Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Madera Unified School District hosted a dedication ceremony for the Ed Gwartney Calfornia Center at Monroe Elementary School on Thursday afternoon.
Late teacher Gwartney’s dream comes true
As of last Thursday, it became official. What used to be the James Monroe Children’s Museum is now the “Ed Gwartney California History Center.” Madera Unified Trustees and Superintendent Todd Lile put the finishing touches on their year-long effort to honor the late teacher with a dedication ceremony at the renamed History Center.
With Gwartney’s widow, Phyllis, at the center of the ceremony, administrators, colleagues, and some of Gwartney’s former students joined his family in remembering one of the Valley’s most innovative history teachers and his unique contribution to education.
The self-described product of the “Okie” migration of the ‘30s and ‘40s came up with his idea for an interactive children’s museum in 1997. He enlisted two of his fellow James Monroe teachers, Sandra Carter and Susan Miller, to join him in building his dream. The James Monroe Children’s Museum opened that year in a portable building. It expanded every year thereafter until by the time Gwartney retired in 2007, an entire gold mining town had been constructed on the site.
Gwartney continued to direct the museum on a part time basis after his retirement, but there was always a budget crisis. The lean times became so serious that the museum had to close its doors one year. It was rescued on two occasions by the Chukchansi Tribal Council and once by the Madera County Historical Society.
In 2016, health issues forced Gwartney to leave his dream, and the Museum has stood unused since that time.
When Lile was appointed MUSD Superintendent, one of the things at the top of his “to do” list was to renovate the James Monroe Children’s museum and get it running again. He also wanted to give it a new name to honor its founder The school board agreed, and they went to work.
Over the past several months, paint has been flying, wooden sidewalks have been fixed, and broken windows replaced. Today, it stands in resplendent dignity as a promise to its founder to perpetuate his mission.
Master of ceremonies, Monroe principal Leonard Perez, opened Thursday’s dedication, and Lile greeted the more than 100 guests and introduced the MUSD trustees who were seated on the wooden sidewalk that borders the buildings of the old western town. Beside them stood an easel bearing a framed photograph of Gwartney, which will be placed inside the Center’s general store. Gwartney’s son, Jeff, a photography teacher at Merced College who took and prepared the image, was in the audience with the family.
After the introduction of dignitaries, the James Monroe Choir, directed by Mrs. Gerfin, performed “Come in from the Firefly Darkness.”
Phyllis Gwartney then came to the podium to speak of her husband’s love for teaching in general and the museum in particular. She expressed pride in her husband’s labor of love and thanked the district for its determination to memorialize his legacy. She was particularly grateful to Lile for driving to their home in Chowchilla to tell Gwartney of the board’s desire to name the museum after him.
Carter and Miller, Gwartney’s partners in the operation of the museum, shared a litany of experiences from their years of working with him.
Former Monroe student, Vanessa Murillo, presented a mural depicting Gwartney and some of his museum students.
Carter then introduced several of the museum’s former student docents who served as guides for the members of the audience who toured the facility after the ceremony.
According to Lile, the Ed Gwartney History Center will begin operations in August. It will serve fourth grade classes as part of the state history curriculum. They will travel to the Center for that “living history” experience, which Gwartney envisioned.