Consider your school’s history
by Ray Py
When my high school changed names in the mid-1960s, the decision triggered a series of events that tragically eliminated 100 years of school history and traditions and stole the past from thousands of graduates. Decisions that followed sent hundreds of artifacts to landfills or still-lost storage containers. One decision was to cover priceless interior artworks with plasterboard. Another decision ordered the removal of our proud “tower of learning,” a tower that literally rose high over the main school entrance and was the pride of an entire community.
Four years ago, in preparation for my class’s 50th anniversary celebration this June and to correct these egregious errors, other classmates and I began searching for our lost past in attics, garages, basements, yard and estate sales, auction houses: anywhere that a trace of our school might still exist. As a result, we will bring back much that had been lost to a special Historical Center established within the school by the local historical society.
I graduated in June 1954 with 390 classmates from Wauwatosa Senior High School (affectionately called ‘Tosa) in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin-at that time the city’s only secondary school. This building was built in the early 1930s under a WPA-funded program. Since it first opened in 1871, Wauwatosa High School enjoyed a state and national reputation as a superior high school, noted for its high number of graduates who went on to colleges and universities, and for successful graduates who flourished in rich lives and careers worldwide.
The school board’s decision that a second high school was needed required changing the school’s name to Wauwatosa East High School and adopting a plan to eliminate all reference to the former name. That meant hundreds of pictures, trophies, meaningful artifacts, sports items, mascots, publications-anything bearing the former school name-would be stored, sold or taken to landfills.
It was also decided to cover WPA oil-on-canvas artworks painted on interior walls and raze the main tower over the front door on the town’s main street. The ‘Tosa tower had been a proud addition to an avenue of spires where most of the community’s churches were also located. Its image had been reproduced on thousands of publications, yearbook covers, stationery, photographs, works by artists and the centerpiece on the school’s diplomas.
When I returned to attend my 45th high school reunion, I was disappointed at the condition of the school and its changes. I was determined to learn where our past was taken and to restore it for our next reunion.
What has become a four-year search began in the school basement. Under debris I found my first “treasures”-a 1948 trophy for the state high school basketball championship and a second for coming close four years later.
Yard and estate sales-even local auctions-produced a quantity of materials: books, papers, photos, pennants, certificates, keepsakes, notebooks, pins, homecoming posters, scrapbooks. I expanded my search to include computer auctions and I found artifacts as far away as California, Arizona and even Canada. At an estate sale, I found a graduation announcement for the class of 1898, still bound by a silk ribbon. The 12 graduating seniors included sons and daughters of Wauwatosa’s prominent and successful pioneer families.
I stood on an auction floor to outbid others for athletic awards. One such auction produced a ukelele and case once owned by “Shorty,” a female student in the 1920s. I found cheer leading sweaters and a megaphone, athletic awards and certificates, carefully stored by their proud owners over the years. Children have donated items from their parents and parents from their children.
A former athlete took me to his garage and pointed to the beams. There I found a cane pole heavily wrapped in tape that he had used as a champion pole-vaulter in the 1940s. When the school went to aluminum poles, he bought his old vault pole and stored it in his garage for 60 years.
From an internet antique dealer I found an oak-framed, panoramic photograph of the school’s 1932 marching band taken in their brand new uniforms. Classmates have given yearbooks, newspapers and scrapbooks. One approached me at a social function, took off his sterling silver class ring and gave it to me on the spot.
I volunteer as a tour guide during high school reunion tours, giving me an opportunity to get others involved in the collection process. A website, www.raider-room.com, informs more students about the collections, a newsletter keeps 500 alumni informed of our progress, and I wrote and self-published a nostalgic history of the school which has been updated, expanded and re-published.
When my collection was displayed at the public library, the local historical society asked me to help establish an historical center in the school. Many of my 1954 classmates became involved, sending small checks and donations to pay for display cabinets for the center. Before we could get the center established, we recalled that the WPA murals were in the school’s old main lobby, covered over in the mid-1960s. The Wauwatosa Historical Society and the school district joined us in a campaign to uncover and restore those treasures. Together we raised more than $120,000, mostly from alumni, to hire an artist to uncover and restore the paintings.
The project expanded even further when the current high school principal agreed to establish a Wall of Inspiration to honor the school’s many outstanding alumni. We helped identify the first seven honorees. In March 2003, the school and community paid tribute to these men and women with an all-school assembly and a community reception. The list included an Academy Award nominee, two founders and CEOs of major American corporations, a nationally recognized film critic and author and a renowned classical composer. Honorees met with students and related stories of their high school and career achievements.
We will never restore the once proud tower, as estimates for the work are into seven figures. But its memory is intact in photos, yearbooks and other memorabilia that will be on display in the Wauwatosa High School Historical Center forever. In June, 50 years to the date we received our diplomas, my class will tour the old high school building and see the splendid lobby, the Wall of Inspiration, the glazed tiles that once again gleam in some of the hallways. Our three-day visit to the past will give us all ample opportunity to revive old memories with classmates we haven’t seen in years. It will also serve as a reminder that as graduates and alumni, we must be stewards of our past, our heritage and traditions.
It can be a time to promise ourselves to stay in touch with those in charge of our past and to restore its splendor when called upon. Our coming together this June will assure us all it is a burden we can shoulder together.
How to preserve your school’s history
- Do a survey of what your school is doing to preserve its history. Make it a topic for a Parent-Student Teacher Association meeting.
- Look in the local library’s history section or the periodical files to see how much has been collected about your school’s past. Is there a collection of your school’s history in the school library?
- If anything has changed at your school in recent memory, determine how this has affected school traditions. Ask the principal what is done to inform students about tradition and the school’s past.
- Start a collection of artifacts about your school from yard and estate sales. Items are often only old school newspapers or yearbooks but they could also be from the band or sports teams as well. Contact teachers. They often keep accumulations from their teaching years.
- Encourage your local historical society and school district to put items on display or begin collections. Offer to be a curator and contributor.
- Get publicity. This is a good story and editors, local television stations and radio program directors will be interested in learning about your efforts.
- Ask the public to help collect items or to donate money for their preservation. Get as many alumni as possible involved.
- If you are planning a reunion, establish a legacy committee that will explore ways to help keep the school’s history and traditions alive.
About the author
The late Ray Py, a 1954 graduate of Wauwatosa (Wisconsin) Senior High School was a writer, reporter and editor. His book, Around the Tower, is a nostalgic history of his high school. He wrote a bimonthly alumni newsletter and was chairman of his 50th class reunion.
“Thank you very much. Your magazine has been very helpful in getting our reunion organized.”
Eleanor Phillips Coody, Class of 1958 Reunion Committee Coordinator, Bushwick High School, Brooklyn New York.