Montgomery County schoolteacher Ed Mullaney was mingling among old friends and colleagues when he glanced up to see one of his former students.
"Oh, my God," said Mullaney in disbelief. "Sharon?" he said excitedly. "Sharon Goldfarb?"
The woman turned to Mullaney holding out her hand. Her gold wedding band and diamond ring sparkled under the sun's brightness.
"It's Sharon Goldfarb-Albak. I'm married now," she said proudly.
The unusual meeting was part of a "family reunion" of sorts for former teachers and students of Leland Junior High School.
Mullaney and Goldfarb-Albak were two of the more than 125 people who returned to the school grounds in Chevy Chase for three hours Sunday to bid farewell to a building they had come to love and to catch up on old times with friends they had not seen for years.
"This was a real community school," said Mullaney, who taught geography at Leland for 13 years.
Montgomery County school officials, citing declining enrollment, closed the four-story brick building in 1981 despite attempts by students, faculty and the community to keep it open. Since its closing, the school and the property around it has been vandalized, even though the grounds bear signs that read "No Trespassing." In the years after the closing, several new uses were proposed for the building, including low-income housing and a private school.
A day before the reunion, Chevy Chase and county officials held a ground-breaking ceremony to signal the start of plans to demolish the 52-year-old school and construct a $3.2 million recreation center on the site. Officials expect the center to be completed in spring of 1989.
"It will be sad to see the school go, but I think the community is satisfied with the recreation center because it's something they can all be a part of," said Mullaney, now a history teacher at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.
The reunion, which featured a catered barbecue dinner and a cake trimmed with the former school's colors of blue and brown, was held on the school's playground away from the building. Mullaney and a committee of 15 former faculty members originally had planned to have the reunion inside the school, but decided against it because they said the building's deteriorating condition and broken glass might have posed a danger to guests.
The school's condition angered Linda Gross, who taught English and math at the school from 1976 to 1981. "It's depressing. I'm ashamed that Montgomery County would let the building fall apart like this," she said.
Sally Keeler, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County school system, said Leland Junior High is one of 64 schools to be closed in the county since 1973. While most of the schools have been turned over to the county and converted into other uses, several have been demolished to make room for more modern facilities.
Keeler said most of the 64 closings were in response to declining enrollment, which peaked in the county at 126,912 in 1973 and gradually dropped to a low of 91,030 in 1983. Other schools were closed because they were old and lacked modern amenities.
The decision to close Leland was made before county officials began tracking the beginnings of a rise in the county's student population, which Keeler said is taking place more in the upper county areas than in the areas close to Washington.
"We're seeing a boom in areas like Gaithersburg. The enrollment has gone down in areas around Silver Spring and Chevy Chase," Keeler said. As a result, Keeler said, school officials are planning the reopening of several schools and the construction of new schools in the upper county areas.
The Leland reunion guests knew their school will never reopen. Still, they said seeing the building and the people who taught there one last time meant more to them than dwelling on its impending demise.
"I think a lot of us are just happy to renew the memories. It seems like yesterday when we were all driving up in that parking lot," said Barbara Machener, who taught at the school from 1971 to 1979.
"It feels strange being here, because we never thought it would close," said Margie Ford, who taught at the school for five years.
Gross said the reunion committee used old school staff lists and word of mouth to invite former faculty from all around the country. Former students also were told they could attend, although they did not receive formal invitations.
Goldfarb-Albak, who attended the school from 1975 to 1978 and now lives in Israel, said she heard about the reunion while home on her honeymoon.
"I had to come. There's nothing like the old school. I just can't believe it's not going to be here anymore," she said.
For old times' sake, Goldfarb-Albak walked around the now run-down and deserted building and across the railroad tracks near the school.
"It brought back memories," she said.
"We didn't plan anything lavish and outrageous, but it still feels good to see all these people come out," Mullaney said. "It's going to be hard to come down after this is over."