Before there was a District 66, a young student named Ken Koch walked down the hill each day from his grandparents’ home near 94th and Center Streets to a two-room school called Oakdale at 90th and Center Streets.
He walked, that is, unless a farmer stopped to pick him up. The area was still largely rural, its rolling hills dotted with farms and dairies. Some of his fellow students rode horses to the school, situated north of Center Street and east of Papillion Creek. Koch, now 98, recalls crossing a bridge to get to the school.
“It was a strictly country school,” he said.
Indeed, most of the boys lived on farms and wore overalls to school. In a photo from his early school years, Koch is dressed in knickers and a tie. His grandfather, Ralph Jackson, was a superintendent at the McCord-Brady Co. At the time, the grocery wholesaler occupied a building at 12th and Leavenworth Streets, which now houses the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.
The school had two teachers who boarded for a time at his grandparents’ home. Koch remembers carrying his lunch in a tin tobacco can that had been converted into a lunchbox and watching people bobsled down Center Street.
Koch also recalls an architect bringing blueprints for a new school to his grandparents’ house. His grandfather was a director with the school, then District 31. A dairy farmer named Otto Armbrust sold the district the land for the new school.
“The encroachment of Omaha was just starting,” Koch said.
By the time Koch was in sixth or seventh grade, he and his fellow classmates had moved into a brand-new Oakdale School — circa 1927 — at 98th Street and West Center Road.
Koch, who also remembers the brick street being laid in the area, said no pieces of the old building were moved from 90th and Center to the new structure at 98th and Center. Differing historic accounts give different dates for the construction of the original Oakdale – some date it to 1869, others to 1871.
Rob Zimmerman of Project Advocates, the District’s representative, said maps, photographs and an opinion from a professional structure mover support the conclusion that the 1927 portion of present-day Oakdale was built on site and not moved from another location.
Maps from 1884 through 1923 show the original Oakdale at 90th and Center. A 1941 overhead photograph shows the 1927 building on its current site. Additions were built in the 1950s and 1960s, giving the school its current configuration.
Koch graduated from the new Oakdale’s eighth grade in 1930 and went on to complete his high school education at the Omaha Public Schools’ Technical High School, which had opened in 1923. At the time, none of the three districts – 31 in the Oakdale area, 46 in the Underwood/Peony Park area and 65 in the Loveland area — that would come together in 1947 to form District 66 had a high school.
Koch served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II and afterward met and married his wife, who also was employed by Keebler. After the company’s Omaha plant closed, they spent four years in Grand Rapids, Mich., and another 20 years in Philadelphia.
Koch moved back to Omaha in 1989. But he hadn’t forgotten Oakdale. In 2009, he visited with students there, serving as the guest of honor for the school’s 140th anniversary celebration.
“I just got interested in what it might be like,” said Koch, who later attended Veterans’ Day events at the school.
Koch said he enjoyed his school subjects at Oakdale – geography and arithmetic and English. He didn’t have a lot of homework.
When the holidays approached, teachers and students staged a Christmas play and students received hard candy as treats. At recess, students played games outdoors. He recalls youngsters occasionally throwing a ball over the old schoolhouse. The creek flowed nearby. “It was a good area to go picking morel mushrooms,” he said.