Mather Elementary School in Dorchester celebrated its 375th anniversary Wednesday. Founded in 1639, the Mather was the first public elementary school in the U.S.
"The Mather has outlived and outlasted an awful lot," Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said at the celebration. "What makes a great school is great leadership and great teachers."
That point was reinforced by former Mather student Bill Bratton, who went on to lead the Boston Police Department and now serves (again) as New York's police commissioner. He said the last time he was on stage at the Mather was when he graduated from there in 1959.
"They were wonderful years, happy days," Bratton said, recalling his time at Mather. "We were as poor as church mice, every kid that attended here, working class families, but you didn't know it. Great education, great teachers and just wonderful experiences. We had happy childhoods. We had a great education that served us very well in later years."
Bratton said he was flooded by feelings of "happy nostalgia." He was joined Wednesday by his sister and their 88-year-old father, who said the family moved to the neighborhood specifically so the kids could go to Mather.
"I attribute so much of the foundation of my life to the education I got here," Bratton said.
Principal Emily Cox noted how much the school had changed over the years.
"The Mather opened its doors in 1639. Back then we were nothing more than a one room schoolhouse serving six white, Puritan children," Cox said. "Today we serve over 600 children in prekindergarten though grade five. Our children are African-American, Latino, Vietnamese, Cape Verdean, Haitian, Jamaican, Caucasian, and the list goes on and on. We reflect the wonderful diversity of Dorchester, of the city of Boston and of our nation as a whole.
"I often like to say I believe the Mather represents what America is now becoming," Cox added. "That diversity is one of our greatest strengths."
A number of state education and political leaders were also on hand for the celebration, from Massachusetts Secretary of Education Matt Malone to state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry.
A performance by the Mather School Chorus brought back fond memories for Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative and Boston mayoral candidate whose two daughters attended the Mather.
She called the school a "gem in the middle of Dorchester," and said, like her now-grown daughters, "It's just very exciting to think that these children here are going to go on to wonderful experiences."
During the event, tribute was paid to crossing guard Marie Conley, who was killed by a motor vehicle while working in 2008.
Mayor Walsh said Conley didn't just watch over the kids as they crossed the streets, she got to know them.
"She knew their names. She knew their parents' names. I knew Marie as well. She was the type of person who made this school special," Walsh said. "She gave her life to protect a child from harm. It was a terrible blow to this community and to her family, but Marie's courage inspired us and her legacy lives on."
Members of Conley's family, including her brother, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn, were on hand to mark the event and received a replica of the street sign naming a hero square in her honor — Marie Conley Square on Meeting House Hill in Dorchester.