By Madoline Markham
Lily Von Kanel knows firsthand that changing schools isn’t easy. She and her family moved to Cahaba Heights from Athens, Alabama, the week before she started fourth-grade in 2019, but she soon discovered that Vestavia Hills Elementary Cahaba Heights wasn’t just any new school, not for her family at least.
She had heard that her mom and her grandfather went to Cahaba Heights’ elementary school and that her great grandmother taught there, but she hadn’t yet learned just how far back her family ties went in the community, and remain today.
“I was very nervous, but with so many connections to the school, I was able to spark new conversations with new people,” Lily recalls. “It also helped knowing that my grandfather and mom had once gone to Cahaba Heights and they turned out all right, so I knew I was in good hands.”
Plus her grandfather Terry Wright—whom she and her two younger siblings call “T-Bone”—was driving the afternoon shuttle bus she and her brother rode to Vestavia Hills Elementary Liberty Park where her mom teaches. “I knew I would get to see my grandfather at the end of the day, and I could always count on him to brighten my day even if it wasn’t bright already, which is pretty rare at Cahaba Heights,” Lily says.
As Lily would soon learn from T-Bone, the Wright family goes back seven generations in Cahaba Heights, starting back in the 1870s when John and Amanda Wright moved from Benton County (now Calhoun County), Alabama, and settled in an area near where Highway 280 intersects the Cahaba River today. Their son Jesse would on to work for Birmingham Water Works in New Merkel, what is today called Cahaba Heights. Jesse’s son Otis—Lily’s great-great grandfather—helped build the New Merkel School building in 1924, and later during the Great Depression he and other residents of the community rallied together to build additional classrooms onto the building.
Not only that but Otis served as the equivalent of what is now a School Resource Officer at the elementary school his eight children attended. His second youngest, William, was born in a house where Cahaba Pharmacy now sits and worked in his Uncle Jack’s hardware store, Wright & Son, the predecessor to what is Cahaba Heights Hardware today—living out stories he’d later tell his son Terry and that Terry would tell his granddaughter Lily.
Back when Terry’s grandfather was growing up, New Merkel was a blue collar community, and by 1953 the principal at the elementary school wanted to change the name of the school, and area, to improve its reputation. That’s when the name Cahaba Heights came about. The area had never been incorporated, so only the school officially had to change its name and the community unofficially followed suit.
As Lily’s great-grandfather William Wright would say toward the end of his life when Vestavia Hills was looking to annex the area, “I was born in New Merkel, I raised my kids in Cahaba Heights, and I hope I die in Vestavia Hills.” And indeed he did. Cahaba Heights was his home for his entire life, and he and his wife, Rosemary, lived in the house they purchased in 1968 until they both passed away. Today Terry and his wife, Phyliss, live in that same house where he was raised, and Lily and her family live only a block down the road.
In Terry’s memories growing up and raising his two children, Brittany and Ben in Cahaba Heights, the school was always at the center of the community. Cahaba Heights never had a downtown of any sort, and the only public buildings were the school and churches. There was only ever one school, so that’s where town meetings were held. Life revolved around both it and the baseball fields. Each year one of the biggest days was the parade through the community on the opening day of baseball season.
Over the decades he’s lived in Cahaba Heights, Terry says traffic has picked up after The Summit was built and holes in roads that had sat for decades have been filled in. Businesses have come and gone, what is now Heights Village shopping center has been remodeled, Miss Myra’s is now where Gray’s Store once stood, and where Starbucks sits in the same spot as V.J. Elmore’s five and dime store. Town meetings are no longer held at the school since Cahaba Heights has been a part of a larger city, Vestavia Hills, since 2002, and the baseball parade is no longer what it was. But what hasn’t changed, Terry says, is the community-mindedness of the school, its deep roots and the involvement of parents.
And now that’s something Terry sees firsthand each day. Terry started driving a school bus for health insurance benefits after he left his job at Bellsouth in the 1990s and started his own business. He’s now semi-retired, but still enjoys driving a bus, especially since he now has Lily and Scott riding as passengers with him after school every day. When COVID-19 arrived last year, the Vestavia school system needed staff to take on extra roles with PPE and delivering lunches to classrooms each day. Terry got assigned to Cahaba Heights, which meant got to see his grandkids and daughter-in-law Haley Wright, who teaches fourth grade at the school, every day at school.
“It is a little odd to deliver lunches to Ms. Barnes’ second-grade class that was Ms. Glasper’s fifth-grade class I was in,” Terry says. “It’s now 2021, and I was here in 1968.” He also gets to deliver meals to Scott’s second-grade classroom that was his mom Brittany’s kindergarten classroom and Terry’s sixth grade science classroom—on the same hall where Brittany’s grandmother, Jean Milstead, taught kindergarten. Talk about full circle!
The significance of it all is not something taken lightly by Lily’s mom Brittany Von Kanel, who met her husband, Brent, at Philadelphia Baptist Church in Cahaba Heights, which is also where her dad Terry met her mom Phyliss. “I never dreamed I’d be living in Cahaba Heights again, and it certainly never crossed my mind that my kids would make five generations of the Wright family to pass through the elementary school,” she writes. “The history my family has in this community has always been special to me, but it’s even more precious now that I’m raising my kids here.
“I love that my kids walk the same school hallways, learn in the same classrooms and even have some of the same teachers I had as a student. I love that there are current faculty members that taught with my grandmother. I love that my kids get hugs from their Aunt Haley throughout the day. I love that my dad is my kids’ bus driver every afternoon to bring them from Cahaba Heights to Liberty Park, where I teach. The blessing of my family’s history and connections in Cahaba Heights is not lost on me. I’m thankful for it every day.”