Everett High School’s grand old hall turns 100

With nicknames like Soapy, Swede and Aristotle, the teens in trousers and bow ties or ankle-length dresses marched two abreast up 25th Street to Colby Avenue, a thoroughfare for horses and buggies.

An elegant new Everett High School, it would be described later, “stood to receive them.”

It was a momentous time for a gritty mill town. Everett’s population had tripled to 24,000 in 1910 from 8,000 in 1900. Their old high school on Oakes Avenue was bursting with students.

On that Friday afternoon, the students got their first glimpse inside the spacious three-story beaux-arts building.

For $198,000, including land, the community built what the Everett Daily Herald described as “the most complete and modernly equipped educational institution of the Pacific coast.”

The following Monday, Jan. 31, 1910, the school opened to classes for the first time. At an assembly, Everett schools Superintendent D.A. Thornburg told the students, “I believe that this ground has been especially set aside by providence for the purpose of a high school.”

It was, in fact, the financial panic of 1907 that forced Alfred R. Whitney to reduce his price to the Everett School Board to $21,102.08 for the prime vacant city block. Just two years earlier on that very spot, Buffalo Bill Cody brought his Wild West show and “Congress of Roughriders of the World” to perform for 50 cents a head.

One hundred years later, the “A” or Main Building, as it is often called, stands as the grand old edifice of Everett education. The campus today spans seven buildings spread over more than four city blocks, but the imposing pressed-white-brick landmark dominates the landscape.

The school has produced authors and actors, mechanics and surgeons, barbers and engineers, principals and professors — and a native son named Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, who served as a congressman for decades and made a strong bid to become president of the United States. Many cruised Colby as kids and then went on to become leaders as adults.

Everett High School graduates spilled blood when their country called — as far back as the Spanish-American War. World War II claimed the lives of more than 100 former students, including Margaret Billings, an Army nurse killed in 1945 aboard a ship attacked by a Japanese pilot on a kamikaze mission. Billings is believed to be the only woman from Snohomish County to die in World War II.

The school counts among its graduates winners of the Academy Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Olympians, a Super Bowl quarterback, a governor, U.S. representatives and two U.S. senators.

It also laid the bedrock within the local community with alumni such as Harry Spencer, who graduated in 1939, went off to fight in World War II and came home to be a banker in town for 35 years. Two of his four sons became student body presidents at the high school.

During Spencer’s years at Everett High, he would catch the interurban trolley from his parents’ family-owned grocery store in Beverly Park to get to school each morning. He remembers being in Agnes Pheney’s second-floor English classroom when roof beams for the Civic Auditorium across the street collapsed during construction.

By 1944, he was part of a B-29 bomber crew on missions that took him over the Himalayas to bases in China, Japan and Singapore.

Today, a year after his 70-year high school reunion, he looks back with reverence at the A building that helped shape his formative years.

“It has a strong bond,” he said. “So many of the newer buildings don’t have that.”

Aside from a Snohomish School District building, no school building in Snohomish County has served students longer. In 1910, large numbers of immigrants from Sweden, Norway and Germany attended the new school. Today, recent arrivals from Ukraine, Mexico, Africa and Iraq are part of the student body.

Everett High School once took in students from south Everett, Silver Lake, Mukilteo and what is now Mill Creek before five other large high schools were built in those communities. Enrollment peaked in 1962, with a graduating class of 667 students. The next year Cascade High School had its first graduating class.

The A Building, with its ornate terra cotta entrance arches, elaborate cornice works and keystones over windows and doors, is “the crown jewel of the school,” said Larry O’Donnell, a 1955 graduate who became a teacher, principal and facilities director for the Everett School District. “Frankly, I think it’s the crown jewel of the community, not just its appearance but the role it’s played in the community.”

“It’s like working in a cathedral,” said Catherine Matthews, Everett High principal the past five years. “I can’t think of another high school building more beautiful and stately.”

Generations of Seagulls

The A building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, also serves as a community symbol that ties together families and generations.

From his second-floor classroom, English teacher Bruce Overstreet can look out over the gently curving sidewalks and neatly trimmed lawn of the courtyard and spot his sons Evan and Matt among the 1,550 students scurrying to class.

The 1980 Everett graduate is among several alums teaching at the school.

