First Dahlgren School building constructed in 1922.
By Margie Warren Stevens, Special Guest Writer
Dahlgren School has existed since 1918, beginning with a private one-room schoolhouse. The first official base schoolhouse, pictured above, was erected in 1922.
This frame structure still exists today as the chapel annex. In 1941, the elementary school moved to the current brick building. For a brief time, the original frame schoolhouse housed the high school, where Mrs. Louise Settle, wife of long-time Dahlgren School Principal L. Healy Settle, taught literature and Latin.
Dahlgren School before renovations that included central air conditioning and expansion of the wings.
The Dahlgren School building has undergone modification over the years, most significantly upgrades to the main structure in the late ’80s with the addition of a gymnasium, a music room, and additional classrooms in the west wing, and a media center and classrooms in an east wing expansion. This alleviated the need for Quonset huts, but more on those infamous structures later.
Throughout its history, the school has been targeted for shutdown. Even today when enrollment takes a turn south, folks grow fearful the government will close the school once and for all. Thanks to the Herculean efforts of numerous principals and base commanders throughout the years, Dahlgren School has survived. No one worked harder to keep the school open than Lawanna Mangleburg, the school’s principal throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Mrs. Mangleburg led the charge and captured the attention of Sen. John Warner, who famously dubbed Dahlgren the Navy’s “Crown Jewel.” Thanks to the senator’s endorsement, improvements and expansions were approved, and the Dahlgren School building became a stellar facility to match its stellar faculty and staff.
Left to right: Principal Mangleburg, Sen. John Warner, and school board president, LTC George Rector.
Sen. Warner returns in early 1990s to see the new gym, part of the expansion project he endorsed.
When Friends of Dahlgren School began planning its first reunion in conjunction with Dahlgren Naval Support Facility’s 90th anniversary in 2008, some people asked why in the world anyone would come to an elementary school reunion. Those people, of course, had never attended Dahlgren School. Ed Jones, one of the Dahlgren History Museum founders, often uses the word “idyllic” to describe our childhood growing up on base at Dahlgren. Our idylls mostly center on the school where the teachers were sweeter than your favorite aunts and the principal no less revered than your grandfather. The principal with the longest tenure beginning in the 1930s and running through the mid-1960s was Mr. Settle.
Mr. Settle handing an award to Carole Lamonica, 1962.
He set the bar high for future principals that include retired GEN Pete Rixey, locally renowned scholar Mr. Morton Jones, the previously mentioned Ms. Mangleburg, followed by equally outstanding leaders from the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA): Mrs. Alice Herring, Dr. Dan Duncan, and Mrs. Tracey Fairfax. Stories from Friends of Dahlgren School confirm how much these principals were loved and admired. Mr. Settle, for example, was a huge baseball fan and coached the boys during recess and after school. According to Wayne Hughes (class of 1964), Mr. Settle made sure the World Series was piped in over the PA system so students could listen to the games, which back then were played in the afternoons.
Since the school’s beginning, instruction was excellent, but education went beyond textbooks. From constructing a colonial house—complete with wooden furniture and clay dishes—to glee club and musicals, which including a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta directed by a volunteer parent (my mom, Mrs. Margie Warren) we were well-rounded students. There were field days and May Days, baseball tournaments and carnivals providing hands-on learning before educators coined the phrase.
Dahlgren School May Day circa 1950.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs circa 1953.
“May Day Remembered,” featuring Dahlgren School students with Ed Jones playing the part of ADM Dahlgren, 2009.
As far back as the 1950s, special opportunities for students included a Spanish class offered after school and a “new math” class. This tradition has continued as today’s students benefit from individual music lessons, organized sports teams coached by parent volunteers, a drama program led by Mrs. Maureen Holt, the Advancement Via Individual Determination program headed by Mrs. Kathy Walseman, and extensive Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math activities, including robotics enriched with volunteers among Dahlgren’s engineers and scientists.
Mrs. Walseman’s students learn confidence in special programs.
My Dahlgren School Experience
For a kid growing up on base in the ’50s and ’60s, education at Dahlgren School began in a corrugated metal building with a floor that bounced when energetic children hopped and skipped into class. These Quonset huts are legendary among the school’s alumni who recall both mischief and merriment taking place in them without the principal’s knowledge. These domed marvels were built during WWII to provide the Navy with what Wikipedia describes as an “all-purpose, lightweight building that could be shipped anywhere.” That anywhere included Dahlgren. Imagine a giant half of a tin can with windows propped open with metal rods as shown below
Quonset huts circa 1960s.
Thick jungles of elephant ear and locust trees grew up in the spaces between the rows of huts adding to the mystique. Because these classrooms were detached from the main building, students felt like they were in another world. That meant no one could run to get help if the teacher threatened to send them to the corner. Older boys would swear that when they were in kindergarten, the teacher tied up bad students or even cut their tongues out, and then throw them in the “jungle” between the huts, and nobody would know! Of course this never happened, but it is no wonder I quit kindergarten before mid-year and opted to be “home schooled” at 781 Hall Road until first grade.
