THE ADVOCATE ASKS: MEG Foundation President discusses group’s mission to preserve and restore a building renamed after a beloved Saugus educator
Editor’s Note: For this week, we sat down with Janice K. Jarosz, organizer and leader of the MEG Foundation, which initiated efforts to save the Marleah Elizabeth Graves School – which was named after a legendary Saugus educator. We asked her about the history of the century-old building, which was known originally as the Bond School, but was known for most of its life as the Cliftondale School. The interview focused on the building’s colorful past, present and future.
Jarosz, a Saugus native and 1961 graduate of Saugus High School, has deep family roots in her hometown. Her ancestors helped settle the town in 1812, and her great-grandfather (Samuel Parker) sold property to the town for Town Hall. A proud Saugonian, she has worked on numerous community and civic projects over the years. She received the Woman of the Year Award during the 2008 Founders Day celebration because of her contributions to the betterment of the community. She is a former Town Meeting Member, a member of the Board of Selectmen and was the first chair of the Saugus Recycling Committee. She worked eight years as clerk of the Board of Selectmen. And for the last decade, she has been president of the MEG Foundation. She and her late husband Ronald Jarosz, who passed away 22 years ago, had four children: Lisa Parker, Thomas Jarosz, Jay Jarosz and the late Eric Jarosz. She has 10 grandchildren. She owns her late husband’s business, Nevron Plastics.
Some highlights of the interview follow.
Q: Please tell me a little bit about the MEG Building.
A: In 1893 it was built. It took one year to build this building.
Q: So, this was originally a schoolhouse.
A: It was a four-classroom school.
Q: So, it was a neighborhood school.
A: It was a neighborhood school. The kids would walk to school. They would walk home to lunch and then come back for the afternoon. It was 35 to 40 students in each classroom. Ms. Graves was the most popular teacher here. She taught here for 47 years, and the school was eventually named after her – the Marleah Elizabeth Graves School – thanks to Peter Manoogian, who did that. The school functioned til 1981 and was closed. And they sublet it to the Northshore Consortium, and they were here for 10 years, and then it was left vacant and the Civil Defense would be using this place, and then it was left abandoned, and eventually a lot of pigeons came in here. A lot of the windows were broken. There was graffiti all over the place. Kids were partying in here.
Q: So, how did you get involved with this building?
A: I didn’t go to this school. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how I got involved with it. Maybe I read something in the paper about it. I don’t remember. They were going to tear it down. They put bids out, and the bids came back kind of weak, so it was just left there, so one day, somehow, I came into this school. When they were going to tear it down, I talked to some of my friends, so we went in here; it was a disgrace. It was terrible, but we saw the beauty of it. We saw the beautiful woodwork. We saw the potential of it. We saw what could be done.
Q: So, how bad was it?
A: It was in terrible condition. It was very bad: The windows were broken; there was no heat; just pigeons, graffiti and junk.
Q: So, you had an abandoned building that was neglected, so was the inside littered with hypo needles and frequented by drug addicts and the homeless?
A: Yeah. There was all that stuff. The Civil Defense had put beds upstairs for an emergency. There were twin beds upstairs. Maybe there were 15 to 20 of us. We were with town officials and the building inspector. Some people said, “It can’t be done. … It’s ridiculous. It should be gone. There is no way you are going to do this.” So, when my friends and I heard this, we said, “Yes we can. … We’re going to do it.” And the response was great. We started off trying to figure out what should come first – the chicken or the egg – the heat or the water. We did the windows first. We started out with the windows. We founded the M.E.G. Foundation in 2007. A lot of people helped us, and we got the windows in. That was our first project.
It was Dennis Gould from the Good Neighbor Fund at GE who saw our plight and gave us $50,000, and we put in a brand-new heating system. We went from oil to gas, so that was the second step. We got grants from Wheelabrator. They were very helpful. A lot of citizens came forward, especially those who attended this school.
Q: How many members are involved with the MEG (Foundation)?
A: I think there are 12 of us, and they come from all over. Interestingly, this Marleah Graves … her nephew is David Mugar from Boston.