“There is that sense of glue, that here is something we all have in common whether a first-generation immigrant or a fourth-generation student ” Overstreet said. “I truly anticipate that at least three of my four kids will come back and live within a couple of miles of this place.”

“I always knew I wanted to go to Everett High,” said Evan Overstreet, a freshman, who walks the same 16-foot-wide corridors in the main building as his mom and dad, grandparents and great-grandparents once did.

“It just feels like there is so much history here,” said Bobby Gebert, another fourth-generation Everett High student whose brother and cousin attend the school.

That history includes large public events and distant personal memories.

Louise Edmundson, 103, was Louise Stiger in May of 1925 when she sang as a soprano the lead role of Theresa in the Everett High School production of “Captain Crossbones.” From her assisted living home in Seattle, she still smiles at the memory of being carried off the stage by a band of pirates in what was then the main building’s auditorium, a venue where she also sang a solo at commencement.

Eighty years later, she can rattle off names of her teachers, remembering how much she dreaded Latin and loved her music teacher, the “beautiful and vivacious” Miss Sather, who inspired countless students.

Edmundson went on to major in music and become a kindergarten teacher, and she still plays piano once a week to entertain friends at the retirement home.

She was one of many Stigers, including her two brothers, to have roamed the halls of the main building over the decades.

Some married their high school sweethearts.

Tom “Mack” and Rosemarie (Saad) Stiger were part of the Everett High School Class of 1956. Tom later returned as be vice principal in the 1980s. Todd, one of their three sons, and Gretchen (Shockey) Stiger were in the Class of 1985 and have had two sons graduate from Everett. A daughter will attend the school next fall.

“I love that building,” said Rosemarie Stiger. “I just love the school. It’s part of our lives.”

Today, Everett High is a mix of old and new.

A large bank vault that once kept school district records remains in the school’s basement. It has been part of the school since the day it opened in 1910. Trophy and display cases share a rich past of state sports and academic championships, club activities, and school chess masters.

Students still receive their Nesika yearbooks each June, read the Kodak student newspaper and sing the school alumni song at assemblies.

A stable place

Long gone from the original school is the foundry. So, too, are banking and typing classrooms.

One of the main building’s enduring qualities is the sense of stability it has provided in a dramatically changing world and how it embodies “the realization of a solid past,” said Dick Hanson, a 1955 Everett graduate who returned to serve as principal of the school from 1974 to 1984.

He is one of just two Everett High graduates to eventually become principal of the school. The other was classmate Lee Van Winkle.

They were part of a remarkable graduating class that included Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom; Tom Tiede, a Vietnam War correspondent, syndicated columnist and author; and William Prochnau, a journalist and author whose latest book, “Miracle on the Hudson: The Survivors of Flight 1549,” chronicles pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s lifesaving landing on the New York waterway.

Class member Jack Holl is chairman of the history department at Kansas State University, while fellow Everett graduate Allen Kelley is chairman of the economics department at Duke University.

Suggestions to close Everett High School in the 1960s and build a new campus by Everett Memorial Stadium never gained traction.

“It was the Everett high school for years and years,” said Mike Gunn, the district’s facilities director. “I think the historical aspects of it are deeply rooted in the community.”

“It is a treasure,” said Ed Petersen, the Everett School Board president and a 1964 graduate. “The building represents an amazing history. Being in that building, you just felt this sense of awe.”

Hanson, like many other graduates, was chagrined when the school district built an elevated block of an administration building in the 1960s that blighted the front of the main building for 30 years.

There were celebratory whoops when it was torn down in 1995 as part of a $9.5 million renovation that included a painstaking masonry restoration of the old building and modernization work inside.

The contract went to the Kirtley-Cole. The project was close to the hearts of company founders, Ray Kirtley and Gordon Cole, both Everett High School graduates. Overstreet, the 1980 graduate who came back to teach, was surprised by his reaction when the main building emerged from the shadows.

“I literally started crying,” he said. “I just remember how drab it was before and then I realized how gorgeous it was.”

Cole, who cruised Colby in a 1947 Ford as a teenager, went from taking history classes in that in the 1950s to preserving the structure’s history in the 1990s. He remembers the intricate masonry on the outside of the building, particularly the cornices “that took an awful lot of time and care,” and digging up and relocating time capsules.

“We were excited to do that project. It was a special job,” he said. “It was in our hometown.”

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com.

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