One building, two remarkable men
Retan Center is unique among Mansfield University buildings in that it is named for two people. Edmond Arnell Retan was a leading educator of teachers locally in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of his sons, George, followed in Edmond’s footsteps and became a highly-regarded professor in his own right.
The history of the building that is named for these two men is nearly as fascinating as the men themselves. In the days of the Normal School and State Teacher’s College (the name change occurred in 1927), most of the Mansfield graduates were training to be teachers. It seemed natural that the teachers-in-training should teach the local school children. In a win-win situation, the local school children received an education while the future teachers received practical classroom experience. That practice continues today with student-teacher requirements for education majors, many of whom teach at local schools.
Initially, classes for the local kids were held in the old Alumni Hall. When that space was no longer adequate, Mansfield State Normal School built what is now called Belknap Hall and that building was used as a model school. The building was a blessing to local parents, in an era of one-room school houses. The yellow brick building served as the model school from 1914 until a junior high school (now Allen Hall) and elementary school (now Retan Center) opened in 1926 and 1939 respectively.
Retan Center initially allowed students at Mansfield State Teachers College to both observe teaching methods as well as student teach without leaving campus. The model/training school was praised for being conducive to the health and safety of students as well as for providing all of the furniture recommended by the state Library Bureau for an elementary school library.
In the basement level, the current rooms G01 and G02 were an assembly area, complete with a full stage and lights. Room G05 housed a woodshop. The science room included work tables, demonstration desks, and equipment for showing films. The art room included a display case to show off student projects. On the upper level, room 202 was the school library and room 207 contained a music room, complete with its own stage. The principal’s office was in room 103, which is now a conference room.
Some of the first model school teachers were Mildred Grisby, Elizabeth Stalford, Edna Marsh, Lorene Habeger, and Dorothy Hutchinson.
Today, Retan Center still serves as the main building for teaching education majors and the photos of these early teachers are on display on the first floor. The elementary school operated until 1963, when Warren L. Miller Elementary School opened as part of the consolidated Southern Tioga School District. A renovation project that included linking Retan to Belknap was completed in 2002, after years of discussion.
When the trustees of Mansfield State College decided to start naming buildings on campus in 1964, the Retans were among the first group so honored.
Edmond Retan was born April 26, 1864 in the Millerton area. Newspaper articles vary on whether he was a native of Jackson Township in the northeast corner of Tioga County or of bordering Wells Township in northwest Bradford County.
Edmond attended high school in Elmira, N.Y., and Mansfield State Normal School. He taught school in Jackson Township, Morris Run, Tioga, and Michigan before settling in Mansfield and becoming principal at the high school in 1901. While in Michigan, Edmond met and married Rena Cole on Christmas Eve, 1884. They had two children, George and David. While George is remembered for his work in the education department, David was also employed on campus for 25 years and earned the moniker “Uncle Dave.”
Edmond Retan was a well-liked educator locally. One newspaper notes that a number of his pupils in Tioga showed up at his home to surprise him on his birthday in 1900. The elder Retan also had an interest in farming and a 1908 newspaper remarked that Prof. Retan will be able to pick a remarkable 3,000 to 4,000 strawberries at his Tioga farm. Edmond was also a partner in the hardware firm of Strait and Retan in Mansfield. The store was housed on the Allen Block and was still owned by the Allen family at the time. In addition, Edmond Retan was one of the founders of the Mansfield Free Public Library.
In May, 1911, Edmond was elected Tioga County Superintendent of Schools, which required him to oversee all of the schools in the county. The Wellsboro Agitator reported that his opposition was W.R. Longstreet, an 1883 graduate of the Normal School and later principal of the model school. Longstreet served as superintendent for nearly 13 years and was also active in the alumni association. In fact his toast at the 1887 alumni association banquet was “to the model school.” The vote was 110-100 in favor of Retan and he was awarded an annual salary of $2,000, the same amount Longstreet earned. The Agitator commented that Retan was a man “held in the highest esteem throughout the county and who possesses all of the qualifications for an efficient superintendent.” Of Longstreet, the newspaper wrote, “he retires with the respect and goodwill of the people.” Indeed, Longstreet went on to serve as principal at Mansfield High School until 1928, only retiring due to age limitations.
Retan was reelected to a second term in 1914, this time without opposition. His annual salary was also increased to $2,500.
One of the main responsibilities of the county superintendent was to organize the annual teachers’ institute. The institutes were week-long session, resembling a modern in-service day. The institutes gave local teachers a chance to meet together and discuss current education topics. The institutes had met with varying degrees of success and attendance. However, by the 49th annual institute held in October, 1916 all but two or three teachers from the county were in attendance. The newspaper article noted that those teachers had good reasons for their absences.
