Chico High alums look back at their formative years
Lois Lash (Chico High School class of ‘47) remembers sock hops and dances and going downtown to Kootchie’s for cherry Cokes and ice cream cones. Syl Lucena, a graduate in the class of 1956, remembers driving over to Oroville to help repaint the big “O” above the town that some prankish Chico kids had turned into a “C.” Press Powell remembers being forced to sing “Bésame Mucho” to his Spanish class.
Those of us who didn’t go to Chico High School tend to think of it as a set of buildings on The Esplanade that fills with teenage students nine months of the year. To those who attended there, of course, it’s much, much more—an intense, challenging and inspiring world in which kids make the once-in-a-lifetime change from childhood to adulthood. When they think of Chico High, they’re flooded with memories.
It’s impossible to imagine all that has happened within Chico High’s walls over the course of a full century. Thousands upon thousands of students have moved through there, working, studying, planning projects, making friends, falling in love and breaking up, rooting for their teams, singing in choirs, sweating as they chased a ball down a court—all the stuff of high school life, times thousands.
And then, of course, there are the hundreds and hundreds of teachers and custodians and administrators and school nurses whose jobs have been to watch over, nurture, discipline, inspire, teach and clean up after these children. For some of them, Chico High School has been a 20- or 30-year experience, nothing less than their life’s work. What tales they can tell.
We’ve gathered some stories for this special feature celebrating the Centennial of Chico High School Sept. 12-14. We asked former students to tell us what it was like there when they were going to school. We’ve profiled them below. We thank them for their participation.
We also asked Holli Clements, a former intern at the News & Review and a 2001 graduate of Chico High, to do research on the school’s history. No brief account can do justice to a full century in the life of an institution as central to a community as its foremost high school, but at least this sketch will give an idea of how Chico High has grown over the years.
The Early Years
Chico in the late-1800s was an out-of-the-way farm town with only a few thousand residents. But it was growing, and as the new century approached people knew that soon they would need to have a school for the teenagers.
After several attempts, they passed a bond measure in 1902 to start construction. The school began that very year, however, holding classes on the third floor of the old Oakdale School, near the Junction at Eighth and Broadway streets, in what was then the south part of town.
Finally, in 1905, the day came for the 46 students and three teachers to relocate. Their new home was almost exactly where Chico State University’s Meriam Library stands today.
In the 1905 issue of the Caduceus, which was established a year earlier, one of its writers waxed eloquent in describing the new building: “… in bold relief against the deep blue of heaven, stands our real new High School building in all the glory of its architectural beauty. Surrounded by the grand old cherry trees of the Bidwell orchard, there it stands in the northwestern part of our little City of Roses.”
The first class ever to graduate from Chico High, in 1905, had all of six students.
In 1906 many improvements were made to the new school, such as bringing indoor plumbing into the science labs and adding such new courses as photography, physiography and geometric design.
By this time several clubs had been organized, beginning a tradition of club and organizational activity that continues to this day. The Skull and Owl Club was a society built of boys whose initiation consisted of a “burning of the hell broth.”
The school also formed a band, making Chico High the only school in California to have a band in the early 1900s.
The teens and the ‘20s overall were good to Chico High. Enrollment and staff grew, and the sports teams blew away the competition. The students credited their success to their enthusiasm and love for the school.
A New Campus
Then, in January 1911, disaster struck. Chico High was hit by a fire. Luckily, the captain and other members of the football team were able to rescue 13 trophies and most of the school records. The rest of the school year was held at a local church. The following July the damage was repaired and the school’s first library was created.
Long before the now-famous Almond Bowl, a Thanksgiving Bowl was held starting in 1914 against Chico Normal High, the high school then operated by the college. Festivities included a parade running through downtown the previous night and a bonfire rally.
In 1920, construction began on a new high school, this one located farther north, on The Esplanade. On Oct. 1, a cornerstone was laid 300 feet back from the street. But the school didn’t officially open for classes for nearly two years, on April 28, 1922.
The new building was breathtaking. The red bricks accented with marble were vibrant and full of life. The long semi-circular driveway was endless and commanding, though not very practical: It had only seven designated parking spots. The campus itself was quickly filled by the thousand or so students who enrolled that year.
