May 17, 1882 was a day that may have haunted Mary A. White for the remaining nineteen years of her life…
Most Grand Haven natives, or long-time residents, probably know that Mary A. White Elementary School is named for the woman who became Grand Haven’s first school teacher upon her arrival here as a single, 21-year-old woman in 1835 (her first students being the five children of Grand Haven’s two families in permanent residence at the time).
By this Spring day in 1882, then, Mary had been teaching school for more than forty-five years. She was approaching seventy-years-old, but could still command a classroom. A proponent of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” philosophy of child-rearing, Mary could snap a hickory-switch hard enough to make a grown man sob, right up until the day she retired. When she said, “Homework tonight: READ“, those kids did a lot of reading. As a result, they also did a lot of learning…and Mary played no small part in helping shape the minds of countless children who would go on to become civic and business leaders in Grand Haven for decades to come…
Unfortunately, however, one young man didn’t learn the right lessons from Miss White’s high expectations and strong-arm disciplinary approach towards those she deemed ‘lazy’, ‘full of the the devil’, or ‘a bad seed’; all things she’d said of Lucas Smithsonsun at one time or another. We’ll never know exactly what pushed 16-year-old Smithsonsun over the edge, but on the morning of May 17, 1882, just as Mary White approached the schoolhouse steps, Lucas approached on a galloping horse, swinging a lasso overhead. With no time to react, Mary was quickly trapped by the rope, and before she could finish screaming, “Lucas Smithsonsun! I’ll thrash you to within an inch of your no-good, bad-seed life…”, she found herself being dragged along the ground behind Smithsonsun’s horse.
Horrified students at the school watched Mary being dragged down the street, and heard her yelling threats and insults at Lucas until he turned down Washington Street and out of ear-shot. Smithsonsun galloped towards the Grand River, while residents and downtown merchants were agog at the sight of Mary White, the town’s beloved spinster and founding-teacher, being dragged through town kicking and screaming behind a horse. One local shopkeeper later remarked, “I know she’s a tough old bird, but it didn’t look good when she bounced off the front porch of Griffin’s store.”
Alarmed citizens joined with concerned citizens and ran behind the sprinting citizens who were both alarmed and concerned, all in a race towards the river. Before they could see Mary, however, they could hear her, and what they heard was the one and only time that Miss Mary Arms White was ever known to use profanity in public. Historians still debate whether it was the “f-word” or the “s-word” people heard that day, but in either case, it was the last word ever spoken on the topic by Mary. Lucas Smithsonsun rode off down the riverbank, and was never seen again. The soaking wet Mary White refused to answer any questions about the incident, limped home for dry clothing, and opened the school an hour late that day.
Some months later, reports reached Grand Haven that Lucas Smithsonsun had terrorized dozens of elderly spinsters in small towns throughout the midwest, always screaming, “HOMEWORK TONIGHT – READ!!!” as he dumped them into the nearest river or lake. It is unknown whether Mary White ever felt she’d played a role in the breakdown of Lucas Smithsonsun, or whether he was just an irredeemably bad seed who couldn’t take a little constructive criticism and the occasional beating with a stick.
For those of you who’ve read all this way down the page…
Our staff photographer, Bob Walma, made a music video with the teachers and kids at Mary A. White in March 2014. Himself a proud and loyal graduate of the school (not so much ‘with honors’ but at least avoiding ‘dishonorable discharge’), Bob was happy to accept the PTA’s invitation to put something together with all the kids and teachers that might serve as a fun ‘snapshot’ from their school-year.
(apologies in advance for problems viewing on tablets and smartphones – which, luckily, almost no one has – we’re told it’s to do with arrangements between YouTube and the Record Companies and the use of Copyrighted music in non-commercial videos – it’s fine to view on PCs and Macs, though).