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Ode to an ‘Okie’

Wendy Alexander/Madera Tribune File Photo Ed Gwartney educates students about making rope at the Ed Gwartney California History Center. Gwartney died in September of 2018.


Ed Gwartney died two years ago this Friday, after a long, tortuous battle with cancer. This self-described product of the “Okie” migration, who never earned a high school diploma but became a pathfinder of new trails in the teaching of history, died Sept. 25, 2018.

Ed was the founder of the James Monroe Children’s Museum, now the “Ed Gwartney California History Center,” a unique educational laboratory for teaching California history on the campus of James Monroe Elementary School.

Gwartney and his family were part of the great Dust Bowl migration in the 1930s and 1940s. When he was nine months old, his mother, father, three brothers and two aunts left Oklahoma searching for a place where they could survive. They began their new life in the fields of California and continued to follow the crops until they settled in Chowchilla when Ed was 10 years old.

At the age of 17 he dropped out of high school to join the Army where he served in Korea and Germany. Upon his discharge, Gwartney worked in a variety of jobs, including one with the Mosquito Abatement District.

After a while, he made the decision to get an education and enrolled at Fresno City College where he was admitted on probation because of a lack of a high school diploma. With his graduation from FCC, he matriculated at Fresno State and graduated with a degree in history.

Gwartney landed his first teaching job at Spring Valley School in O’Neals and then taught for four years in Chowchilla. After that, he went to work teaching at Howard School for two years and in 1985 transferred to James Monroe, where he remained until his retirement in 2007.

His official retirement, however did not mean he was leaving Monroe Elementary. After all, how could he leave his interactive Children’s Museum and the thrill of giving children the experience of living in the Old West?

No one, perhaps not even Gwartney, knows for sure just when he conceived the idea of building a western town at Monroe School. Maybe it was when he and his 4th grade classes were building covered wagons that actually were used on trail rides. Maybe it was when he built a tent city on the playground to give his students the feel of life in a gold mining town.

At any rate, by 1997, with the assistance of two fellow teachers and a host of parents, he opened the James Monroe Children’s museum in a portable building. From that beginning, the museum expanded every year. An entire gold mining town, complete with boot hill, was constructed on the site. Gwartney became the director, with teachers Sandra Carter and Susan Miller as his assistants. They trained Monroe 6th graders to be docents for the museum and soon busloads of students and teachers from other schools were signing up for an interactive tour. The excitement was contagious, and Madera will never forget it.

Over the years, the James Monroe Children’s museum saw both flush years and lean times. Gwartney managed to secure $250,000 in grants and gifts for the museum and its traveling projects.

However, the lean times became so serious that the museum had to close its doors one year. It was later rescued on two occasions by the Chukchansi Tribal Council and the Madera County Historical Society.

Supporters of education throughout the state have recognized Gwartney’s pivotal role in the museum program. The Oregon/California Trails Association named him Teacher of the Year. He won the Golden Bell Award for his school, and in 2004, the California Council for Social Studies named him Elementary Teacher of the Year. Gwartney was twice selected Distinguished Teacher of the Year by his colleagues at James Monroe.

Clearly, trying to fill Gwartney’s shoes has not been an easy task. This writer wishes the district well in its attempt, but he knows how difficult that is going to be.

After all, he rode “shotgun” with him for over 40 years. In the meantime, he will just pause and remember his partner and wish that he could have been there with him to say goodbye.

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