John Nopel, a 1931 grad and local historian, remembers attending CHS as a freshman. “We were not allowed to go through the front doors … or even to look at the Senior Bench,” he says.
The Senior Bench was located on the south side of campus surrounded by huge redwood trees that still remain, although the bench was taken down in the 1960s.
By now the classes began to cater to students in more specific and individualized ways. Auto repair, a boys’ cooking class, home economics and agriculture were all offered at the new building. Clubs had also hit an all-time high, both in number and membership.
The largest club by far was the Junior Classic League, with 150 members. They were students of Latin and were firm about “handing on the torch of classical civilization in the modern world.”
Even with the new building, there wasn’t a gym for sports, an organized library or a theater. Nopel remembers going downtown to what was then the Majestic Theater (currently the El Rey) to watch skits or other productions that required more space.
By 1936, however, construction had begun on a new gym. This, said the Caduceus, gave a “shot in the arm” to basketball, which had suffered because of the inadequate facilities.
By 1942, the world was consumed by war, and Chico High was caught up in it, too. The school’s shop was open 24 hours a day training workers for the war industries. Sports were greatly affected, due to the shortage of tires and gasoline. For the few track meets and basketball tournaments that were held, all transportation was provided by parents. Nonetheless, Chico High was able to raise enough money to donate six Jeeps to the U.S. Army.
Finally, in 1945, with the war over, sports came back strong. Football was dominant, with the Panthers earning the league championship in the fall.
After a successful bond election in 1950, five new structures were added to the campus, including Lincoln Hall, the Ag Building and the Home Economics Building, or the H wing. “I was there the day Lincoln Hall was first used as a student cafeteria,” says Nopel, a lifelong educator. “There was a large group of people there, but I worked my way to the front of the line and was given the first meal Lincoln Hall ever served.”
1953 brought another change: All ninth-graders moved down to the new junior high school. Just over 1,300 students remained, as well as a staff of 61 faculty members. This separation would continue until 1994, when the ninth-graders were moved back to the high school, where they are today.
Then came the turbulent ‘60s. Chico High saw many drastic during changes those few years, such as the arrival of a new, crosstown rival when Pleasant Valley High School opened. Soon after that the Almond Bowl was born, beginning a spirited tradition that remains to this day.
But the most significant change of the decade resulted from a decision that making school’s beautiful front building earthquake safe was too expensive and that it needed to come down. Judy Carlson Biehler, who graduated in 1957, writes that she felt “a wrenching sadness … when that massive pink brick ‘castle’ that was our true high school was torn down.”
The ‘70s brought with them fewer rallies, a new reading program, and the removal of the “curtain” that was intended to separate the boys and girls during physical education. For the first time, P.E. was co-educational.
The high school’s first radio station, KCHS, started in 1973.
As the 1980s approached, technology was on the verge of exploding. The library was at the front of it all, transferring all old book catalogs to computers. Students produced a video yearbook and built a satellite dish that received broadcasts from across the world.
During this decade, 88 percent of Chico High’s seniors said they planned on attending college, 72 percent played a sport, and 45 percent played a musical instrument. In fact, the school’s music department was known as one of the best in California and the nation.
Not everything was serious, though. This was also when “powder puff” football began, the tradition in which girls dress in the uniforms of the varsity players to play a competitive game, usually juniors against the seniors. The players switched roles too, becoming the cheerleaders.
Opening to the World
By the 1990s, CHS was becoming an increasingly diverse school—and celebrated the fact with multicultural rallies that were huge successes. This progressive development was paralleled by the creation of such innovative “school-within-a-school” programs as Chico High West and the Academy for Communications and Technology, as well as the Butte College Connection that allows students to get a jump on college.
By 2000, Chico High had 1,950 students who enjoyed the opportunity to focus on any of a wide range of programs geared toward their skills and likes and had won numerous awards for its skillful use of technology and creative curriculum. Just this year, in fact, it received a $350,000 grant to develop yet another academy, this one focusing on the performing arts and likely to open in the fall of 2003. And construction of a new gymnasium this year promises to rejuvenate its athletic programs.
