By Tim Kelly
Somehow, it all seemed like it was meant to be.
Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell wasn’t supposed to be at the Ralph M. Atwood Primary School in Oakland, Maine last month, but there he was.
The Atwood students weren’t expecting a visitor to be touched by their extraordinary acts of kindness, but he was.
The school’s principal, Jenny McGee, wasn’t seeking feedback on the school’s efforts to instill in their students the importance of good manners and acts of kindness toward others.
Certainly Hartzell never planned on flashing back to a memory of his late mother June sharing a similar message – from when Keith was about the same age of some of the Atwood students. However, that’s exactly what occurred.
What happened next was the start of something extraordinary.
“I’ve been going into schools for 38 years and this was the first time I ever spoke to a principal regarding the students,” said Hartzell, an Ocean City At Large member of City Council, whose fulltime job is Regional Manager of von Drehle Corporation, a paper towel, tissue and dispenser manufacturer. “It was also the first time school children made such a deep impression on me.”
Inspired by the kids’ politeness, Hartzell decided to pay the good feelings forward. He will make a donation of $1,000 to the school every year until each of the current students complete high school.
“Giving a donation to the school wasn’t so much about the money but rather to recognize the children’s efforts,” Hartzell said.
“All over the school, kids were asking me how I was doing, how I was feeling. They wanted to know where I was from. I was speaking to a little girl in the nurse’s office who was obviously very sick. All she wanted to ask me was how was I doing. I was extremely touched.”
Ocean City Councilman Keith Hartzell was touched by his encounters with the students of Atwell Primary School.
The encounters prompted Keith to seek out McGee.
“I’m always a bit nervous (when someone asks if I’m the principal),” McGee said, “never knowing what I’m about to hear.”
What she heard was the Ocean City Councilman’s impression of the youngsters who “are so very caring and polite and nice, despite how young they happen to be (most Atwell students are between four and seven).”
This was music to McGee’s ears, for the school consistently teaches its students of the importance of politeness, kindness and good manners.
“She was so appreciative. It made me want to do something,” said Hartzell.
Hartzell remembered his own childhood and a lesson his mother, who passed away in October 2017, taught him: that politeness was so important, it was worth being compensated for.
“That always stuck with me that my mother (placed monetary value) on being polite.”
Hartzell informed McGee that he wanted to make a donation to the school, which has a current enrollment of 235 students in pre-kindergarten through second grade.
The students are from diverse backgounds and live in an economically-challended region. Oakland is located about 20 miles north of Maine’s state capital, Augusta.
“Everywhere I went, the students were interested in me and were extremely polite,” Hartzell said. “It was really very impressive. I couldn’t get over how caring they were of others at such a young age.”
Under normal circumstances, his encounters with the Atwood students never would have happened at all. On the road, Hartzell said, his work mission is usually sales-related. However, if installers of the towels and toilet paper dispensers are busy, Hartzell isn’t above helping out.
On this particular day, the local product distributor took Keith up on the offer, and he found himself hanging dispensers inside Atwood, and interacting with scores of polite, kind and helpful youngsters.
“It felt like something bigger was at work here,” he said. “I never should have even been there. It was like there was a higher purpose.”
Later, Hartzell’s encounter with McGee was the subject of a letter to parents on the school website.
“You are doing a great job raising polite children who want to do the right thing,” the Principal wrote. “Manners are core skills that will serve your children well their whole lives…that will serve them well every place they go. People notice.”
After Hartzell informed the principal of his intentions to make the yearly donations, McGee called an assembly of the school to reinforce the lesson.
Then, last Friday, a large envelope arrived at City Hall addressed to Hartzell. Inside were individual thank you notes from every child in the school.
“I couldn’t believe it, the letters were so great,” he said. “Some included pictures of themselves. Some were very creative. I was tearing up reading them.”
Hartzel said he feels “like I will be connected with these kids for the rest of my life,” he remarked. “I want to stay in touch with the school and the kids. I want to see about other ways I can help them.”
An ultimate dream he said, would be “to put some kind of a field trip together for the children to come and visit Ocean City.”
In the meantime, he’s making legal arrangements for the donation and would change his will to include the donation, if he’s not around to see the Atwood students graduate high school.
He would also like to see Atwood’s standard for good manners and politeness applied to other schools.
“It’s something that should have a significant emphasis in our schools.”
Those wishing to join the Councilman’s efforts may send donations to: McGee at Atwood Primary School, 19 Heath St., Oakland, ME 04963