What's in a name?
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
I’m a proud graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School (don’t ask me how that happened) in Tacoma, Washington. When I attended it was grades 10 through 12 and the school was huge - bursting at the seams - something like nearly 3,000 students. A new high school would open in my senior year - geared primarily to reduce the overload at Wilson - and even though I lived within the boundaries of the new school, the senior class was allowed to choose between the two - you know - school spirit and all that crap - and I opted to stay at Wilson. For me it had less to do with school spirit than it did with proximity to Owen Beach at Point Defiance Park and where my then girlfriend would be attending.
My time at Wilson was unremarkable given the era that I was there - for the most part I put in the bare minimum to get by - kept my textbooks in the trunk of my car - smoked a lot of weed - skipped a lot of classes - had a pretty darn good time - and oh yeah, somehow I managed to get a fairly decent education. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” comes to mind as I remember maneuvering through my three years there. To be certain, there were some teachers that I respected and admired, that challenged me to do my best. There were also many that did not. The school had three Vice Principals - each assigned to a class - and they moved through the years with you. Suffice it to say that by my senior year I was very well acquainted with Jack Beer - the Vice Principal for my class. In fact, I pretty much had my own little 2-person bench located just outside his office - in clear view of Mrs. Arnold - the bitch secretary with the modified beehive hairdo that would sit there and cluck like a chicken as I awaited to find out my fate. She always seemed somewhat let down if I didn’t get the hammer and she never missed an opportunity to say that she was certain that she would be seeing me again quite soon. NowI imagine that Mrs. Arnold could have been a nice person - that she was wholly capable of being a kind and caring human being, I just never saw a single shred of evidence that would give you that impression.
Now shocking as it may be, I was never exactly Mr. School Spirit - I put my time in as well as I could and left as soon as I could. In fact - I was “invited” to leave two weeks early in my senior year - the result of a senior prank gone wrong. Several of us were somewhat quietly allowed to leave - pay restitution - graduate on time - and promise never to darken the hall ways again. It worked for me and it certainly worked for Mrs. Arnold who was almost giddy at the prospect of never seeing me again.
Through the years I never attended a class reunion until the 40th - although much of that had to do with not living anywhere nearby and my general distaste for some bogus catered affair with a bad buffet and a DJ playing hits from the early 70s - just wasn’t how I wanted to spend precious vacation time in the summer. But I digress and I’m wandering - this was not meant to be an account of my high school years, fascinating as they might be to almost nobody - No - this is about a proposal to change the name of our dear old alma matter.
As I said, I did attend the 40th class reunion as I had retired just a few months earlier - and better yet, instead of the big production kind of thing, it was pretty low key and we basically just took over a popular restaurant/bar. I had a great time. Seems that at about the 40th class reunion people start looking at the long list of “In Memoriam”, think about their own mortality a bit more often - and someone decided that waiting 10 years between reunions was a bum deal. A Facebook group was started that represented an annual 6-class (1970-1975) picnic at our park of choice - Point Defiance - second largest metropolitan park in the nation after Central Park in NYC. I’ve never attended one of the picnics - always tell myself I’ll try to make it - this year would have been the 6th annual get together before coronavirus forced its cancellation. The group stays fairly active - but sadly it’s often about sending prayers to an old classmate that is having some sort of health issue - posting an obituary for a classmate who went to the other side, etc. There are also the inane sort of posts that explore such deep topics as who was your favorite teacher - what fast food joint on 6th Avenue did you like best - or what make, model and year car did you take your driving exam in. It was kind of a snoozy group until a couple of weeks ago.
At about that time there was an article in the newspaper about changing the name from Woodrow Wilson given Woodrow’s less than sparkling relationship with race relations. The group literally exploded with comments - to the point that a whole new Facebook group was created just to deal with the possible name change - for a guy who lives chiefly in quarantine these days it’s been most interesting to watch the shit show unfold.
To be certain Woodrow Wilson was no saint and there can be no denying that he was racist by any contemporary standard - he was likely racist by the standards of his time as well. He openly praised the KKK and he allowed his cabinet Secretaries to re-segregate the Federal government, erasing many advancements that had preceded him - and yet there are also somewhat compelling arguments to be made that he was one of our better Presidents, he guided us through World War I and he forged the way for the advances of the FDR era. At the end of the day though - he was definitely a schmuck when it came to race relations.
