OAKLAND — When Keith Hartzell entered Ralph M. Atwood Primary School in April to help install some new toilet paper dispensers, he did not expect the welcoming he received.

It wasn’t any one specific act, but repeated engagements with the students and the staff that left Hartzell stunned.

“All the kids were so over-the-top well-mannered that I noticed it throughout the day,” said Hartzell, a regional sales manager and city councilor from Ocean City, New Jersey. “It came out in a couple of different ways. As I walked down the hallway, kids said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ That never happens. I was wheeling some stuff around on a cart at one point and a couple of kids asked if they could help me and asked where I was from. Later, a little girl, who (I) could tell was sick … even asked me how I was doing.”

The list went on. A boy said, “Excuse me,” after a stack of dispensers toppled, even though he had nothing to do with making it fall. And then Hartzell noticed a physical education teacher mopping the floor, who said he was “just pitching in” because the school has only one janitor.

“I thought: Something different is going on in this school,” Hartzell said. He recalled just a month before, when he visited another school out-of-state and held the door open for nearly 30 kids, not one of them thanked him.

Before leaving Atwood, Hartzell felt compelled to say something to Principal Jennifer McGee. After pointing out that the pre-kindergarten to second grade students were the “most polite kids I’ve ever ran into,” Hartzell told her that he wanted to make a donation to the school. A week later, a $1,000 check arrived at the office.

“I was dumbfounded and thrilled,” McGee said. “I was so pleased. I told the teachers in a faculty meeting: when no one’s looking and we don’t think anyone’s watching, the children are using the manners that we talk about. … (When the check came), I was so thrilled. We’re a country school. That kind of donation is incredibly unusual and valuable to us.”

Atwood Primary School Principal Jennifer McGee stands for a portrait Friday as the kindergarten class returns from recess at the school in Oakland. McGee received a letter from Keith Hartzell, of Ocean City, N.J., a vendor who was at her school recently, praising the civility and friendliness of her students and staff and pledging an annual $1,000 donation that the school may use as it chooses. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

Atwood Primary School is a part of Regional School Unit 18, which includes Belgrade, China, Oakland, Rome and Sidney, though the primary school is one of several in the district and mostly serves Oakland students. Enrollment for the current school year is 238.

After receiving the check April 29, McGee immediately went on the intercom and called all the children to the gymnasium to tell them the news. She read aloud a letter Hartzell had sent with his donation, which referenced a childhood memory of watching a segment of the TV show “Kids Say the Darndest Things” with his mother, during which host Art Linkletter gave a young boy money for displaying politeness on TV. “My mom turned to me and said, ‘See? Manners are really important,'” he told the Morning Sentinel. And to the students, he wrote: “I always remembered that valuable lesson.”

McGee said the kids were “cheering and standing up they were so excited” after she shared Hartzell’s note with them. Shortly afterward, back in Hartzell’s New Jersey hometown, the local politician recalled opening a “big package” that had been mailed to him at City Hall.

“Each kid wrote me their own personal thank-you letter,” he said. “As I opened it up, I said ‘Hooooly — this is nuts.’ I started laying them out on the counter. The deputy clerk walked up and said, ‘What’s that?’ We started reading them and she and I both really got choked up. … The kids drew on them; some put a picture of themselves on them. Basically, it was ‘Thank you for the $1000,’ ‘You’re sweet,’ ‘You’re nice,’ ‘You’re my friend,’ ‘I’m your friend.'”

McGee described some of the other letters: “They were so cute,” she said. “Some were like, ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna do with all that money,’ and others had ideas for the money.”

At this point, Hartzell decided he wanted to do something more. So on May 21, he announced through an article in the OCNJ Daily that he would make an annual contribution of $1,000 until the current pre-kindergarten class graduates from high school — a total donation of $14,000 spread over 14 years. McGee said she also recently received a $200 check from Hartzell’s employer, the von Drehle Corp.

“I intend on having a long-term relationship with these kids because they’ve touched my heart and made my life better,” Hartzell said. “I want to see them through; I wanna see how they turn out. I wanna see them grow, and hopefully me doing this just keeps them encouraged that what they’re doing matters.”

Hartzell said he has “never done anything like this” but tries to contribute to programs that mentor children, in part because he does not have any of his own. He said it would be up to the school district — RSU 18 — to decide how to allocate the donation when the youngest Atwood class moves on to elementary school, and later, middle and high school.

Kindergarteners in Margaret Solis’ class at Ralph M. Atwood Primary School in Oakland display “Motivational Kindness Mirrors” they decorated with affirmations underneath to “promote self-love and confidence,” Solis said. The craft is one of several ways the school has taught students to express kindness toward themselves and others. Courtesy of Atwood Primary School

McGee said that the entire faculty places an intentional emphasis on teaching 4- to 8-year-olds skills like “manners of mind, the importance of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ asking ‘How are you?’ and these important interpersonal skills.” The school also employs the Fish! Philosophy, through which children are awarded with a small plastic fish for demonstrating traits that contribute to a positive atmosphere — being present, tapping into a “playful spirit,” finding ways to make people’s day and “choosing their attitudes.”

“They used to refer to interpersonal skills as ‘soft skills’ in business, but now they’re calling them core skills because they’re so important and really, in a career, can make or break whether someone is successful at any level. Entry level all the way up to upper management — those skills are core skills, essential to success,” McGee said. “For us to be teaching and strengthening those skills at the primary school level and be reinforced by a complete stranger noticing them, it’s a very clear reinforcement to young children of how very important it is, and that it’s a difference-maker. You can be noticed for the right reasons or the wrong reasons.”

At a meeting last night, school leaders decided to spend this year’s contribution on a new water fountain with a water bottle refilling station, which will be placed outside the gymnasium, according to McGee. The school has one other fountain like that, financed through a grant from Northern Light Inland Hospital.

“Keith doesn’t even know it yet, but we’re going to frame the picture of him opening our thank-you note and put that over the water fountain,” McGee said.

The whole situation feels cosmic to Hartzell, who said he almost didn’t make the trip up to Maine for this job in the first place.

“In my mind, I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t supposed to meet these people; they weren’t supposed to meet me. I’m in Ocean City, New Jersey; they’re in Oakland, Maine. But it made me stop cold in my life and appreciate what I have more. Whatever (McGee’s) doing there is working. I’m 63. People my age always worry about the next generation. Millennials — everyone laughs at them; but when I see this group, I’m not worried at all. These kids are going to be great. They’re getting a hell of an education because the principal and teachers care.”

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