It’s telling that many of the teachers who now work at Chico High graduated from there as well. When asked why that is, they all tend to say much the same thing: “It’s the people, it’s the kids and it’s the trees.” You can’t get much better than that.
Here are the recollections of some of Chico High’s thousands of graduates.
Class of ‘74
Anthony Aeilts, who left the Chico Police Department a couple of years ago to head up Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s University Police, has “fun memories” of Chico High, where he was active in the band.
“Leonard Duarte was clearly an outstanding teacher. I suspect that in the 100-year history of Chico High he may just be the most inspirational teacher of the school’s history,” Aeilts said. “He had a unique ability to inspire others to achieve more than they would have thought possible. He projected discipline, high standards and passion for what drives a person. He taught thousands an appreciation of music, [which is] a factor in achieving quality of life.”
Aeilts, who last year was inducted into the Chico Unified School District’s Educational Hall of Fame, has a favorite memory that also centers around music: “Our concert performances in the summer of ‘73 in the Kongress Hall in Berlin, Germany, with the Chico High School symphonic band, orchestra and choir.” Duarte conducted and Chico swept the awards. “The European music groups were left stupefied, and as young musicians we learned what the words ‘hard work’ can lead to. Thank you, Leonard.”
Meredith Christopher (Vanous)
Class of ‘72
In Meredith Christopher’s day, when dress codes were just lifting forbidding the wearing of pants on Chico High’s young women, the campus was much more a center of activity than today, when students quickly scatter for jobs and off-campus pursuits. “It was really that feeling of closeness,” she said.
“There was such a feeling of school spirit. We were so involved in rallies and games. … There was always a dance after the Friday-night games. There was a pep bus that went to the out-of-town games,” Christopher said. Even the music department “ran” its own homecoming candidate. For the spring concerts, girls would have satin formals made, and the boys would rent tuxedos. The Chico High orchestra is where Christopher met her husband, Mike, who teaches at Chico High.
Christopher teaches at Chico Junior High School and believes that, starting with technology, the Chico student experience has changed a lot. “My seventh-graders are light years ahead of [where students were] when I was in seventh grade. They are more aware, but they seem more like little young adults than kids.”
Class of ‘69
Alois Scott—Scotty to his friends—was one of only about 10 African Americans enrolled in Chico High in the late-'60s.
Understandably, he does not like to be defined as one of the few blacks in his class. Instead, he sees himself as a Chico High student who happened to be African American.
“For me it was pretty cool. I had friends who probably had considerably more trouble and blatant [racial] incidents happen to them than I ever had. For myself, that stuff was such a small part that it was insignificant. It wasn’t enough to change who I am.”
He played football—fullback and noseguard—and today recalls all of his coaches fondly.
“Mostly,” he says, “I was just a guy who hung out with white people. I knew a lot of people, and some of them still like me.”
He recalled the senior hay raid. “I want to say hey to all the guys who participated in the senior hay raid, all our Rat Patrol buddies. They’ll know what I’m talking about.”
He was a bit evasive on details other than to say there were 20 students involved in some sort of activity (most likely unsanctioned) that included rotten eggs, water balloons and tomatoes. “We were the first bad boys of that era.”
Scott moved to Chico with his family in 1954 when he was 4 years old. After graduation, he attended Chico State University for a few years before he started his own business doing credit card processing for merchants. After graduation he married Priscilla Hopkins, a 1970 Chico High grad, and they now have nine children (including triplets) who range in age from 31 to 8.
“Sometimes I feel guilty because I do know that some of my friends had a rough time, problems I didn’t have to deal with. Some will say that I’m just sugarcoating it. But no, I really had a wonderful experience being one of the only African-American students. If I had it all to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Class of ‘65
Press Powell, of fly fishing rod-making fame, had a different title when he was at Chico High: His classmates voted him “most friendly.”
He remembers a bunch of juniors, including himself, sticking it to the senior class by repainting the Senior Bench under cover of night. “All the writing was in French, compliments of Jill Bowen, Linda Morgado and Gail Enloe,” he said. “Early next morning I was greeted by a group of seniors led by Jim Schultz, who happened to be one of the biggest and toughest seniors. I was informed that my ass was grass. They never made good on that promise.”