At first some of the discussion was almost comical as people thought of who the school could be named after now - many suggested that just dropping the “Woodrow” would be enough but others thought that would never be sufficient so they cast about for other Wilsons. One suggested Flip Wilson, another suggested Wilson the volley ball from Cast Away and yet another suggested Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart - a fine northwest band. Now of course none of these people had any kind of connection at all to the school but then neither did dear old Woodrow.
There are a handful of famous alumni - but few were mentioned. as possible people to rename the school for. Dale Chihuly - the world famous glass sculptor was class of 1959. His glass sculptures are in the best museums the world over and how I wish that I had bought a small sculpture back when he had a tiny gallery in Pioneer Square and an original could be had for about a hundred bucks.
Without a doubt, the most notorious alumni is serial killer Ted Bundy - class of 1965 - I guess I didn’t expect anyone to suggest that Ted be considered. Most people don’t even acknowledge that he too was a Wilson Ram.
There have been a handful of professional football players - none of whom became household names. Our most famous athlete was definitely Kaye Hall, class of 1969, who at age 17 swam her way into the record books and into our hearts when she won two gold medals (setting an Olympic record) and a bronze at the 1968 Summer Olympics during her senior year.
Not surprisingly, the name that came up most often was Dick Hannula - the legendary swim coach/teacher who led the Wilson swim team to 24 consecutive state championships and an unbelievable streak of 323 wins without a loss. He would certainly be deserving in my opinion if and when the name changes and if we insist on naming it after a person. While still a legend and swimming at age 92 - who’s to say that in the future we might find out that he kicked his dog or had indecent photos of Kaye Hall in the locker room - no, as Woodrow might tell us - you’re taking a chance when you name something after a person. Maybe it would just be better to call it Puget Sound High - or North End High or some such benign moniker.
So after a day or two of proposing names, the conversation took a turn for the worse - way worse - the crazies came out of the woodwork - the whole cancel culture crowd - erase our history - the folks that thought it was a direct assault on virtually every freedom guaranteed to us under the Constitution - anger - angst - and outright racism - phrases I hadn’t hear since the late sixties like they (the ubiquitous they) - should all just go back to Africa. BLM is a terrorist organization and we must not let the name change go through or “they” win.
Wow - all I can say is wow. Obviously there are people who identify far more with their three years at Woodrow Wilson than I do - I would hate to think those years were a highlight of my life and for God’s sake they were nearly a half-Century ago. None of us learned much about Woodrow Wilson while we attended high school and it’s clear that only a handful of people had learned anything about him since.
What I remember most are the friends and the memories that I made and despite those that think this is all part of an effort to erase our past - sorry - not possible. No name change can be retroactive and no matter what name they come up with now I will forever remain a graduate of Woodrow Wilson.
I began by being fairly ambivalent about the proposal to change the name - what does it really matter to me in my daily life so far removed from the hallways of Wilson? I drove by the school a couple of years ago and its been so remodeled/re-constructed that I barely recognized the place. I have a hunch that the school I attended is long gone already.
As the on-line conversation continued I have changed my mind about that - it is indeed time to find a better name than one that honors a racist - there is still too much pain and anguish and it’s still too close to the surface. It isn’t about erasing history or changing the past - it’s about evolving as a society over time and guiding our future. When the school opened in 1958 it was before the civil rights battles of the 1960s - the population of the north and west ends of Tacoma was almost entirely white and it would be a decade before court-ordered busing began to make serious changes to the make-up of the student body. I pray that the students of today have a better sense of racial and social justice than many of my contemporaries did - and unfortunately still do.
We all watched in horror in May as George Floyd was choked to death in Minneapolis - his alleged crime? He may have passed a counterfeit $20 bill at a convenience store. As I watched the horse-drawn carriage take John Lewis across the Edmund Pettus bridge for the last time yesterday, as his body makes its way to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol - I kept coming back to the fact that we all still have many bridges to cross before we can truly be home - before the the benefits and bounties of the U.S. Constitution apply equally to all peoples. We have made great strides - there is no doubt and we can absolutely celebrate that - but we still have much more work ahead of us - we can do this - we just have to want to.
There can be many things embodied in a name and it's time to ditch Woodrow Wilson from the name of a public high school
peace be with you - Hendo