History in a love story - INSIDENOVA.COM: Occoquan

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Posted: Sunday, May 26, 2013 9:45 am

Occoquan Elementary’s new principal Hamish Brewer is embracing the school’s past and wants his students to do so as well.

To help him learn more about its history, he invited two very special alumni to teach him about the past – Jane Mercer-Hawkins and her husband Ellis Hawkins, both 83.

“I cannot wait to listen to what you have to say and I can’t wait to show you around the school and bring back some memories,” he told them during a recent visit.

“One of my goals as principal is to connect to our rich traditions. I think our children here need to be aware of the history. We have rich, deep connections here that we need to embrace,” Brewer said.

“We’ve been talking all through the year about how can we do this, who can we speak to, and how can we capture this and promote the history in our hallways and on our walls,” he said. “I am so happy you are here.”

Brewer, a native of New Zealand, got quite a history lesson that day – about the school, Prince William County and about the couple.

‘Indian Echoes’

Occoquan District High School was built in 1927 for students from the Quantico, Triangle, Dumfries, the Hoadly area and Occoquan. At that time, the only other high schools in the area were in Manassas and Alexandria.

In addition to the high school grades, it also housed first through seventh grades. Together, it was known as Occoquan School.

The school colors were orange and maroon and they were known as the Indians.

The first “Indian Echoes” yearbook was published in 1940.

Due to World War II, however, the yearbook was suspended from 1942 to 1945. The 1946 edition was dedicated to the 233 men and women from the high school who served during the war, four of whom never made it home.

Brewer said he would like to see his school’s yearbook renamed “Indian Echoes” on anniversary years.

High school sports included basketball, baseball and soccer. The cheerleaders were called the Yell Squad.

The county supplied the school buses. The students paid for the gas.

The first principal was Elizabeth Vaughn. Thirteen years later she was followed by Herbert Saunders who created – and coached – the school’s first football team.

Vaughn Elementary School and Saunders Middle School were named after the two principals.

When Gar-Field High School was built in 1953, Saunders and his high school students moved to the new school. The building soon became an elementary school – as it still is today.

Over the years, it has been extensively renovated and five additions have been built. The most recent improvement is an activities room where gym classes are held.

The more things change …

Both the Hawkins went to first through 12th grade at Occoquan School.

They brought a class ring, a report card, athletic letters and their yearbooks from 1946 and 1947 to show Brewer.

Ellis Hawkins explained that he started first grade with Jane but was held back because the teacher thought he was too much of a “momma’s boy.”

While looking at their yearbooks, Brewer made note that many of the students had nicknames such as Stinky, Pinky, Fluffy, and Sweetness. Ellis Hawkins was Sweetness.

In 1950, Jane Hawkins, 20, returned to her high school as the new science and biology teacher. Her classroom was the science lab.

Her homeroom class would try to get a rise out of the new teacher by turning on the gas burners or setting off the alarm of a clock she had in the room.

“I killed their joy because I didn’t react the way they thought I would,” she said.

She left teaching after that first year to have a baby but eventually went back, spending most of her years at Kerrydale Elementary School before retiring in 1994. She then returned to Occoquan Elementary School as a volunteer.

“It’s fascinating to listen to you because many of the same things we are dealing with today, you were dealing with back then, communicating with parents, student behavior, academics. That hasn’t changed,” Brewer said.

Ellis Hawkins said he keeps up with what is going on in the school system.

“Things are just the same as they were when I was on the school board,” he said. “Parents have the same problems as their parents had.”

He was chairman of the Prince William County School Board in the 1970s when Ed Kelly was hired as superintendent and Woodbridge Senior High School was built.

The Hawkins and Brewer often commented during the visit about how teaching methods such as year-round schools and even sports seem to make full circles in popularity.

A name for a price

“At that time this was a farming community, anything from 100- to 200-acre farms. Most of them were dairy farms that supplied milk to Washington, Quantico and Belvoir,” Ellis Hawkins said.

There was also a large hog farm in the county operated by the Garber family.

Ellis Hawkins was born and raised at the Rippon Lodge estate in Woodbridge. He father was the overseer and caretaker. His father also farmed about 250 acres of the 1,000-acre estate, keeping half of what he made and giving the other half to the estate owner, Wade H. Ellis, a Washington lawyer.

“That’s how I got my name,” Ellis Hawkins said.

When Ellis Hawkins was born, his parents named him Wallace Wade Hawkins, a nod to Ellis.

Ellis, however, had another idea. He asked that the child be renamed Ellis as his first name and Blackburn as his middle name. Richard Blackburn built Rippon Lodge around 1747.

“He and his wife had no children,” Ellis Blackburn Hawkins said.

For the privilege, Ellis paid the parents $25 a year.

“That was a lot of money back then,” Ellis Hawkins said.

Aside from the farms, the other major employers in the 1930s were the prison Lorton Reformatory, Fort Belvoir and the Quantico Marine Corps base.

Jane Hawkins grew up in the town of Occoquan. Her father moved there from North Carolina to find work and found it at the Lorton Reformatory putting in a sewer system. He then continued to work for the federal government.

Looking after each other

Ellis Hawkins dated Jane while she was in college. He even asked her to marry him. She said no.

Harold Mercer, a friend to both of them, came home from the Air Force and set his sights on Jane.

“And he happened to be friends with a girl who wanted to be friends with me, Francis Collier,” Ellis Hawkins said.

Jane married Harold Mercer and Ellis married Francis Collier.

“But, we didn’t go our separate ways because we were all very close friends,” Ellis Hawkins said.

They often traveled together. After Jane’s husband died in 1983, she continued to travel with Ellis and Francis Hawkins.

Ellis Hawkin’s first wife died in 2005.

“Here we were two old people. We knew each other and we said, ‘We will look after each other,’” he said.

They will celebrate their fifth anniversary in July, but share a lifetime of memories.

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