Powell was on the basketball team, and he and his buddies Jim Roseman and Frank Garrity needed their teacher, Señora Osterloh, to sign a permission slip so they could go to a tournament. “She informed us that she was not accustomed to letting students out of her classes for sports. However, she was willing to make a deal with us. If we would sing the song ‘Bésame Mucho’ ['Kiss Me Much'] to the class, she would sign our slips. We sang to the class.”
The most somber memory he has is of November 1963, when his teacher, Mr. Seldon Maddux, was called out of class. “My lab partner, Suzanne Haggenbor, who was our foreign exchange student from Denmark, and I took a seat in the second-story window seat overlooking the front lawn and circular drive. A few minutes later Mr. Maddux came back in visibly shook up. All of a sudden over the loudspeaker it was announced that President Kennedy had been shot. Suzanne hugged me and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ Mr. Maddux informed us that school was let out for the day.”
Class of ‘46
Bruce Dalymple, who taught in Chico for 31 years after graduating from Chico State University, remembers vividly the “old” Chico High building.
“The year they tore the old building down, I, my wife and two sons hauled about 3,000 bricks from the rubble, cleaned each one and built a fireplace and the front of my home. Quite often I look at the fireplace and recall exactly what the building looked like.”
Class of ‘80
Charles Feldhaus was one of the speakers for his graduating class. He remembers fondly his favorite teachers, “who worked me the hardest.”
“These were Mr. Clark, my agriculture teacher, Future Farmers of America leader and greenhouse instructor; and Pat Wismer, my honors English and photography instructor. Both taught me how to use my skills daily and to be creative with my talents. Pat Wismer made us write daily essays and took us to theater in San Francisco. Mr. Clark made me the greenhouse manager for a year so that I could better learn ornamental horticulture, learn record-keeping, get along with my peers and be part of Future Farmers of America.
“I ended up with enough scholarships to help me through the first two years of CSUC, while I worked my way through the rest. I think the things I appreciated most about these two instructors is that they posed a daily challenge for me; I rose to the challenge and I think I did better for it. Thank you!”
Mrs. Araks V. Tolegian (Vartabedian)
Class of ‘34
“I was the youngest member of the Vartabedian children,” Tolegian remembers in a letter. “My father and mother came to Chico in 1910 and never left. My brother (still living in Chico at 92) was not the best of Chico High School students. He evidently didn’t get along well with the chemistry teacher because he was ‘kicked out’ of the class in his senior year.”
When Tolegian enrolled in the same class, the teacher held her brother’s reputation against her. “One day, after we started to write answers to many difficult test questions, Mr. Paulsen came by my desk, grabbed the paper I was working on and yelled at me. He stated loudly that I was cheating on the test. ‘I don’t care if you are graduating,’ he yelled. ‘I’m going to flunk you for cheating. Get out of my class!’ I was stunned and couldn’t believe what was happening. The class members were shocked.” She went to the dean of girls, Mrs. Stamper, who believed Tolegian was being honest and stood up for her.
She also recalls an event that happened not to her, but to her friend Vivian H. Jenkins, another 1934 graduate. “Her good friend, a previous Chico High School graduate, was the only son of a PG&E manager. His parents had given him a motorcycle and then a small airplane, which he flew all over Butte County. One day he landed his plane on the Chico High School football field, had my friend get into the plane, and took her off to lunch.”
Class of ‘71
“The fall of 1968 saw a new educational innovation at Chico High: the Modular Scheduling System, a.k.a. the ‘Mod’ schedule,” writes Tim Milhorn. “And what a fitting name, because all the cool stuff was ‘mod’ in the late-'60s.
“The students loved it; the old-timers hated it. Now, as a teacher myself for the past 22 years, I understand why many teachers disliked the schedule. In today’s parlance, it sucked. The Mod System broke classes into 20-minute blocks, or mods. On some days you might have a class for only one block; to make up the minutes, you would have the class four mods later in the week. This looked great on paper. It prepared kids for college! It lent more freedom to the educational process! It would promote learning! It lasted only three years,” Milhorn remembers.
