BIRCH TREE, Mo., - The one-room schoolhouse where Bob Holden went to first grade still stands, dusty and cob-webbed, brush and weeds overgrown around it. The boys' and girls' outhouses still squat against the barbed-wire fence of an adjacent farm.
A cemetery shares the hilltop with the school. Cactus grows among the grass where stones mark the graves of Holden's 19th century relatives.
That one-room schoolhouse where Holden began his public education actually rests in nearby Corinth -- a loose collection of farms located miles away from the highway that leads to Birch Tree. Made of stone with a tin roof, the school dates back to 1929. Inside, it resembles a church with rows of pews facing a podium.
Holden went to first grade here before going to another one-room schoolhouse across town. In a campaign commercial, he stands in front of the other school, reading his second grade report card.
Bertha Bradford was Holden's first grade teacher, teaching all the subjects except science. The 25-student school didn't have that subject.
"He was a good student and a good boy," said Bradford. Now at age 88, she says clearly remembers Holden. Bradford said Holden could point out 20 states on the map and learned to spell over 400 words that year.
Although the school had basic textbooks, she said, they had to raise their own money for anything additional. They held a "pie-supper" to buy a globe. Students mowed the lawn for free.
For his high school years, the treasurer went to Birch Tree High School, the cultural center of this town, now with a population of 599. In Holden's time, the town was a little smaller. It's the kind of town where reporters touring the old high school are trusted with the keys to lock up after looking around.
Most residents now work in one of the many wood mills, but in the 60s the town offered a few more occupational options including a shoe factory. Residents say when the railroad left town, the jobs went with it.
Holden graduated in 1967. Although much larger than the one-room schoolhouses, the high school graduated only about 25-30 students each year then, according to 1966 grad Judy Barnes.
She said there were about 12 teachers, including the principal and superintendent. Each subject had its own classroom among the nine the three-story brick building held.
There wasn't a wide variety of courses.
They taught Spanish here for a while, she said, but "we didn't learn much of it." There was home economics, but no industrial arts.
But not all was scarce at Birch Tree High. Individual attention from teachers was abundant as class sizes ranged from 9-15, said Keith Bowden, a 1956 graduate of the high school and now vice president of the Bank of Birch Tree. In that respect, "it was almost like a private school," he said.
In the 50s and 60s, he said, the registrar at the College of the Ozarks -- a Branson school where tuition is paid by working on campus -- was from Birch Tree, so a lot of the kids went to college there. The small course list, however, meant many Birch Tree grads had to take preliminary classes when they got to college, he said.
"While we may not have had a lot of courses, what we were taught we learned well," he said.
No one in Birch Tree is educated at the high school anymore. The community decided to hop on the consolidation bandwagon in 1971, and teamed up with rival town Mountain View. The bigger Liberty High School rests closer to Mountain View on the highway connecting the towns.
Now, the old high school is used as a community center and library. Arts and crafts fairs and women holding baby showers now rent out the wooden-floored gym where Holden played basketball. Holden's campaign had a rally there last spring.
His experience in small rural schools shaped his allegiance to public education, Holden said.
"It was a commitment on the part of people there with very little resources to give me an opportunity to move ahead and for every other child to move ahead," Holden said in an interview earlier this fall.
"They made a commitment to the public schools. And what we can never turn our back on is to help every child in the state of Missouri whether they live in urban areas or rural areas. We must remember that public education gives them an opportunity to take a leg up in this economic ladder."
KIRKWOOD, Mo., - A small town outside St. Louis until the metropolis' growth enveloped it many years ago, Kirkwood retains some of the charm of Rockwell's America -- a downtown business district and old Victorian houses -- while it gained the prosperity and modernity of suburbia.
One of the wealthiest and most conservative neighborhoods in St. Louis County, Kirkwood consistently has been Republican.
That party's candidate for governor Jim Talent was one of 652 who graduated in 1973 from the immense, public Kirkwood High School. Sprawling 47 tree-lined acres with a student population of more than 2000, the school was ranked as one of the best public school districts in the state.
In its abundant space, the school consisted of a handful of disconnected one-story buildings. The campus, built in 1954, boasted a staff of about 100 teachers and 75-100 classrooms. The activities confronting stundents were many and diverse.
In the early 70s, there was already a computer science club, an environmentalists club, German and Spanish clubs, even a film club where students made short films. A picture in the 1973 yearbook shows students peering through microscopes in a science lab.
Students put out a bi-weekly newspaper, the CALL. There were swimming teams, golf, field hockey and soccer in addition to the major sports.
The auditorium, which has since been replaced by a state-of-the-art facility, could hold about 1000 people. The whole town of Birch Tree -- Holden's hometown -- even if each resident brought a friend, could have attended a school production.
But not everything in Kirkwood was lemonade on wrap-around porches.
Hunkered in a corner of the city lies an old black enclave, Meacham Park. With its own churches and shops, Meacham was a self-contained remnant of segregation.
"There were, in the early 70s, potential and actual racial issues at the school, as those came to surface in the community they came to surface at the school," said John Dean, an art teacher who came to Kirkwood High in 1974.
He said in those days he saw few black faces in positions of leadership like class offices or cheerleaders. But, he said, the school was one of first two schools in St. Louis County to participate in the voluntary desegregation program.
The year 1973 brought several new clubs to Kirkwood High: a black awareness club which put on a production of "A Raisin in the Sun," and an all-black, girls Pompon Squad.
Keeping with the spirit of "self expression" so popular in the late 60s and early 70s, Dean said the school offered students more options in the classes they took, even more than it offers now. There was more emphasis on student choice than on academic rigor, he said.
Self-expression also brought along with it a host of problems, according to guidance counselor Ken Finnerty, who came to Kirkwood High in 1968.
"The big issue at the school in early 70's were dress codes, hair length, and psychedelic drugs," he said. "We brought in recovering addicts to talk to the kids."
A drawing in the yearbook shows mushrooms whose dimensions are psychedelically distorted. Talent's picures in his junior and senior year annuals reveal a short-haired, bespectacled teen in an oxford shirt.
"I felt like I was a beneficiary of a good education," Talent said. "I had teachers that really stimulated me. I learned how to write in a history course where the teacher made us write and rewrite until we got it right."
In the years since Talent has moved on from Kirkwood High, its current principal has taken the school into the world of private funding.
When the school was building its new state-of-the-art theatre in 1995 after a six-year fight to fund the project, it fell $500,000 short. In came prominent alumni Earl and Myrtle Walker, giving the school $170,000.
That donation got principal Franklin McCallie thinking. He raised the rest of the money through smaller gifts and the project was complete. There was even enough money to connect the new theatre to one of the older classroom buildings so students wouldn't have to walk in the rain.
That sort of melding of private money for public schools "is not very common, but not unheard of," said Jim Morris, spokesman for the state Education Department. "What's more common is for schools to form foundation with private money for scholarships and grants for teachers and students to pursue extracurricular studies." Kirkwood has one of those, too.
In Talent's day much like today, most of Kirkwood's graduates went on to college. Former assistant principal Thomas Waltz said students even went to "fine schools, like Princeton." Waltz was at the school from 1971-1974, but he was assigned to the class just below Talent.
"I can walk that campus now, as I am sure Jim (Talent) can, and the campus is much the same," Waltz said.