Celebrate centennial legacy of West Tech: Bonnie Dangler

West Tech High School

Celebrate centennial legacy of West Tech: Bonnie Dangler

Published: Sunday, February 12, 2012, 5:58 AM

When West Technical High School opened its doors 100 years ago on Feb. 15, 1912, it didn't make headlines. Some 200 students trudged through snow and walked across ramps to get into their new building. Once they got in, they used ladders to move between floors since stairwells also were incomplete. The country was experiencing an industrial and economic explosion, and West Tech would be the West Side's answer to help meet the demands for workers with specialized skills.

As West Tech prepares to celebrate its centennial legacy, we hear a familiar echo. A Plain Dealer front page on Jan. 29 tells us that some manufacturers are"Trying to sell young workers on blue collars." It didn't take a lot of selling at West Tech, long Ohio's largest and proudest high school, with its enrollment peaking past 5,000 by 1939. Generations of students knew they would graduate with employable skills for good blue-collar jobs. Others chose college preparatory tracks and left with the same confidence to excel in college and beyond.

West Tech prided itself on being an equal opportunity learning institution. By 1922, both sexes took horticulture and participated in West Tech's first flower show. The same year, boys got a foundry; just a few years later, girls were able to enroll in a printing class. Another decade passed before the first female student enrolled in an electrical course previously exclusive to boys.

After World War II, the "Carpenters" became the "Warriors" to better reflect the broader range of the school's curriculum, but vocational training remained paramount. To meet the community's call for skilled labor, a new aviation center and welding and auto mechanic shops opened in 1949. Now that original auto body shop appropriately is an inside garage for the West Tech Lofts. Affordable luxury apartments in the repurposed school opened in 2003 with giant blackboards on some walls and rows of original lockers in major hallways.

The school and its graduates still stand for resiliency and optimism, tested through the Great Depression, every war, cross-town busing, fire, vandalism and even the threat of a wrecking ball after the last graduating class in 1995. Unflinching West Tech alumni, ever the "Mighty Warriors" heralded in their fight song, helped to thwart demolition and led the charge to save the building when they couldn't save the school.

Was it really that long ago when students scurried along on those one-way stairways, wore steel "dog tags" to ensure identification in case of a nuclear attack, or heard tales about Principal C.C. Tuck's track team for disobedient boys who ran early morning laps? Singer Kenny Chesney says it best, "Trust me, friend, a hundred years goes faster than you think. So don't blink."

For thousands of alumni who reminisce, that blink must be so confusing. Memories are too vivid, too real. Their school was as imposing as the 8-foot statue of President Abraham Lincoln, which stood in the front hall since 1919. For more than 30 years, the longest serving principal, "Mr. Tuck," was at its side through class changes, standing every bit as tall as the 16th president in the minds of students for his legacy of excellence in academics and discipline.

Today, the Lincoln statue has been restored and again stands proud in the West Tech Alumni Office and Museum within the West Tech building, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Nearby is a portrait of Principal Tuck, painted by another West Tech legend, art teacher Paul Ulen. For the first time since Lincoln came "home" last year, the statue will be on view to the public, as will the Tuck portrait, from July 17 through July 21 during special centennial tours and events.

The West Tech Alumni Association is encouraging alumni and their families to become a part of West Tech's legacy by donating scrapbooks, school insignia items, trophies and other memorabilia.