The following was written by the White River School District:
About a year and a half ago, Wilkeson Elementary staff packed their classroom supplies in boxes, gathered the students and headed down the road to a temporary learning space in Buckley.
In January, they returned home to a new wing and a welcoming community.
“It’s the prettiest school in the state,” said 95-year-old Robert Peloli, who attended the school along with three generations of family. He also kept a watchful eye over the construction project with his daily visits.
School has changed since Peloli attended. There’s no longer a coatroom for galoshes, or inkwells. Instead there are cubbyholes for coats and SMART boards. No one stokes a furnace fueled by local coal. Today’s energy efficient building has tall windows to let in natural light and show off views of evergreens and eagles. Kids no longer shoot marbles on the playground, but log roll down an artificial-grass knoll.
“You look at a photo of our school and you see small-town charm, but we also have 21st century technology in here. It’s a great combination,” Principal Laurie Gelinas said.
“They’ve created a beautiful learning environment for our Wilkeson students,” Superintendent Janel Keating Hambly said of the architect and construction crew. “Everyone loved being part of this project.”
TIED TO THE PAST
Established in 1913 and listed on historic registers, the Wilkeson sandstone building replaced the old wooden schoolhouse. Closed in 1971 after a levy failure, the building was renovated in 1981 and reopened under the management of the White River School District.
Funded by a 2016 voter-approved bond, the Wilkeson Elementary project goal was to expand the facility while respecting the historic stone structure and embracing the area’s natural surroundings. Integrus Architecture created the vision and Lincoln Construction made it happen.
Work in the existing three-story building included painting reconfigured classrooms, installing plumbing at new classroom sinks and in designated kindergarten and preschool restrooms, and new floor finishes. The two-story addition houses three classrooms, the library, multipurpose room and main office.
Its exterior finish includes local sandstone quarried by owner Chuck Nelson. And, there’s a new play area.
“We just love it,” said Debbie Tyler, who in addition to her role as office manager, sat on the design team. She has worked in the district for 29 years, the past 16 at Wilkeson. “It’s just the nicest place. I told them I’m going to be your harshest critic. We wanted to really respect the history.”
The real critics were the kids and staff who were excited to be back.
“When you put all the effort into the project at the end of the day you understand what the effort was for, the kids and the community,” said Jamie Tiegs, Lincoln Construction project manager and owner. “It was a huge team effort to make everything come together.”
A photo of the 1913 school dedication covers a wall in the entry. It features the railroad tracks in front of the school and a large crowd gathered for the opening.
“It shows the pride of their town to have this building,” Gelinas said. That spirit hasn’t changed 106 years later. “The community has been so welcoming. The void for the past 1-1/2 years has been replaced with anticipation and a sense of pride.”
Wilkeson Mayor Jeff Sellers said it was quieter around town with the school closed for construction. “Everyone got excited when it opened up again,” he said. “I went to school here. To me it means a lot and it means a lot to a lot of people here. I have three brothers and a sister. We all went to school there.”
Nomad PNW owners Felisha and Jeff Ford moved into town just as the school was closing its doors. They welcomed staff back with coffee and treats. Since the return, they’ve seen a flow of teachers in the morning and parents in the afternoon. As the daughter of a school teacher, “It holds a special spot in my heart for them,” Felisha said. “We’re excited.”
“This beautiful facility reflects the attitude and generosity of our White River family,” said WRSD Board President Denise Vogel. “It truly shows the priority our community places on the care and education or our youngest citizens.”
LIBRARY NAMED FOR LAST COAL MINER
With a sharp memory for detail and a lifetime of experience, Peloli is a walking Wilkeson encyclopedia making naming the elementary school library after the last coal miner living in Wilkeson all the more appropriate.
Up the road from the school, Peloli started working in the mines at 17, pushing coal cars for $1 a day. He also worked in the nearby sandstone quarry. That’s when Wilkeson was a bustling town, shipping coal around the world and supplying sandstone for buildings across the Pacific Northwest.
When the mines closed in the 1970s, he walked into his backyard – Mount Rainier National Park, and worked there until he retired in 1985.
Libraries hold a special place in Peloli’s heart. His wife of 70 years, Laurine, served as the Pierce County librarian at the Wilkeson and Buckley branches. They were married in 1947. Laurine passed away in 2018. Many people fondly remember her time at the library, her kindness and book recommendations.