I made certain that I was careful to not let the cat out of the front door, as the note on the window alerted me to take such precaution. As I walked up the stairs into the living room, her son, David, graciously welcomed me. I was then greeted with a hearty “hello,” a gracious smile and a firm handshake. Before me sat an icon, whose legacy, 38 years beyond her last year of teaching within our district, is still felt today — especially when our kindergarten children, their families and their teachers prepare for and enjoy the annual Kindergarten Thanksgiving Feast.
Her hands were firmly placed upon the armrests of her upholstered swivel-rocker while we sat within their living room. Her brown, ruched, velveteen skirt draped down to the floor and set just above the top of her dress shoe. Both feet remained placed on the floor, as one foot crossed over the other. Atop a perfectly starched button-down blouse, a rosette broach was secured at the top button just below her neck, and it strategically matched her skirt.
Before me, as I began our interview, sat Nellie Kinney, a retired teacher who spent quality time over a 32-year period impacting the lives of so many folks within the Weedsport community.
From her seat she continued to teach, as she noticed me taking note of the most unique pieces and sculptures surrounding us within the room. One of nearly 45 others within her stored collection of sculptor John Roger’s signed figures, these serve within their home as interchangeable 50-pound lamp bases. The one, signed and dated 1886, that set before us was titled “The Council of War.” Depicted were President Abraham Lincoln, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. This, among many other items within her home, serve as a conversation piece for which her, and her son David, have an infinite amount of knowledge and appreciation.
So this began our visit. Although quite unrelated to the topic for which I came to visit, that being the history of the Kindergarten Thanksgiving Feast, I was held captive by her excitement as she lovingly explained in great detail something of which I was curious, and had never before then seen anything quite like.
She began employment within our district in 1942, after beginning her career in Onionville in 1939 within a one-room schoolhouse. During her career she taught kindergarteners through students in eighth grade. In 1969 the first annual Weedsport Kindergarten Thanksgiving Feast was held, and from that point on, for the past 43 years, her tradition continues.
Currently Weedsport Elementary’s Room 102, the room Nellie Kinney called her kindergarten room for 12 years, before her retirement in 1974, was my first classroom as well.
At the head of that room is still a firebox and a mantle made to look like an actual fireplace, and it was there, on that firebox floor, where Kinney prepared the turkey each year in a Farberware cooker while a rotisserie turkey “could be smelled throughout the halls on the day of the dinner,” she said.
In that room, parents came to watch as the children helped to prepare the meal. And it was there where they all ate together. “I liked to do things that made the kids happy,” Kinney said, and as the years progressed, the other kindergarten classes joined in the event, while donning costumes of either pilgrims or Native Americans.
Of the feast and her kindergarten teacher, Debbie Lidster Scida remembers Kinney as a “very warm and caring teacher who let us make macaroni necklaces and roll newsprint for a log cabin to be used during the event.”
On Nov. 19, Barb Ouderkirk, Kristen Wolfgang and Jenn Woodhams, along with parent volunteers and classroom aides Kathy Vella and Karen Hoffman, school secretary Kathy Greenwood, speech-language pathologist Kathy Hobart and cafeteria worker Jessica Strong, continued the tradition of the Kindergarten Thanksgiving Feast. Preparations for the meal began in each of the three rooms, as our 50 kindergarteners rotated throughout each.
With food gloves on and sleeves rolled above elbows in Ouderkirk’s class, students placed popcorn in bowls, prepared “ants on a log,” and placed school secretary Greenwood’s sweetbreads onto trays.
While wearing their annual aprons, decorated with a dated turkey for each year in attendance, Superintendent Shaun O’Connor, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Doug Tomandl and Principal Tim Cowin sliced the turkeys prepared the evening before by each of the three teachers.
In Woodhams’ room, students rolled utensils, and in Wolfgang’s room, placemats and thank you notes to families were completed. After visiting each of these rooms, students set the tables within the café.
Families signed up to bring foods during parent-teacher conferences. Here they committed to bring Thanksgiving foods. This year, venison and duck made the list. So too did mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, squash, corn, applesauce, bread and butter, cream cheese, gravy and dessert.
In the Wee Warrior’s Café, family members sat at one of 21 tables as the students took to the stage and sang “Five Little Turkeys” and “A Turkey Named Bert.”
Then the feast began, as all in attendance enjoyed a buffet-style meal set up at one of four stations. Each child was allowed to welcome two adults, and every child was represented with a guest or two.
Of the event, the kindergarten teachers stated, “We would like to thank all of the parents who gave up their time to come and help prepare the food for this great celebration. It is a special community event, and we couldn’t do it without them. A special thanks goes to Kathy Vella and Kathy Greenwood for all of their help and contributions to this feast over all the years.”
Proud of her 94 years, it is obvious that Kinney's passion, excitement and attention to detail still resonate throughout those same halls, where those cooking turkeys were once smelled from the rotisserie. Changes have been instituted, while the main focus remains the children, as they continue to learn to prepare, deliver and enjoy the event, paying attention to those necessary details, thanks to three committed teachers, terrific staff members and our wonderful families.