Now approaching retirement, New York Elementary principal hopes to make mural dream a reality

photo by: Image courtesy Julia Rose-Weston

A mural at New York Elementary School celebrating Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance writer who attended the Lawrence school as a child in the early 1900s, is nearing completion. The mural design, pictured here, depicts some of the places from Hughes' childhood that still exist along New York Street, including the historic St. Luke AME Church and the limestone barn owned by his aunt and uncle.

Five years ago, Nancy DeGarmo had a dream. At the time, DeGarmo and her staff at New York Elementary were planning for renovations, and DeGarmo, the school’s longtime principal, envisioned hallways filled with colorful murals.

Since then, the project has remained a dream. You could almost call it “a dream deferred,” in the famous words of Harlem Renaissance writer and one-time Lawrencian Langston Hughes.

But with any luck, DeGarmo’s dream may soon become reality. The long-awaited mural project is finally underway, helped along by students who wanted to celebrate Hughes, the acclaimed writer who attended New York Elementary in his youth.

“When you’re building something, you kind of want to just dream and envision what might be, and see what happens when time goes on,” DeGarmo says, recalling her original hopes for the mural project. “And that’s the beauty of the school — people come in and change, and things happen over time.”

New York Elementary School principal Nancy DeGarmo

The plans stalled over the years for all the usual reasons, she says, among them time, money and simply “the push to get something started.” But in recent months, as DeGarmo’s impending retirement grew nearer, the educator thought back to the mural. She thought about what she wanted to leave behind for future generations of students, she says.

DeGarmo also knew she “didn’t want things from people.” That’s why she’s asking any families wanting to express well wishes for her retirement instead make a donation to the New York Elementary mural project.

“At the same time, our Student Leaders club, which is third-, fourth- and fifth-graders, were working on projects to improve the school,” DeGarmo says, “And one of the things they wanted to do is celebrate Langston Hughes.”

The two ideas, she says, came together beautifully. Soon, DeGarmo enlisted the school’s art teacher, Julia Rose-Weston, to draw up sketches for the project. The design depicts New York Street and “all the places” Hughes would have visited as a boy growing up in East Lawrence.

There’s St. Luke AME Church, where Hughes and his grandparents were congregants, and the house he grew up in, and the limestone barn that belonged to his uncle and aunt where a young Hughes would help tend to the family’s chickens and cows. And then there are roads and railways and a river, presumably the Kaw, and the newer New York Elementary building, at 936 New York St.

Along the bottom of the mural, there is a quote of Hughes’ that DeGarmo chose partially because she hadn’t seen it in other Hughes tributes around town — “I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go.”

“I picked one that has the theme of determination, because I talk to the kids a lot about perseverance,” DeGarmo says. “Keep trying, and when things get hard, you have to decide that you are going to be successful. If you decide you want to do something, you can take a path to get there.”

It’s a theme that resonates with DeGarmo, who, after getting married and having children earlier in life, returned to college at age 40. She wasn’t “a traditional student,” she says now, but not everyone needs to follow the traditional path to success.

After 14 years at New York Elementary, she hopes to pass on that wisdom to students at her beloved school and its surrounding neighborhood. “We’ve got lots of (professional) muralists in East Lawrence,” DeGarmo says, but she’d rather have students lead the project first and foremost.

“The point is, it needs to be something they’ve done and they can be proud of, too,” she says, later adding, “I just think that’s part of our East Lawrence-ness, for lack of a better word. We are a neighborhood of artists, and we want to let our kids know you can express yourself through the arts, and this is one way to do it.”

DeGarmo expects to start painting the 15-foot mural this summer, with help from students and staff. Those interested in donating to the project can send cash or checks (with “mural project” in the notes) to New York Elementary, 936 New York St. DeGarmo says a special donation account will be created to ensure that funds intended for the mural will continue to be used for only that purpose, for years to come.

“That way, you’re assured that 10 years from now, if kids want to paint a mural, they can do it,” DeGarmo says.