For three schoolyard pals, life at Olney was sweet

For three schoolyard pals, life at Olney was sweet

Childhood friends, from left, Steve Breggia, Vinny Ciavatta and Dave Giammarco visited Stephen Olney Elementary School one last time on June 27. Special memories were made at this school, said the men, and they’ll be sad to see it go.

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Little did these three know when they met on the first day of school back in 1963 that they would be the ones to turn out the lights.

Childhood memories for Vinny Ciavatta, Dave Giammarco and Steve Breggia revolve around their days at Stephen Olney Elementary School, where schoolyard games and neighborhood shenanigans lasted long past the last reading and arithmetic classes.

“Even when we were out of school, we were in school,” said Giammarco, of the North Providence Fire Department. This is where baseball, basketball, football, street hockey and every sport were played long into the evening. Basketball great Ernie DiGregorio was known to shovel the basketball courts in winter just to get in his hours of practice every day.

The three friends are paying tribute to their school on behalf of all former students who graced its halls. On June 27, the three toured the school one final time even as new fencing went up around it. Heavy machines will soon level Olney and a modern school will be built as part of a taxpayer-approved replacement project.

“It’s a big part of our life that’s going away,” said Giammarco.

Breggia said that last visit to Olney was bittersweet, but a “fitting farewell to a beautiful piece of history.”

While many classmates have moved far away and may not think much about their childhood school, Giammarco, Breggia and Ciavatta say they’re reminded often of those days because they pass their old school often. For local children, the schoolyard was Lambeau Field and Fenway Park all in one, they said.

“Having it there, we’re reminded of it every day,” said Giammarco. “Knock it down, that’s when it’s going to hurt you.”

With no kindergarten level in 1963, 1st grade was students’ “first indoctrination into the outside world,” said Giammarco. He and his friends were in class when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Teachers told them to go home, where their parents told them what had happened. Back in school, students watched the funeral procession from the classroom.

There are also many happy memories, like watching the 1967 World Series, also from the classroom.

“We have an emotional bond with the building,” said Ciavatta.

Ciavatta remembers bringing a Beatles record to school with him and being called to the principal’s office as a result. He was told, “We don’t play those records here.”

There were no buses back then, said Ciavatta. The three friends lived in Town and Country Estates. They walked to school, passing homes of their teachers as they went.

“You could walk home for lunch, and you never had to worry about anything,” said Ciavatta.

Giammarco may have been the class clown 54 years ago, said Ciavatta, but he needed a ghostwriter to drum up the material. “I would feed him the information,” he said, laughing.

Ciavatta was always nicknaming people, while Giammarco did the funny impersonations.

Breggia, Giammarco and Ciavatta understand that progress has to happen, that nothing lasts forever, but watching Olney School come down will be a sad day nonetheless. They said they were grateful for a party put on in May that included a visit from the Haven Brothers food truck and a novelty truck.

Giammarco thanked town historian Tom Greene for researching the history of the school for him. The school started all the way back in 1810 as the Woodville Elementary School, moving to new spots in the immediate area in 1815, 1845, and 1886 before a new brick building was built in 1930. It became the Capt. Stephen Olney Elementary School in 1953 after a major addition including a gym was put on, and a final addition was built in 1960.

Olney School was truly a neighborhood school, with generations of the same families attending, said Giammarco. Back then teachers and staff were so familiar with families that they could name off parents, sisters, brothers and cousins.

“It was more like a family than a school,” he said.