|Posted by Anne Siren on September 7, 2012 at 2:55 PM|
By Anne Siren
Fort Lauderdale – Helen Herriott Landers sits in a room at Westside School at 301 SW 13 Ave. the home of the Broward County Historical Commission, now a part of the county’s library system.
Helen is the Broward County Historian. She is a member of the generation that experienced Pearl Harbor, World War II, the first man to walk on the moon and, most recently, the Curiosity Robot landing on Mars. She has served the county as a teacher. She is a strong supporter of women’s issues.
The spacious room of Westside School is lined with a library of books set on shelves that climb up the 20-foot walls and hold the volumes that tell the history of this area.
A polished oak floor reflects the sunlight that streams through the western windows, massive windows no longer seen in these times. These windows were the only source of air conditioning in the early 20s when this school was in session.
Landers is at home in this classroom.
Although she never taught at Westside, her mother, Fern Herriott once served as director of Westside’s summer programs.
“This school was finished in 1923. At that time, Broward County’s elementary schools were in three areas: Westside, Southside  and Northside . Dillard Elementary was for black students,” Landers says.
Westside School closed in 1961.
These large airy classrooms are a far cry from the first school in Fort Lauderdale, a one-room cottage on Andrews Avenue, built in 1899. This first schoolhouse had 14 students. Teacher Ivy Cromartie always carried a long stick with which to chase away rattlesnakes.
The area was called Fort Lauderdale, but in fact it was unincorporated and still part of Dade County. Broward County was not incorporated until Oct. 1, 1914.
Landers came to Fort Lauderdale with her parents in 1926, shortly after the famous hurricane of the same year. Like all pioneers who came to Florida in the 20s, Landers has strong memories of those hurricanes that gave little notice before makinglandfall.
When she was five, the 1928 hurricane hit. Her family was in church when the pastor announced the storm and sent the parishioners home.
Before Helen and her family got home, the storm was in full swing. The family pulled into an A&P market, then on SE Second St. They were about two blocks from their house on Andrews Avenue.
“People inside the store wanted us to come in, but my father made my mother and me lie down in a gutter. A tornado passed over us, and then we got back into the Ford coupe and went home.
“Once there, I remember my father noticed a window flying past us. ‘There goes someone’s window,’” he said.
“I think it’s ours,” my mother said.
When things settled down, the family made a post-hurricane tour, traveling as far north as Boca Raton to see the damage that got progressively worse as they continued north.
“I remember passing farms where the chickens had had their feathers blown off,” she said.
There would be more storms.
The 1933 hurricane twisted their house completely around, but Helen and her family had stopped for lunch on Sterling Avenue during that storm, a meal that probably saved their lives.
“When we got home, the house had been hit so hard that carpets and furniture had been carried in the wind across the FEC Railroad tracks,” she says. “Neighbors took us in while the house was repaired.”
In 1940, Helen graduated from Fort Lauderdale High School. She headed then to Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, now Florida State University.
In 1933, Helen’s mother, founded Fern Hall, a school for winter visitors. Children who were vacationing with their families brought their books and assignments with them and attended Fern Hall where Mrs. Herriott tutored them.
Landers was in eighth grade at Fort Lauderdale High School, but she was pressed into tutoring service when she got home.
About the same time, another winter school began that later evolved into Pinecrest Preparatory School. Its founder, Mae McMillan began tutoring the children of winter visitors to Fort Lauderdale. In 1934, she founded her school in rented rooms in the old Elks Club building in downtown Fort Lauderdale. In 1939, she moved her 100 students to an eight-acre site on East Broward Boulevard and added a boarding facility.
It was here that Mrs. McMillan established Pine Crest School. Space was limited in the former building, so she acquired acreage across a side street for use as an elementary school. Pine Crest remained on the downtown campus for 26 years. In 1965, it was moved to its present location on Cypress Creek Road just west of Federal Highway.
The Flying L
While at Fort Lauderdale High School, Helen learned the reason students were dubbed The Flying L’s. “The school had just opened in the 1920s,” says Helen. “Everyone was thrilled that the track and field team had been invited to compete in Gainesville for the state championship. There was this one runner who was very fast. They said, ‘Here comes the Flying L.’ And it stuck.”
Helen was in college in 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. In 1942, over Thanksgiving vacation, the college girls were encouraged to entertain members of the military home on leave.
“I was looking for someone who was tall,” said the then lanky 5’ 7” Helen. “And I was skinny.”
Her group came upon some young men playing pool at the Coast Guard Base in Fort Lauderdale. One of them asked the girls to join them. Said Helen, “We can’t. We don’t even know you.”
But a Mrs. Neal, who was hosting the event, heard Helen’s remark and said, “Let me introduce you.”
That’s how Helen met her future husband, RL Landers
They were married at Park Temple Methodist Church.
After the war, RL and Helen moved to Texas where RL, on the GI Bill, took a bachelor’s degree in physical education and Helen completed a masters in history.
When they returned to Fort Lauderdale, Helen and RL continued teaching and operating Fern Hall until they sold it in 1971. The new owner renamed the school Florida Oaks Academy.
Helen continued teaching as Director of Education at Park Temple Church at 101 SE 3 Avenue. Park Temple merged with First United Methodist, and is now over 100 years old.
Helen’s mark on Broward County is indelible. In 1990, she was appointed Broward County Historian, a position she still holds.
She served as president and remains an active member of the American Association of University Women. She vigorously campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, a law that never passed, and worked with the historical commission to establish the Women’s Hall of Fame.
And she is accessible. She is unable to shake her persona as a loving teacher, a quality that makes most people very much at ease in her presence.
Meanwhile Helen Landers, 90, continues to keep watch over the massive tomes that contain the progressing history of Broward County.
Today, persons who are interested in the history of schools in Broward County are invited to view a gallery of pictures dating back to the first school in the county.
All persons with old family photos and documents are encouraged to donate them to the commission. Volunteers and donations to sustain the work of the commission are needed. Call 954-357-5533.