“Luckily for me it was the three years I attended Chico High. When I graduated in 1971, the district couldn’t wait to get rid of the schedule. Because I always voluntarily took summer school, I earned enough credits to only have to take four classes my last semester at Chico High. Thanks to the modular schedule, I would sometimes have two classes for three mods in the morning and be done for the day. Did I tell my parents this? Hell no.
“In between classes taught by such diverse personalities as Bernie Richter and George Wright (both great teachers), me and my buddies spent a lot of time in the CHS parking lot. What we did there I won’t say. But to quote a friend of mine at the time: ‘I got my schooling in the classroom, but I got my education in the Chico High parking lot.’ That sums it up nicely.”
Lois Lash (Rife)
Class of ‘47
The way Lois Lash recounts her memories of high school, she makes Chico sound like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry. She remembers sock hops and dances “just about every weekend,” seeing movies at the Senator, and winding up weekend dates at one of the two ice cream shops (one on Main Street, one on Broadway) that used to thrive downtown.
The ice cream shops, Lash remembered, were both called Kootchie’s and were run by two brothers.
“Everyone, and I mean everyone, went there to have their cherry Coke or black-and-white or whatever and see people and talk,” she said. “It was just great.”
These were the post-war years, and Lash said Chico was a quiet and peaceful place to live—although she wasn’t aware of just how idyllic it was then. These days, Lash lamented, high school kids are too immersed in the busy society around them to appreciate “the simple things.”
“Nowadays, kids have to be involved with the Internet and computer games and e-mail,” she said. “We just had our favorite music and that was fine. It was more innocent then.”
Lash’s father owned and operated Square Deal Mattress Factory, and she worked there during high school. She, like many of her classmates, married the year after she graduated and eventually had three sons. Her eldest son now operates the family business, and she still works part-time there. She’s been married for 54 years.
“I think kids of today are just more aware of the world than we were,” Lash said. “Now there’s so much more technology than we ever even thought of. We were more interested in boys and sock hops and dances then.”
Class of ‘56
After football and basketball games, Syl Lucena remembers heading over to the city’s old rec center building (which has since been torn down) for an old-fashioned school dance.
“It was a very innocent time,” said Lucena, who now owns Collier Hardware. “… It was great.”
These were the pre-Pleasant Valley days, when Chico’s main high school rivalry was with Oroville High School. At least once a year, Lucena said, CHS students would hike up to the big “Oroville” sign painted into Table Mountain and replace the “O” with a “C.”
“I remember going down with the Chico kids a couple of times and helping paint it back to the ‘O’ as a friendly gesture,” Lucena said. “It was always fun.”
Lucena was born and raised in Chico and has himself raised a family here.
Donna Roninger (Williams)
Class of ‘62
When Donna Roninger entered high school, cruising was the favored pastime.
“It was the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, and everyone was into it,” she said. “It was just like [the movie] American Grafitti. We’d get into our cars and drive from one end of town to the other and look for people to hang out with.”
She laughs, recalling her old high school hangouts. There was the Sno-White Drive-In (now Nash’s) on the Esplanade and the Chicken Kitchen (now Morning Thunder Café), and both places were teeming with high-schoolers every weekend.
“You’d drive up, and there would be a waitress who would come out and put a tray with a Coke right in your window,” Roninger remembered. “We were pre fast food.”
When Roninger graduated from high school, the city of Chico had only about half of the population (about 30,000 people) it has now. Social roles at Chico High were clearly defined between the “good kids” and the “bad kids,” she said.
“There were the greaser-type kids and the good kids—the jocks,” she said. “But what was bad back then was pretty tame compared to now. It was stuff like smoking cigarettes and maybe drinking on the weekends. That was considered really bad back then.”
The school maintained a heavy—and usually lighthearted—rivalry with Oroville High School, she said. Roninger said the Oroville kids would regularly paint Chico High’s popular Senior Bench with the word “Oroville.”