Q: Oh. I know him.
A: Everybody knows him.
Q: He’s a philanthropist and has been involved with the fireworks (July 4 in Boston).
A: Yes, the fireworks and a lot of other things, so they were very helpful to us as well. The Mugar family still maintains a house on First Street. It’s still in the family, but anyhow, Charles H. Bond donated this property to the town a long time ago; also a church and a lot of other buildings. This was originally called the Bond School and then the Cliftondale School. Then because of Peter Manoogian and his group, the building was renamed the Marleah Elizabeth Graves (M.E.G.) Building (in 1994).
Q: So, from your perspective, what is the most interesting aspect of this building?
A: I think the most interesting and the most inspiring thing about this building is the people that use this building. We’ve had birthday parties here. We’ve had collations after funerals. We’re going to have a 90th birthday party next week. Everybody that uses this building has a wonderful time. It’s like a big old mansion. It’s your home, and there’s no other place around like this. Our fees are very reasonable. They come in here and they use the kitchen. They can cook a meal and serve it out there. We have tables, and it’s just so wonderful. It’s just a great feeling because there is nothing else in Saugus like this, or around.
Q: What feature though – maybe something about the architecture or the character of the building – makes it special? What’s the reason for the charm or the allure?
A: The woodwork. The blackboards come from Italy, and every 10 years, when the building was active, the town would come in and refurbish them and take care of them. You had a janitor here that worked for about 30 years here. He loved this building, and every spring he would wax and polish the woodwork and kept it up. It was just so well-kept – so well-preserved. You can tell.
They used to have a dentist office in here. I remember when I was in the first grade at the Felton School. We used to come over here, and I would stand in line with a quarter in my hand and get my teeth checked. We’d get teeth pulled, and adults today, when they come into this building, they won’t go into that room because they remember the horror. The nurse used to hold them down. They would scream as the dentist would pull their teeth.
Q: What about Mr. Bond?
A: I have pictures of his original house. He was in the cigar business: Waitt & Bond. They made cigars in Saugus [1879-1969], and they became so well-renowned that they moved to Boston.
Q: Some people say his spirit can be felt throughout this building.
A: His spirit is still here. I don’t like to really talk about it too much, because some people are afraid of that.
Q: Well, around Halloween when the basement turns into the Haunted House, the issue comes up.
A: Yeah, and I have a very good rapport with Mr. Bond. His portrait is out there on the wall. When I was a selectmen’s clerk in the old Town Hall, right outside the selectmen’s office, this guy on the wall was looking at me all of the time. And some people told me that it was Mr. Carnegie, who gave us the money for the library. People would say “That’s Andrew Carnegie.” And I told people that’s who it was. I didn’t know any better.
So, I went to the church next door a couple of years later, and I saw his picture and it said Charles Bond, because they were honoring him because he gave them the property. It was just a small replica of the original that once hung at Town Hall and is presently in the Lobby of the MEG.
And I say hello to Mr. Bond every day. When I worked at Town Hall, he kept “looking” at me as the portrait hung in the front lobby of the Town Hall before renovations, facing right into the Selectmen’s office where I sat for eight years! I am so happy to have been able to acknowledge who he really was.
But, getting back to the MEG Building, a lot of things have happened here in the basement. We had the North Shore Paranormal people [Society] in here.
Q: Well, is the building haunted or inhabited by spirits?
A: It’s inhabited by spirits – not haunted, because haunted is a negative word. It’s very spiritual. We have Mr. Bond’s spirit here, because we couldn’t have done this alone.
Q: Well, tell me about the spirit, because I’ve heard various stories about it.
A: You tell me what you heard. C’mon!
Q: Well, that he’s walking around the building …
A: That’s what I attribute to the success of this building, and we believe in him.
Q: So, the paranormal people did confirm there are spirits in this place?
A: Yeah. It was about four or five years ago, and they set up equipment downstairs, and they said “Janice? Do you want to come and see what we found out?” And I said, “Sure,” because I don’t have a problem with spirits. Because I wouldn’t be here if I did! I saw the orbs flying by. I heard the voices.
