned off to make room for four fifth grade classes. Gym activities were carried on either in the auditorium or outside. Several classes met across the street at St. Elizabeth’s Church. In February of 1964, the Board approved a plan to add ten additional rooms to Willard School. Not only were ten classrooms added, including two rooms designed for Kindergarten use, but also a music room and new offices were designed to replace the very small office next to the library. The new wing was completed late in December of 1965 and students moved from St. Elizabeth’s and the Willard gym into their new classrooms in January, 1966. The main entrance and school office moved from the California Street side of the building to face Morningside Road. 

The Willard School celebrated its 60th Anniversary in 1986-87. Dr. Maiocco, a past principal, composed the lyrics to a school song in honor of the event. 


There is a school in Ridgewood

Upon a hilltop green

Her halls abound in scholarship

Of Willard do we sing Of Willard do we sing 

We always will remember

Our Alma Mater dear

And praise her name

Throughout the years

Of Willard do we sing Of Willard do we sing 

The Willard School is the oldest elementary school in Ridgewood. It is a school that has a rich history and maintains a strong tradition of educational excellence. It has changed a great deal since 1911 and its initial beginnings as a one-room schoolhouse. As a center for learning and scholarship, Willard must remain an ever-growing, developing, and changing school in order to provide the best possible education for children in the community. Just as the school has changed since 1911, so it must continue to change. As we plan for the future of the Willard School, we must all learn to feel comfortable and productive in this changing environment. This process will generate challenges and create opportunities to make choices. To meet each challenge and make intelligent choices, all of us will be compelled to maintain positive attitudes and develop new strategies for coping with the process.