Roninger’s Chico roots run deep. Her mother graduated from Chico High (class of 1940), as did Roninger’s own daughter (class of 1981). She’s now working to organize her class’s 40th anniversary, which will coincide with the Centennial celebration.
Class of ‘76
Laughing, Mark Hardesty recalled where his favorite hang-out was in high school. “It was the Orange Julius,” he said. “We spent a lot of time there, talking and eating.”
The old Orange Julius store was in the downtown storefront where Aca Taco is now, he said. Hardesty remembered that during lunch time the place would be teeming with high-school kids.
Hardesty, who attended Chico State after he graduated high school, said that on weekends he and his classmates saw movies at the Starlight Drive-In on the Midway. On hot days, they’d head out to the Washout to swim in the river.
“That was back when you could still drive right down there,” Hardesty, who now works for the CUSD, remembered.
Class of ‘80
By the time Marc Lucena entered high school, the town had grown considerably since his father, Syl, attended Chico High, but it was still a small town. Chico had yet to sprawl out into the commercial beltway of East 20th Street, and the acres of grasslands north of town were still undeveloped and open. The Esplanade was Chico’s main drag, and Lucena remembers cruising the Saturday-night streets in his friends’ cars, music blaring.
He played a lot of tennis and went water skiing with his friends at Lake Oroville, where he’d see many of his classmates from school.
The town was more conservative then than it is now, Lucena observed. High-school students are far more sophisticated now than they were back in the late 1970s, he said.
“I see the kids [from Chico High] at 7-Eleven now, and I have to say, ‘Am I getting older or are they getting weirder?’ I suppose it’s a little of both. We never had the pink hair and the tattoos and the piercings then. If we had long hair, that was a big thing.”
Class of ‘76
Dan Sours, perhaps a tad jaded after serving as president of the local teachers’ union, remembers when he was a lowly student at a much less-crowded Chico High School. “We were much smaller—like half,” he said, and people had an appreciation for that because Pleasant Valley High School had opened only a few years earlier.
He said that leaving Chico High as a student and coming back as a teacher “was really weird at first. It hadn’t been that long since I’d been in high school, and most of my teachers were still there.” Now he’s a veteran, with 16 years under his belt. He teaches math in the same room where he learned calculus.
“The girls’ fashions right now are just dead in line with when I was in high school. It just cracks me up,” he said. “Kids are all the same.”
One difference he remembers ended in the middle of Sours’ sophomore year. “1973 was the year they took the curtain down in the gym. [Before that] You weren’t allowed to see girls exercising in the gym.”
One year, Sours remembers, the administration asked the student body president to resign because he was too outspoken.
It was during Sours’ time as a student that the “Day on the Green” was started that continues today. The lunch period was extended, and students’ bands would play and clubs would have food booths. “It was just new, fun—lying out on the quad, soaking up the rays and listening to bad teenage music—mostly Creedence Clearwater Revival wannabees.”
Class of ‘64
“Well, it was a slow year,” Phil Wallin deadpans when asked why his Chico High classmates voted him “Most Intelligent” of the class of 1964.
“Actually, I think the reason they did was that the summer before my family moved to Red Bluff and I stayed enrolled in Chico High and commuted every day. That’s why they thought I was so intelligent.”
Wallin says in the early ‘60s there was more respect for learning, that the social status system had a lot to do with how well you did in class. This was a time just before “the culture of rebellion” spread across the nation as the country became deeply mired in the Vietnam War.
“We were pretty straight-laced, and you got your esteem by having your act together,” Wallin said recently from his home in Portland.
After high school, Wallin graduated from Stanford in 1968, and then from the University of Chicago School of Law in 1974.
“I think the fact I never practiced law may have been the smartest thing I ever did,” he said.
Instead, Wallin began working for the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands, living in New Mexico from 1980 to 1988. He then moved to Portland and founded the River Network, and just last year he established the non-profit organization called the Western Rivers Conservancy.
Last month the River Network honored Wallin with the James R. Compton River Achievement Award.
Thanks to Ron Pope, Roger Williams, Peter Milbury, John Nopel, Dan Sours, Krissy Hahn, Stephanie Starmer and Jacqui Windsor for help with historical research.