And my daughter was washing windows one day in the lobby, all by herself. And somebody said “hello.” She turned around to say “hello” back and nobody was there, so she packed up and left. She wasn’t going to stick around.
You just have to believe in that stuff, but I don’t believe we could have done what we’ve done without a spiritual help, whoever it is, but I believe it’s [the spirit] Mr. Bond, because he died early in his life (at age 53 in 1908) and he loved Saugus. He was very, very generous. He had the first library in his home. He had the Masons. He did everything. And he was very, very supportive of the arts. And that’s another thing – we teach art classes here; we have cursive writing. Musicians come in here and we have a concert here, so he’s so happy that we’re still respecting the arts and supporting the arts. He had begun work on what is now the Shubert Theatre.
Q: How would you describe this building? The architecture and the style?
A: Well, it’s Romanesque with very high ceilings. They were so smart back then. They built the classrooms facing the sun in the morning, so it was warm. In 1890, you didn’t have any central heating. They didn’t have electricity then, either.
Q: So they got to use the sun.
A: They used the sun. Exactly. In 1930 I think they put bathrooms down in the basement. And there were six other schools like this in Saugus; you know, the neighborhood schools. And I think the Roby is the only other one that’s similar to this.
Q: Is there a unique feature in the building?
A: Yeah, I think the kitchen is a unique feature. It was donated to us.
Q: No, I meant the original building.
A: The original building. What’s so great about it? I think the blackboards. The woodwork. Take a look at the woodwork. Do you think you can see that today?
A: No. Just the detail alone is something.
Q: What kind of wood?
A: A lot of oak. A lot of it is painted now, but it was all natural wood. It’s just beautiful architecture. It’s just so well finished. With the high ceilings, it’s so conducive to music. When we have music upstairs, it just comes all through the building. It’s just magical. It’s just a magical building. My committee fights over working here. Most other committees I belong to, nobody wants to do anything, but my committee just loves working here. It’s a special building that just draws people in. Everybody loves this building. One class from this school had a class reunion here, and they had graduated from the high school 20 years previously. They had the fourth grade here, so they came in and sat like the same way they would have sat. They stood the same way the class picture was, and they played the games that they played in the fourth grade and sang the songs. It was just the most wonderful experience for them. This was maybe three years ago. Debbie Alcott – it was her class. People who come in here love to be here. There’s a lot of history here, and people have a lot of attachments to this building. It’s amazing.
Q: So, what is the future of this building?
A: The future? Our next project … we want to become handicapped-accessible.
Q: And that would be from the funds you’re raising from the Christmas Festival?
A: The funds we’re raising pays for the heat, which is about $9,000 to $10,000.
Q: And some of the money you are raising would go toward a lift?
A: Yes. That’s what we need. The former town clerk wanted to use this place for voting, but we couldn’t comply, because we don’t have it handicapped-accessible, so that’s our next project. A lift. We have a price. We’ve had people in here looking at it. We had an opportunity to have that Salem employment agency, which is state-run, that helps people look for jobs, locate in here, but we couldn’t do it because it’s not handicapped-accessible. So many people from Saugus can’t travel to Salem, so this would have been a great thing for the town – to have that.
Q: The town could be making more use of this. Right?
A: For meetings and programs – yeah – but it has to be handicapped-accessible. That’s the holdup right now.
Q: So, what do you see for the potential use of this building?
A: More and more people are using it. Right now, we’re teaching cursive writing classes here. We have art classes here. We have a downstairs that we just finished fixing up.
Q: Anything going on with the library? Because you figure they would be allies with you on something like this.
A: Oh yeah, but we’re not handicapped-accessible. That’s the problem. We’re grandfathered-in to use it, but in order to have other town functions, we need to be handicapped-accessible. If we had the lift, I’d like to see us having meetings, like the Conservation Commission. It would be much more conducive here.
What else would you like to know about?
Q: Tell me a little bit about the festival [MEG’s Annual Christmas Tree Festival] that’s going on this weekend.
A: It’s our eighth year. We have wonderful trees. People are very generous.
