2017-07-07 / Community

What’s in a name?

Sawyer Park, at the corner of Main and Westbrook streets in South Portland, is named after an adjacent building, now home to Congregation Bet Ha’am, which in 2009 built an award-winning temple in what was once an elementary school.

The site had been home to Thornton Heights School since 1919, with the two-story brick structure that stands there now erected in 1937. In 1976, the school was renamed for its longtime principal Alice E. Sawyer.

Born Sept. 19, 1906 in Cape Elizabeth, Sawyer graduated from South Portland High School in 1923 and earned a degree from Gorham Normal School, now the University of Southern Maine.

At Thornton Heights School, Sawyer taught second grade in addition to adding principal duties to her daily routine, logging 48 years at the school in all. During World War II, Sawyer also worked for the Maine Steel Corporation in South Portland, where she supervised various government projects.

Described as a creative, energetic woman, both loving and compassionate, Sawyer was said to be adept at balancing the needs of students, parents and faculty.

"She was ahead of her time," her cousin Sherman West was quoted as saying when Sawyer’s obituary was published, following her death at age 93, on Aug. 10, 2000. She was able to divide not only "what was going on with the child but what was going on with the child and that family,” West said.

According to West, Sawyer was ever humble. When officials approached her about renaming the school, West recalled, "She told me with tears in her eyes that she told them 'Oh, I'm not worthy of that.'

"I think it was the honor of her lifetime," he said.

The Alice E. Sawyer Elementary School closed in 1993 and its students were relocated to Skillin Elementary School, where the library was renamed in Sawyer’s honor, according to her obituary.

The park, however, which was once the playground and ballfield for the adjacent school, lost Sawyer’s given name in 2015, when what by then had become, in essence, a vacant lot, was entered into a conservation easement managed by South Portland Land Trust.

Today, the site is known simply as Sawyer Park.

– Compiled by Staff Writer Wm. Duke Harrington.

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