James Madison Elementary School in Norman, Oklahoma is not your usual tourist destination. But somehow, having recently become a first-time Texan and living next door to where I spent part of my childhood, it seemed appropriate to see if my elementary school was still there. Travel-wise it was within a couple of hours up Highway 77 from where we now lived in Denton.
Not only was Madison Elementary still there, it was having its 60th anniversary! Spontaneous road trips are rare these days with my mother’s advanced age and health concerns, but since it was so close, we decided to be part of the celebration and drove to our old hometown of Norman.
The school had changed a lot in the 50 years since we’d moved away. It was now larger and enclosed instead of being a strip of classrooms whose windows looked across to the Naval Training Center on the other side of a patch of prairie playground. Instead of a set of swings and a tetherball, there were now a giant jungle gym and other amenities that would’ve been too upscale for our time there in the late 50s. They even had a cafeteria where the old sixth grade classroom once was.
After checking to see if the pole where my younger sister once got her head stuck – it was – I went out front to revisit the field where we’d go to play baseball and other sports at recess.
Once there I recalled a time from back then when we’d had a special visitor to our school.
We all knew something was up that day.
You could tell by the way Mrs. Chaudoin, my fifth grade teacher, huddled conspiratorially with Mrs. Minter, our principal, and the other teachers in the breezeway outside our classroom. Yes, something was definitely afoot in 1959 at James Madison Elementary School. But what? It was almost time for recess.
One of the boys, being daring as usual, placed his ear against the glass. “Something about going to the field at recess,” he reported. “Somebody important is coming.” Instead of recess?!
Just then the huddle broke. Everyone feigned proper behavior as Mrs. Chaudoin re-entered the classroom, then announced that all six rooms of the school would be having recess at the field that day. “Who’s coming?” blurted the same boy. We all held our breath for him. Mrs. Chaudoin smiled “You’ll see! Now, everyone line up.” This person must be really special. We usually just ran outside for recess.
Even with all six grades, there were only about 150 or so of us standing around. I was eyeing the bleachers, wishing I could break ranks and go play on them. Then that same boy, whose name is gone from memory, alerted the crowd. “They’re coming!” This was somewhat self-evident since our school was at the end of the road and the only possible destination for the long black car – a limo -which now neared where we stood. Mrs. Minter had sisters Linda, Mary June and Cherie Bumgarner, join her at the head of the assemblage to greet the arriving guest. How come?
The limo stopped. The driver got out and opened the car’s rear door. A man emerged dressed all in black, his head lowered to clear the car door frame. He put on his cowboy hat, looked out at the group, then smiled his familiar grin. It was MAVERICK!!!
Those of us who weren’t speechless erupted appropriately with giddy giggles and screams. Mrs. Minter shook his hand and motioned for us to settle down, which we did – eventually. Movie stars just didn’t show up every day in Norman, Oklahoma! And driving up in person to our little prairie elementary school? Nothing this great had ever happened at school before!
Then Maverick gave all three girls a hug. They seemed to know him! As the buzzing erupted, Mrs. Minter introduced Maverick whose cousins – yes, cousins – had asked him to visit our school! Yaayyyyyyy!!!!!!! We were going to school with a movie star’s cousins. Big news at dinner tonight!
The star talked to us and shared a little of his journey from Norman to Hollywood. Then he offered to do a fight scene with one or two of the boys. Guess who volunteered? This was the boy that all of us had at least one of in grade school. And he proudly – and totally expectedly – stepped forward.
Maverick went easy on him and, before you knew it, the moment of Maverick’s prairie magic was over. He tipped his hat to us, gave his cousins another hug AND a kiss goodbye (big group squeal here), then got back into his limo and disappeared down the rural road in a cloud of red dust and into memory.
Weird as it may sound, James Garner’s visit that day served as validation for my own dreams of someday going to Hollywood to become an actress. Because his beginnings were near to where I stood in that field, he made that dream seem real and possible. Not just for me, but for every heart and imagination he touched that day.
Little did I know standing there in memory of him that day, that he’d pass away within a month of our visit.
What a heartfelt legend and hero he was to us all. Thank you always and forever, James Garner. RIP.
Rock on, Madison Elementary!