During the 1916 institute, Retan focused on providing warm food to pupils in the smaller “rural schools” in the outlying areas of Tioga County. He and a Miss Jones of the domestic sciences department at the Normal School noted that meals could be prepared even in schools lacking kitchen facilities and they distributed pamphlets outlining simple recipes. This, of course, is an early version of the nearly universal school lunch program. Also at that meeting, Retan discussed how schools could start debate clubs. Around the same time, he suggested that schools could offer prizes to students who showed the most skill in growing food and sewing. One such awards program, sponsored by the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce, was held in 1916 at the Delmar school picnic near Wellsboro.
At the 1917 teachers’ institute, held just months after the American entry into World War I, Retan urged history and geography teachers to focus on current events of the day. He also reiterated his stance of providing lunch to rural students while urging all schools to conserve food for the war effort.
Interestingly, a featured speaker at the institutes was Mansfield Normal School Principal William R. Straughn. The county superintendent later served at the Normal School under Prof. Straughn.
Edmond Retan retired from the superintendent post in 1918 and Blossburg principal Morton F. Jones, was elected. (Each year, the Morton F. Jones Memorial Trophy is awarded to the winner of the football game between North Penn [Blossburg] and Wellsboro high schools.)
That same year, Retan was hired as director of the training school at Mansfield Normal School. That position included the job titles teacher preparation supervisor, education department chairperson, director of field experiences, and principal of the elementary and junior high schools. Edmond Retan held those jobs until his retirement in 1926, the same year the institution became Mansfield State Teacher’s College.
Edmond passed away at the former Blossburg State Hospital Feb. 18, 1948. In addition to being an educator, he was also a past master of the Friendship Lodge 247 of the Free and Accepted Masons and a member of the Coudersport Consistory. His wife, Rena, passed away less than a month later on March 13 at her home in Mansfield.
George was born Oct. 15, 1886 in Millerton and was a 1903 graduate of Mansfield State Normal School. In addition to teaching, George was an outdoorsman at heart. He earned a degree in forestry from Penn State from the state forest academy at Mount Alto and later earned his master’s degree at New York University and his doctorate from Dickinson.
While at the forestry academy, Retan was manager of the basketball team and secretary for his class. After graduation, he held various forestry jobs with the former Pennsylvania Forestry Commission. One of those jobs included an investigation into a chestnut blight in 1910-1911. In 1912, he was appointed as an instructor at the state forest academy and held that post until 1917.
In the meantime, George married Edith Walters at her parent’s home on Newtown Hill, outside of Mansfield. They were married Oct. 4, 1911 and had two children, Walter and Jeanette.
George was hired for his father’s job at Mansfield State Normal School at the beginning of the fall term of 1926, a year that brought many changes to the campus. According to an Agitator article from that year, the school had its largest enrollment in history, though the article does not provide enrollment figures. That was also the year that Mansfield changed from a three-year normal school to a four-year, degree-granting institution. The following year, the school became Mansfield State Teacher’s College. In 1937, George was named head of all training and placement activities. In 1937, Dr. Retan observed that his students should be teachers of pupils and not teachers of subjects, adding that there should be few failures among the pupils. At that time, there were also discussions of offering an expanded vocational-education program.
In addition to teaching, Retan retained his love of the outdoors and maintained his membership in a number of sportsmen’s groups. One newspaper article discusses his visit to a Civilian Conservation Corps camp near Wellsboro. The CCC men were employed by the government as part of the New Deal during the Great Depression. Locally, the CCCers built many of the facilities in the area’s state forests and state parks. The surviving CCC members who lived in the camps outside of Wellsboro still hold reunions at Leonard Harrison State Park.
Retan was also a supporter of the local chapter of the American Red Cross and served on the board as well as making donations to the organization.
George Retan retired from his post in 1952, but he and Edith remained active in the community. George authored History of Mansfield 1857-1957 which was published by the borough council in celebration of the town’s centennial. That year was also the centennial of the college. Retan’s history details numerous aspects of the community, including the library, Fordyce Allen’s Civil War Orphan’s School, post office, theaters, water system, hotels, and early businesses. He also wrote at least one education textbook.
The Retans moved to West Virginia in 1962 and later moved to Florida to be closer to their daughter. Despite the distance, George and Edith remained in contact with their many friends in Mansfield. According to George’s obituary, the couple visited Mansfield every two years. “They were here last fall,” the obituary stated, “and were royally welcomed.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Retan was unable to attend the 1964 Alumni Day when the official announcement of the naming of Retan Center was made.
George Retan died on Jan. 5, 1969 in Florida. Edith passed away July 17, 1973. The following year, several of their friends dedicated a memorial bookshelf for the Retans at the Mansfield Public Library, which Edmond helped to found.