Historic education roots prompt gift for arts as teaching tool
A donation for Marion High School to incorporate activities for students focused on cultural diversity is being finalized from a family with county educational roots stretching back more than a century.
Jeffrey Longhofer, a 1973 MHS graduate who is a Rutgers University School of Social Work professor and a practicing clinical social worker, is coordinating a $1,500 gift given in part to honor his grandfather, James A. Ray, who was superintendent of Marion County schools from 1905 to 1935.
“It’s really honoring the place that I came from, it’s honoring my past, recognizing that I got something deep and meaningful there,” Longhofer said. “It recognizes Marion as a place which appreciated broad exposure to culture and the arts, and I had broad benefits from that.”
The idea of a gift germinated from an email Longhofer received with a story about the recent controversy surrounding a rainbow flag, a symbol of unity in the LGBT community, painted by an MHS student on his parking space.
The idea was reinforced, he said, when he reflected on the role his grandfather played in defending county Mennonites in the early 1900s, when emotions were running high over Germany and World War I.
“This was another moment in which we had to learn to tolerate our differences,” Longhofer said.
The intent of the gift, in part, is to use it for cultural and artistic experiences for students to gain a deeper understanding of a wide spectrum of issues.
“It’s really about diversity, and LGBT issues are a part of that conversation,” Longhofer said. “It’s about the world we live in, and how do we come to live with our diverse selves.”
One possible activity would be to stage a reading of the play “The Laramie Project,” a work looking at community reactions to the murder of University of Wyoming gay student Matthew Shepard in 1998, Longhofer said, and engage in facilitated discussions of it.
“Using it in the theater to create theatrical events can use the arts to articulate deeper understanding,” he said.
Another possible use for the money would be to facilitate public conversations about diversity by engaging advocacy organizations.
One such group Longhofer mentioned is GLSEN, an East Coast-based group focused on strengthening gay, lesbian, and straight understanding and support in elementary and secondary education.
It’s not only Marion that could benefit from having GLSEN facilitate a public forum, Longhofer said. Advocacy groups operating in largely metropolitan areas don’t always have good understanding of the dynamics and concerns of rural communities.
“It would be a real opportunity for Marion, and would be good for GLSEN, too,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Longhofer was still working on details of the gift and had not yet contacted Marion-Florence school officials. However, he expressed hope the school and community would see this as an opportunity for others to see Marion as a place willing to engage in deeper conversations about diversity, and possibly attract additional donors.
“People will see that it’s a place to grow, it’s a place to create opportunities for conversations,” Longhofer said.