Quonset huts were still in use until the completion of the expansion in the late 1980s.
First grade was much better thanks to Mrs. Anderle, to whom all the children literally flocked. On chilly days, they would run to her and she’d open her long swing coat and cover up the little ones like a hen caring for her baby chicks. The first grade classroom was next to the auditorium stage so sometimes special reading groups gathered behind the closed curtains and “act out” the stories. No more home schooling for me!
The next two years whizzed by and before I knew it, I was in a grown-up fourth grade, which then was taught by my godmother, Mrs. Mary Lou Davies. As I remember, all instruction led to an art project or a history lesson; our dear white-haired teacher was a descendent of George Washington, don’t you know! The epitome of a gentlewoman, Mrs. Davies insisted on good manners and careful grooming. Boys were sent to the boys’ room to comb their hair out of their eyes and wash their hands; girls were shown how to cross their legs at the knees and warned to be careful not to let their “petticoat” show. Less math and science was not a problem, for everything balanced out in fifth grade with Mrs. Mary Clarke helped us build the most magnificent scale model of the universe, instilled in us a love of nature, and drilled us on multiplication and division problems every day.
The real rite of passage came in the sixth grade, facing what alumni recall as “Dunnington’s Darkest Dungeon.” (This is room is now a science classroom.)
Miss Louise Dunnington believed in the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child.” While never during my sixth grade year did I ever see her use a rod on anyone, she carried one, and we dared not be inattentive. Twice the work assigned in fifth grade, assignments were grueling. Yet it is from my sixth grade year that I remember learning to love reading, memorizing poems, gaining an appreciation for art masterpieces, and understanding how the ecosystem works. Miss Dunnington’s strict discipline and demand for accuracy were instrumental in reinforcing the Dahlgren work ethic our parents instilled in their children.
After surviving Miss Dunnington’s class, I confidently entered the seventh and eighth grades “team-taught” by two teachers who loved their subject matter and taught with rigor and joy. English grammar became second nature thanks to Mr. Morton Jones (later principal) and algebra readily mastered though the guidance of Mrs. Elizabeth Lancaster. Today’s students are exposed to the same rigorous learning techniques and graduate from Dahlgren School knowing they are ready for high school.
Anecdotes about the old school days would be incomplete without mentioning the 1940s Standard Business Clock in the office that marked the time and controlled the bells. (The clock is still on the wall, though it does not work.) While waiting to see the principal—and I’m not talking about a courtesy call—you’d watch the huge pendulum swing back and forth and listen to the loud ticking which intensifying the torment of waiting for disciplinary action. Sometime punishment meant sitting on “THE BOX” in the hallway outside the door of the principal’s office. The whole school would know you had misbehaved, and passers-by would shake their heads or sing “you’re gonna get it when you get home.”
The hallowed walls of Dahlgren School once dark with polished hardwood are now brightly painted, and the dull wood floors are now covered with gleaming white tile. Stoic pictures of early presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and vintage paintings of “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie” have been replaced with imaginative student art and inspirational posters. Where children of the ’40s and ’50s once squatted on the floor and covered their heads with their arms amid the moan of air raid sirens, today’s students tote colorful backpacks and bang whimsically decorated locker doors.
Serving the military child has always been the primary purpose of Dahlgren School. Today the student body is comprised nearly entirely of children of active military. However, until the early ’70s, enrollment was closer to half military and half resident civilians. Civilian kids were lucky to make friends with kids who had lived in so many faraway places like California, Florida, and even Guam! Living among military families yielded important life lessons on adaptability that shaped who we became later in life. These military kids arrived with a friendly “Hello” and “Let’s be friends” and left with a resigned “Goodbye” and a promised “I’ll never forget you.” We learned much from these classmates and admired how they picked up every three years and resettled without missing a beat. Their self-assurance and ability to make friends so quickly was amazing—no time to waste on unwritten rituals, no preconceived notions, and no notion of prejudice. But if a military student had any difficulties adjusting, the loving and specially skilled Dahlgren School faculty was (and is today) ready to make the transition smoother.
Throughout the years, highly skilled teachers, specialists, and an army of mentors and volunteers have guaranteed Dahlgren School students receive the highest quality education. Several teachers spent their entire careers at Dahlgren School. Among these dedicated educators is Mrs. Phyllis Novell, who for 42 years taught primary grades and kindergarten (for years in the Quonset huts). Upon her retirement in 2017, Mrs. Novell left advice for new teachers, capturing the spirit of Dahlgren School: “Make sure you keep your sense of humor, celebrate the children, and let the kids show themselves off. Also, kindness goes a long way. Don’t be afraid to say sorry and DON’T ever give up.”
Many former students, military and civilian, have reconnected via the Friends of Dahlgren School Facebook page and remark how of all the schools they have attended—DoDEA or public—Dahlgren School remains most memorable not just because of the quality of their instruction but the unique culture of nurturing and genuine love they felt there. May its doors never close.