Grads reflect on first year in new building

By Dick Mason, The Observer September 23, 2013 10:36 am

Bernard Damon, center, and Bob Hill, right, members of the La Grande High School Class of 1953, reminisce during their 60th year class reunion Saturday night. Ron Puckett, a 1953 Cove High School graduate, is on the left. (Dick Mason/The Observer)
Bernard Damon, center, and Bob Hill, right, members of the La Grande High School Class of 1953, reminisce during their 60th year class reunion Saturday night. Ron Puckett, a 1953 Cove High School graduate, is on the left. (Dick Mason/The Observer)

33 graduates meet for 60th reunion 

Sixty-one years have passed since the first section of today’s La Grande High School building opened.

The building was then state of the art, so much so that a university professor traveled from California to La Grande to examine it. Still, the building had one design flaw, a defect that once sent students scurrying from the building. 

Bob Hill of Cove, a member of the LHS Class of 1953, vividly remembers what happened and why. The air intake for the building’s heating system, Hill said, was located next to the chemistry lab. This did not cause any problems until the day sulfur fumes, which smell like rotten eggs, were abundantly present in the chemistry lab.  

“The sulfur fumes got into the intake system,’’ Hill said. 

 A rotten-egg scent soon engulfed the building. The smell was judged to be intolerable. 

“The building had to be evacuated,’’ Hill said.

The sulfur incident was one of the few blights in the building’s first year, one which members of the LHS Class of 1953 recalled fondly during their 60th year reunion Saturday at Island City City Hall. Members of the Class of 1953 speak proudly of a unique distinction they hold — that of being the first class to graduate from LHS after attending classes in the new building that opened in late summer of 1952.

Building torn down in 1990 

The students went there after attending classes in the old high school at Fourth Street and M Avenue, a building torn down in 1990. 

The new building was a delight to attend classes in compared to old one.

“It was more convenient. The hallways were wider, and the lighting was better,’’ said Leland Hardy, a member of the Class of 1953.

Roberta Borgonovo, who now lives in San Francisco, said the building had so many innovative features that a University of California professor studying school architecture traveled from Berkeley to La Grande to examine the building. Borgonovo liked the new school, but she still had a soft spot in her heart for the old LHS.

“I loved the new building’s decor even though the old building had more character,’’ Borgonovo said.

In addition to its chemistry lab, the building also had a library with high windows and 17 rooms including home economics and biology labs, a visual-aid room and an office suite.

Students in grades 10-12 initially occupied the new LHS building. Students in grades eight and nine attended classes in the old high school building. 

Today the new structure, completed six decades ago, is part of a much larger LHS building. New additions made over the past six decades include its auditorium, gym and an extensive west addition built in the 1970s.

Topics discussed at Saturday’s reunion included much more than the “new’’ building the graduates attended. Tales of harmless pranks were also recounted.  

Dale De Long of Island City recalled that one Halloween eve before the new school was built, he and his classmates were involved in some mischief. They rolled the Volkswagen of English teacher Marie Tigglebeck up to the old high school and then carried it to the top of its front steps. 

The boys later owned up to the prank and carried the car down the steps.

“It was a lot easier carrying it up the steps than carrying it up,’’ said De Long, now the mayor of Island City.

Virgil Chandler recalled that once he and some friends were getting ready to steal the letters spelling
La Grande High School off the main entrance of the new building when  Principal Ron Walk strode by. 

“He hollered at us and that was that,’’ said Chandler, who lives in Walla Walla, Wash.

Walk must have know exactly what the boys were up to. 

“We had a ladder against the building,’’ Chandler said.  

Indeed, life was often exciting for the Class of 1953, sometimes too exciting. Once three members of the class were in a car driving down a road on a pheasant hunting trip when one of the boys accidently fired his shotgun through the roof of the car. The vehicle was owned by the parents of Bernard Damon, who was in the car but did not fire the gun. Damon said telling his folks about what had happened was not easy. 

“I couldn’t tell them much except that the car now had a skylight,’’ he said.  

Jim Wiseman of La Grande said that the members of his class were a good group of people who for the most part avoided mischief. Nobody used drugs, and “only a couple smoked cigarettes.’’

Hobby Night popular

Wiseman recalled that one of the most popular activities at LHS in the early 1950s was Hobby Night. Students would go to LHS one night a week to learn about crafts, dancing, auto body work and more.

The night concluded with a dance session known as a sock hop. A favorite dance in 1953 was the Bunny Hop. Students would get in a long line with their hands on the hips of the student in front of them and hop all around the gym and even up to its balcony.

This was all done to the beat of the Bunny Hop song, then a hit record in the United States.

The LHS Class of 1953 had about 110 students, 33 of whom attended the reunion on Saturday. The many long and friendly conversations they enjoyed made it apparent that
the passage of time has strengthened a sense of camaraderie they share.

“Our class was always so close. Everybody is always happy to see each other. We were not cliquish,’’
said Bette Woodell Puckett of Cove.