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Celebrating May Day

The conclusion of the Potomac School’s centennial year is full of tradition and alumni visitors.

The ominous, gray sky and unseasonably cool temperatures only made the brightly colored costumes stand out all the more against the green grass and white tents assembled on Gum Tree Field.

Families, some including generations of Potomac School alumni, brought picnics and set up blankets along the edge of the soccer field, bundled up to watch the pageantry of the school’s Centennial May Day Celebration, part of a weekend celebration marking the end of the schools one-hundredth year.

The Potomac School was started in 1904 by Edith Draper Blair, Hetty Fairfax Harrison and Ellen Warder Thoron, all residents of the Lafayette Park area of Washington, D.C., as an educational opportunity for the children of working mothers, a revolutionary idea at the time. The school opened in 1904 at 6 Dupont Circle with 47 students studying in first and second grades; kindergarten, third and fourth grades were started the following year. The school moved to 18 and M Street from 1906 through 1916, and then to California Street, where it stayed until the McLean campus was built in 1951.

“The May Day celebration dates back to the start of the school,” said Marcie Graceffa, coordinator of the yearlong celebration. “We have pictures from when the school was downtown on California Street and when it was moved to Dupont Circle. It’s a wonderful tradition for the school.”

Part of the excitement was the return of Morris Men dancers who had graduated the Potomac School in past years, some more gray than others. The Morris Men are an elite group of male sixth-grade students selected to perform traditional Celtic dances in simple costumes while clapping out rhythms using long, smooth wooden branches.

“Typically it’s only for sixth-graders, but for the anniversary we’ve invited some alums to join us,” said Suzie Bissell, director of annual giving for the school.

When the men walked out onto Gum Tree Field, their chilly audience burst into applause as the eight groups of six men took their positions on the field as they had done years ago.

“We have alumni that have come back from as long ago as the class of 1967, when they graduated ninth grade,” Graceffa said. “They’ve come from different parts of the country to be here today for this celebration. It’s a big privilege to have them come here.”

Students whose fathers were Morris Men are often selected to carry on their family tradition as well as that in the school, which adds to the honor, she said.

“This is one of the best memories people take with them when they leave the Potomac School,” she said.

For one family, it was much more than a traditional May Day celebration.

TILDA REDWAY graduated from the Potomac School in 1943, when she completed ninth grade. Her son, Jon, also attended the school, as do his children, Eliza and Ethan. Tilda’s mother had also attended the Potomac School when she was a little girl.

“I graduated in 1975. I was a Morris Man,” Jon Redway said. “My daughter Eliza is a jester today.”

He attended the school in the days of Jack Langstaff, a former art teacher who made a special surprise appearance during Saturday night’s gala dinner celebration. “He brought a lot of the old traditions back to the May Day celebration when I was going here,” Redway said.

His son is currently in the Intermediate school, but Redway was happy to have the chance to bring his mother to the event.

“It’s very much a family school,” he said. “We’re very happy to be here today. My mother attended here when the school was on Dupont Circle, and I went on California Street.”

“I’m thrilled my son offered to bring me here,” Tilda Redway said. Although she said she did not remember many of the details of the May Day festivities from when she was a student herself, the dances and ribbons made her smile.

A little later in the afternoon, she received a surprising visit from her past: Ann Thoron Hale, a fellow graduate of the class of 1943, whose grandmother had helped to start the school 100 years ago.

“This is wonderful,” Thoron Hale said of the celebration. “I came back for the 50th class reunion and I was thrilled to find it still had what I remembered from the school.”

The girls were schoolmates on Dupont Circle, when May Day dances were held on the playground.

“I have a mental picture of this as a child,” Thoron Hale said. “It always had elements of music and art. I remember the ring [of dancers] from being a little girl.”

Being a part of the school’s anniversary was so important to her that she made the trip down for the weekend from Martha’s Vineyard.

“I love this school,” she said. “It’s the only school I have any emotional attachment to. As a grandchild of one of the founders, I came for my grandmother as much as myself.”

As for what her grandmother would think of the celebration, Thoron Hale said she was not sure. “She’d probably be openmouthed in amazement,” she guessed. “I think what those three ladies did was amazing. she’d be surprised what they started has turned into this.”

“I’m so glad you came over and introduced yourself to me,” Tilda Redway said to Thoron Hale.

“I don’t think we’ve seen each other since you got married,” she replied with a laugh. “I’m dear friends with her sister-in-law.”

The May Day celebration was choreographed and directed by Mimsy Stirn, a music teacher at the school.

“The May Day celebration is based on pagan and English traditions,” she said, which ushered in the sun and the summer solstice through dance and song. People would cut down a tree and carry it through the town to the central area, singing songs to bring people out into the streets for the celebration. Towns would playfully compete to have bigger poles, a sign of strength and fertility.

“The best part about today is the return of Morris Men from so many years,” she said. “We’ve all been really excited about that."