Sam Johnson of Union examines a banner from six decades ago recognizing Union High School for winning state titles in three sports in 1949. Johnson graduated from UHS in 1952. DICK MASON / The Observer
Imagine if Union High School’s century-old building could talk. Oh what stories it could tell and what mysteries it would solve.
The building, of course, will forever maintain a stately silence but not the people who worked at and attended school at UHS over the past 100 years. They are keeping its history alive by celebrating it, which they did Thursday.
About 50 people attended a program commemorating the building’s centennial.
A centerpiece of the celebration was a long canvas-like banner, which was temporality mounted across the west wall of the S.E. Miller gym, the site of the festivities.
The banner hung over downtown Union six decades ago, reminding everyone driving through of one thing — 1949 was a very good year for UHS.
UHS was an athletic juggernaut that year. Three of the Bobcats’ four teams won state titles. The boys basketball, track and field and football teams all won state championships. The Bobcats’ baseball team was no push over either, advancing to the state title game before losing to Drain.
Incredibly, each team was coached by the same man --- John Comisky. He was UHS’s only coach.
“The boys were so loyal to him,’’ said Diane Bowden of Union, who graduated from UHS in the early 1950s.
Comisky, who was also a teacher, came to Union from New Jersey. He was a an excellent tactician who took a no nonsense approach to coaching, said Sam Johnson of Union, a 1952 UHS graduate.
“We had great discipline. We didn’t get away with anything,’’ said Johnson. “He was a very good coach.’’
Doran Hopkins of Summerville, who attended the Union School District in the 1940s and 50s, agrees.
“He was a stern disciplinarian,’’ Hopkins said.
Hopkins, who did not attend Thursday’s program, was the son of the late Albert Hopkins, the superintendent of the Union School District from the mid 1940s through a portion of the 1950s.
Doran Hopkins said he remembers hearing stories about the intense discipline Comisky applied to students who misbehaved.
The 1949 state basketball title Comisky led UHS to was won in Union, the site of the state tournament that year. The tourney was conducted in UHS’s new gym, one which was destroyed by fire within two years following the tournament.
Bowden vividly remembers watching the building burn.
“We stood outside and cried,’’ she said.
The gym, during its brief history, was the site of more than exciting athletic contests. It was the building Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey spoke in during a 1948 campaign stop in Union, Hopkins said.
Dewey, the governor of New York, expressed great confidence that he would win the election. Dewey, of course, was upset by incumbent Harry Truman in the presidential election of November, 1948.
The three state titles UHS won in 1949 were its first Oregon School Activities Association championships but far from its last. Today, UHS has 24 state team titles to its name.
UHS students have also exceled in academics and non athletic activities throughout its history.
In recent years, UHS’s Lego robotics program has been rated one of the best in Northeast Oregon, its FFA program has continued to enjoy noteworthy statewide success and its Future Business Leaders of America chapter has received statewide and national recognition.
UHS senior Taylor Sarmon was elected the national FBLA student president in June of 2011 and will complete his one-year term next month.
Union High School’s legacy is one of not only achievement but also mystery.
Scott Schroeder of Union, a retired UHS social studies teacher, pointed this out during a presentation he gave on the high school’s history.
One mystery concerns lights at UHS which, in the past, have come on and off at night for no apparent reason.
Schroeder said the light mystery may be nothing more than an industrious teacher working late at night.
Another possible explanation touches on the high school’s link to one of the most controversial court cases in Union County history.
In 1897, Kelsay Porter of Pine Valley was hung outside of what is now a small UHS physical operations building. Porter today remains the only person legally executed via a hanging in Union County.
Porter’s guilt was not disputed but many felt the death penalty was unwarranted since he had killed someone who had been harassing many in the Pine Valley area, which was then part of Union County, the late historian Jack Evans of La Grande told The Observer several years ago.
Porter was kept in the maintenance building, then a jail, in the weeks before his execution, Schroeder said. He said some people cite the lights of UHS curiously coming on and off at night as evidence that the building may be haunted by the ghost of Porter.
A second mystery involves a soft drink machine stolen from UHS in the 1980s, one never recovered. The crime’s culprits remain unknown and so do the details of their caper. It is not known how the thieves carried the heavy pop machine out undetected, especially since it was on UHS’s upper floor, Schroeder said.
Union High School was constructed in 1911 and looks much today like it did when it opened, with the towering columns at its main entry continuing to provide it with a look of elegance.
“It was a showcase then and is still a showcase,’’ said Schroeder, who graduated from UHS in 1966 and later taught there 23 years.
Schroeder said the timeless qualities of the solidly constructed building provide the community with a sense of comfort in a era when change frequently occurs at light speed.
“It represents stability, spirit, pride and tradition.’’