City schools cancel 2013 march to Handley tomb

Posted: May 2, 2013

The Winchester Star

Students from Winchester Public Schools stand by the grave of Judge John Handley in Mount Hebron Cemetery on a recent pilgrimage. (Photo by Scott Mason/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — For the first time in many years, the march to Judge John Handley’s grave has been canceled.

The trek is made in the spring in honor of the Handley High School benefactor. Dressed up and bearing flowers, students from all six Winchester Public Schools start walking at Loudoun Street and continue up Boscawen to Handley’s resting place at Mount Hebron Cemetery.

The event was scheduled for Monday, with a rain date for Tuesday, but bad weather forced the division to call off the march both days.

Superintendent Rick Leonard said he is aware of canceling the trek only once in the past 15 years, but city resident and Handley alum Diana Turner said she was told it has been 23 years since the last cancellation.

Turner’s 10-year-old grandson, Christopher, was among the approximately 300 students in the division to be chosen to attend the march this year. Her family, which is full of Handley graduates, was so upset that they took Christopher to the grave anyway.

“I know he’s not the only kid who’s disappointed,” she said. “I felt hurt because this is a tradition that should be cherished. We need to appreciate what Judge John Handley did for the kids and for the community. We’d hate to see that ever go away.”

Handley was born in Ireland in 1835 and came to America in 1854. He worked a number of jobs, including carpentry, before studying law at Columbia University in New York City.

His legal practice prospered, and he eventually became a judge. Handley also prospered in business — real estate, banking and stock market investments.

In the 1870s, he made numerous visits to a family friend in the Winchester area and developed a fondness for the community. In 1890, Handley established a company in the city with the eventual goal of building educational facilities for local citizens. Upon his death in 1895, his will provided the money to advance this aim — about $1.6 million “for the education of the poor,” including $250,000 for the establishment of a public library. He instructed that the money be invested and allowed to grow.

After the library funds increased to $500,000, the Handley Library was built, opening in 1913. The funds also led to the construction of John Handley High School for white students and the Frederick Douglass School for black students. Handley’s endowment continues to benefit local citizens through a variety of educational activities.

Handley High School students will hold a small ceremony at the school in lieu of the event.

Leonard said end-of-school testing and events made it impossible to reschedule the event this year.

“There are very few windows,” he said.

Turner, however, is skeptical.

“I can’t believe there’s not one day between now and June that they’re not able to schedule that,” she said.

Turner, 53, graduated from Handley in 1978. She remembers when all the students in the division walked to the grave on the last day of school and received their report cards there. The tradition, she said, is one that she fears could disappear if school officials aren’t vigilant.

“We need to understand the importance of it because tradition and history get lost over the years,” she said.

Leonard is not sure if the children selected this year would be selected again next year. He said students are selected at the school staff’s discretion and if they are class officers. All fourth-graders in the division are offered the chance to attend the march.

— Contact Rebecca Layne at