For six decades, the St. Thomas’ Preschool, formerly St. Thomas’ Nursery School has given young children from the parish and the wider community their first experiences of learning beyond the family environment. At the request of Rector Nat Groton, the preschool opened in the fall of 1951 in the old school house. He selected Juanita “Neatsy” Brown, a young woman in the parish and later the wife of Nat Groton, Jr., to start the school with assistant Jane Newhall, another young parishioner. Neatsy wrote, in a scrapbook that she made about the school, that the second year “was a tumultuous one for me, cause Nat asked me to marry him the day school opened (Sept. 29th), and I spent the year teaching the kids to spell ‘Nat’ and remember United Airlines (where Nat worked in Chicago).” They introduced French that second year, Neatsy writing, “Who will ever forget Evie Curran singing ‘Frere Jacket!’”
Neatsy stepped down as a director in 1953 when she married Nat, Jr. and moved to the Chicago area. Jane Newhall became the Director for the next ten years and was succeeded by Alice Bland, who served from 1963 to 1968. At that point, Bobby Hoofnagle, wife of assistant rector Otho Hoofnagle, took over the preschool, stayed for eight years, and guided the school’s move to the then relatively new parish house.
Later Directors included Barbara Pittman, Carol Szwajkos, Caroline Hauser, and Shari Petrakis. In a talk about the preschool in 1979, Barbara Pittman said that the program aimed “to provide a warm, supportive atmosphere where each child can learn to relate to others (and develop) a positive self-image.” In an article for the Call in 2001, Director Caroline Hauser added, “Throughout the nursery school’s history the focus has been on providing…an enriching and challenging environment where children are encouraged to develop a sense of curiosity about the world around them. In this environment, the aim is to develop a positive attitude toward learning.”
Annual preschool events have included the Thanksgiving Feast, the Sock and Mitten Tree, the Christmas Pageant, the Easter Egg Hunt, and more recently, the Fall Frolic. As the program turns 60, there is no reason to doubt that the St. Thomas’ Preschool will be available to serve children and their families for decades to come.