Virginia Mathewson, who celebrates her 90th birthday this October, doesn’t think of herself as an activist. But Mathewson is troubled by plans to demolish the Potowomut School and now she is on a campaign to save it, or at least, have the city explain why the site would be a good place to build a fire station.
Mathewson is the force behind a public meeting Monday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m. at the Flynn Conference Center at Rocky Hill School, where Mayor Scott Avedisian will outline city plans for the fire station.
Mathewson attended all six meetings of a committee named by the mayor to explore alternative uses for the elementary school that was closed because of declining school age population. Students from Potowomut are now bused to Cedar Hill School in Cowesett. The committee explored various uses for the building, including its transformation into a community center with a gym; for housing; and for sale, but Mathewson said Fire Chief Edmund Armstrong was in attendance from the start and she believes the school’s future was pre-decided.
As Mathewson sees it, a fire station would be better situated on Ives Road and the school should be spared from the wrecking ball. She claims it is a perfectly good building, although she said the city has “jumped the gun” by removing windows and architectural features, and should be saved.
Mathewson hasn’t been bashful about sharing her opinions. She’s written letters to the editor and she and Thomas Casey Greene shared their thoughts in a recent interview with the Beacon where she called for a public meeting to outline city plans.
When nothing came of her suggestion, Mathewson took action. Finding a place for a meeting was the first challenge. She thought of the Carousel at Goddard Park but ruled it out on learning it would cost a couple of hundred dollars to use. She thought of Potowomut School, however the city administration had concerns that the building is unsafe. Rocky Hill School then came to mind and the school is providing the conference center at no cost.
Mathewson thinks a two-acre parcel on Ives Road opposite the equestrian center at Goddard Park would be the ideal site for the fire station. She notes the price on the property has been reduced from $375,000 to $345,000, which she estimates to be the cost of demolishing the school. [Actually, bids to demolish the school were opened last Wednesday. They range from $133,600 to $264,900.]
Mathewson also notes the school has a huge base of alumni, who she thinks would want to see the building either saved as a school or put to another use. Pointing to Governor Lincoln Chafee’s close connections to Potowomut, and the fact that the school was renamed for his father, Senator John Chafee, she has invited the governor to attend the Aug. 26 meeting.
But now that the ball is rolling, Mathewson confesses she’s in a new role, and somewhat at a loss as to what to do. She’s called community newspapers to get out notices on the meeting and she’s got flyers to distribute, but at 89, she doesn’t see herself going door-to-door to get them out, although she’s prepared to try. She plans to get out as many as she can with her silver Plymouth Neon with the “Ron Paul for President” bumper sticker.
“There’s no place to post anything,” Mathewson said.
Maggie’s, the once neighborhood store and gathering place, is now a residence. Obviously, the school is closed and there is no common coffee shop or convenience store. She’s thought of using the social media and e-mail but doesn’t know how to go about that.
“I don’t have the foggiest notion,” she said.
“This is the first time I’ve ever gotten into anything like this,” she confessed.
Mathewson has deep roots in Potowomut. With her husband, Everett, having a job as an inspector at Quonset in the 1950s, Potowomut was ideally located and a good place to raise a family. They had two children, Gordon and Jean, who both attended Potowomut School.
Tragedy struck in 1994. A newspaper carrier noticed smoke billowing from the Mathewson house while doing his early morning route. The carrier alerted neighbors and one of them ran to the house and pulled Everett out of the smoky building. Virginia was not living there at the time, or the kids. The neighbor tried to revive Everett, but it was too late. East Greenwich responded to the call and extinguished the fire. The house has since been expanded and Virginia is living there now.
Under the administration’s plan, the city would cease paying East Greenwich $350,000 for fire coverage for Potowomut and build the station with a $2 million bond approved by voters six years ago. As the city already has nine engine companies – two of which are located at the station next to Aldrich Junior High – one company would be relocated to Potowomut. Manning the station, therefore, would not incur additional costs. Meanwhile, the city would save the $350,000 it is paying East Greenwich.
There is some question whether a rescue would also be stationed in Potowomut; 75 percent of calls are for rescue. While all Warwick firefighters are certified emergency medical technicians, a rescue would still have to come from Cowesett.
Mathewson points out the response from East Greenwich would be faster.
Mathewson has no idea how many people know about the city’s plans for the school or, for that matter, care about what’s planned. And she has no idea how many might turn out for the meeting.
“I just think that’s a bad mistake to demolish that school and put in a fire station,” she said.