History, tradition, and memories. That’s why we love our high schools here in St. Louis. Like it or not, “the question” has helped us make connections for generations. Plus, at cocktail parties it’s a great conversation alternative to politics. Nothing wrong with that!
About a dozen years ago, I decided it was time someone wrote a book about St. Louis’s high school obsession. So, Where’d You Go to High School? The Baby Boomer Edition was published in 2005. As I did my research, I discovered hundreds of tidbits of history, fascinating traditions, and totally useless but amusing trivia about high schools in the St. Louis region. They’re too good not to share, so here goes.
Sumner High's first football team. Missouri Historical Society collections.
- Sumner High School, established in 1875, was the first black high school west of the Mississippi River. Sumner has had a football team ever since the early 1900s, but in the early years, the team wasn’t allowed to play against white high schools in St. Louis. Because there were no other black high schools here, Sumner’s opponents were black colleges, such as Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.
- In June 1951 legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow narrated a radio program, "The Commencement Story," that featured the graduation day activities of our very own Affton High School coast to coast across the CBS radio network.
- The largest pool hall west of the Mississippi was in the basement of Saint Louis University High School. (There was a rifle range down there, too!)
- It took Mehlville High 35 years to form a varsity football team. Also, legend has it the school was built on the site of a former gypsy camp.
Cleveland High School, 1920s. Photograph by W. C. Persons. Missouri Historical Society collections.
- Cleveland High School was built on land once used as a vineyard by the Bardenheier wine family. Also, until the 1950s the school operated its own independent electrical plant to furnish power to the whole building.
- The original site of St. Louis Country Day School is now one of Lambert Airport’s runways.
- When Lindbergh High opened in 1951, the school hadn’t yet received all of its furniture. As a result, each student was assigned a chair and had to carry that chair from class to class.
- Driver's ed became standard in the St. Louis public school system in 1940. Back then the Board of Education furnished one car per high school. By the time of Hazelwood High’s peak enrollment in the early 1970s, the school would sometimes have ten different driver’s ed cars “on the road” at the same time! (Hopefully they coordinated it so all ten cars weren’t on the same road!)
Roosevelt High School, 1937. Photograph by W. C. Persons. Missouri Historical Society collections.
- Roosevelt High in South St. Louis was built on the site of the former Old Picker Cemetery, where many of the victims of the great St. Louis cholera epidemic of 1849 had been buried. The cemetery was closed and graves were moved to other burial grounds to make way for the school’s construction in the early 1920s. But legend has it that not all the graves were moved, and to this day the spirits of those remaining haunt the school's fourth floor. I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d never go up there!
VIP Guests? Oh Yes!
Thoughout the years, many interesting VIPs visited the students of St. Louis–area high schools. Here are some of my favorite special-appearance tales:
- “March King” John Philip Sousa visited St. Louis in 1927 and conducted the school bands at both Cleveland and Maplewood high schools.
Peggy Lee, 1950. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
- In 1950 singer Peggy Lee made a special appearance at Southwest High School’s “Sweetheart Prom” in the Chase Park Plaza’s Starlight Room.
- One of Hollywood’s B-list actors—who’d pretty much given up on motion pictures to be the spokesman for General Electric—gave a speech on communism at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in 1962. A lot of kids in the auditorium that morning didn’t take him very seriously. Perhaps they would have if they’d known that 18 years later, Ronald Reagan would become president of the United States.
- Rock group The Knack (famous for the song “My Sharona”) performed a special free concert for 900 students in Kirkwood High's auditorium in September 1979.
Clayton Moore (TV's Lone Ranger) visiting his kemosabes at Mehlville High, February 1981. Image courtesy of Dan Dillon and Mehlville High School.
- TV’s Lone Ranger, Clayton Moore, was the guest visitor at Mehlville High in 1981. The band struck up “The William Tell Overture” as he walked into the gym. Moore then lectured the students on the virtues of clean living . . . and gave them a demonstration in gun twirling.
There you have it—an entire cocktail party's worth of fun factoids about our terrific high schools. Now go forth and astound!
—Dan Dillon, former KMOV producer and current MHS volunteer