Q: To me, this is something special … when I was a kid, I remember going to Edaville Trolley. Well, this is sort of like a local attraction during the holidays. It’s kind of neat, the way it’s set up. It’s a destination for families, and you don’t have to pay for the Santa Claus pictures.
A: Everything is free.
Q: And it smells and looks and tastes like Christmas.
A: On Friday night, the kids were all running around looking for Santa Claus, which was so nice. You have that big room with the North Pole, and downstairs you have the trees on display. And you have the Nativity Scene in the front yard.
Q: And you are going to have live animals on Friday night?
A: Just Friday – sheep, lambs and maybe a baby calf. I’m not quite sure what package we’re getting, but they’ll be out there. The first year we had the Nativity Scene, which was four years ago. People were stopping. They had not seen a nativity scene for a long time. They would stop and beep the horn and take pictures. It was such a joyful occasion.
Q: It’s great that you have this festival and have it on a date where it’s not competing with the town’s tree lighting event.
A: Yes, we don’t want to conflict.
Q: What’s your fondest memory of this building? Have you had any friendly encounters with Mr. Bond?
A: Mr. Bond? No. Not directly, but he knows I am around. And I know he’s around. We have a mutual understanding. I was very friendly with his great-grandson, Charles Bond. He lived in Jefferson, N.H. He and I were very close, and he sent me a lot of memorabilia – beautiful letters. I have all kinds of stuff that belonged to Mr. Bond, and I’m trying to put it together in a booklet. The miracle is that it’s [the MEG Building] here right now. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing and so many people helped do this. I think that’s the best part – people that are involved in this are so wonderful and they feel so good about it. I think that maybe it’s a sense of accomplishment. And what they did mattered and they made something of this place. And it wasn’t just one person. It took a concerted effort.
Q: How many people involved – all totaled?
A: Hundreds: Hundreds of people made donations; people came here to do volunteer work – paint – anything that needed to be done. And that’s the magic of it. I don’t know how we did it! I mean, I had no background here. I didn’t even go to this school.
Q: What drew you to this building in the first place?
A: I have no idea. You know what I think it could be – all those years that I said that Mr. Bond was Carnegie, he got even with me. He brought me over here, but seriously, I don’t remember why I got involved with this project to begin with.
Q: So when you came over here and saw this place was a mess, you really hadn’t been in the building before?
A: Right. Never.
Q: So, that was your first visit?
A: First visit, and I don’t know why I visited. I don’t remember why I came here, but I did get here, and I did come here for something. Somebody must have said something to me, and I came over here and brought some friends with me. And I said, “What a beautiful building!” I saw the beauty of it. I saw the potential, because there was no other place to meet in Saugus. You have no place to meet. If you want to meet in the library, you have to get out by 8 o’clock. What good is that?
Q: You know what would be a real draw? If you get a nice coffee shop in here.
A: That’s a good idea. … Well, we were going to do bingo – play bingo in here.
Q: But a coffee shop would be a really big draw on a daily basis.
A: Because it brings people together – that’s what it is – people love to come in this building and look around. It’s wonderful.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share about the building?
A: I would just like people to know that it’s available to the town. If people want to have birthday parties here, they should get in touch with us. We welcome everybody for any kind of party that they want to have – and classes. We are available to the town and that’s what makes it wonderful.
Q: Do you charge anything?
A: We charge affordable rates. It all depends on the size of the function, how long they want to use it and what they want to do, but we try to make it as reasonable as possible. A lot of times people don’t have much money, and they want to have a funeral collation in here; we let them bring in their food and don’t charge them anything. It belongs to the town, and we’re just like little elves, running around and keeping it going. That’s all we’re doing. We’re trying to keep it going and, hopefully, it will build and build and build. And if we get that lift in here, there will be a lot more things that we will be able to do.
Q: Anything else that you would like to say?
A: We are all volunteers devoting many hours in maintaining the building for the people of Saugus and elsewhere. We host birthday parties, private dinners for families, fundraisers for nonprofits, art and cursive classes and funeral collations, to name a few of the events. Contact Kathy Giannetta at 781-231-8242 for further information