Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Student Story: Class of ’51 revisits William Penn HS, with memories, regrets.

Members of the class of ‘51 sing their alma mater.

Members of the class of ‘51 sing their alma mater.

Just across from the lush, green, life-filled Italian Lake is a contrasting site.

William Penn High School closed its doors permanently in 2010 and now sits gray, lifeless, crumbling. Its empty halls, once bustling with the sounds of students, lay silent.

Recently, though, a bus stopped at the entrance, its cargo not teenagers of 2016, but students of a past era.

Alumni from the William Penn High School class of 1951, 35 of them, gathered at the school in May to visit their alma mater.

After taking a bus tour of Uptown Harrisburg, the eclectic group, who hailed from as far away as Arizona, mingled and waited for a Harrisburg district representative to let them into the school.

When asked how it felt to be here again, Edgar Alston—“Eggie” as he was affectionately known way back when—chirped an enthusiastic “Great!” When asked about his fondest memories from William Penn, he replied, “Sports.” Fred Dougherty, another alumnus, piped in over Alston’s shoulder, “The best,” referring to Alston.

Alston, who participated in football, baseball and track, proudly recalled that the football team was undefeated in 1951. He received scholarships to attend college, but, after about a year, he left to join the Air Force and head overseas.

“I didn’t wait to go,” he said.

It had been 65 years since many folks had been to the school, and their faces showed them sorting through the tickler file of memories. Some had an easier time than others. The nametags, dotted orange identifying the alumni, helped. Alston said he only remembered one face—that of class President Jim Smith.

Smith recalled with zeal the things he’d done since leaving William Penn. He graduated from Lehigh University and worked as a geophysicist. After retiring from the Office of Naval Research, he bicycled across Cuba in 2000. Classmate Carl Nurick, who traveled from Texas, chimed in about Smith.

“He has retained a position of respect from all of us,” he said.

It was apparent that this class exudes admiration for their school and one another.


Kinder, Gentler

Mara (Layton) Moore lives in the Philadelphia area and hadn’t been to William Penn since she graduated. She recalled that, on nice days, she ate her brown-bag lunch at Italian Lake, riding the bus one way for 7 cents (walking the other) and paying 3 cents for a school milk.

Boyd Strain recollected that it was a kinder and gentler time.

“I don’t even relate to what’s going on in the schools today,” he said.

While times were good, they weren’t perfect.

“We were poor,” Strain said.

He noted that black folks worked mainly janitorial or housekeeping jobs, and white folks had better paying manufacturing and railroad work. He added that school was mainly equal—aside from the segregated sock hops—but life outside of school was not.

“The opportunities weren’t there because our parents didn’t have good jobs,” he added.


Sweat and Tears

John Gallagher, director of facilities for the school district, arrived and unlocked the doors for the eager octogenarians.

As they entered the school, the first thing they noticed was the dark. The electricity was out. Just inside the entrance, to the right, stood a large trophy case—empty.

Smith inquired about the trophies before entering the school and, upon seeing them gone, said, “A lot of people had sweat and tears in those.”

Likewise, a number of his classmates expressed concern about the trophies’ whereabouts.

Next came the auditorium. On the wall, hidden in the inky blackness, rests the school’s life motto. Edna (Heck) Baker didn’t need the light to recall it. She pronounced it aloud: “So teach us to number our days so that we may apply our hearts to wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

As the group continued to the right, sunlight illuminated the hallways of their youth. The peeling paint and fallen plaster served as a reminder of the school’s age—it opened in September 1926.

For some, it was hard to see the school in such disrepair. Alston, with nostalgia across his face, described the 43-acre campus he remembered.

“That hall goes a quarter-mile that way.”

He pointed left.

“There’s the football field and two tennis courts,” he said. “It was a beautiful school.”

He added that it was a shame that no one could find a way to keep it up.

Kenneth Markley, a member of the reunion committee, joked that he didn’t have a note from his mother.

“It’s been 65 years since I’ve been here,” he said. “I might get detention!”

Some alumni wanted to venture further into the school, but safety wouldn’t allow it. The friendly banter and memory-sharing continued as they meandered outside. Their visit was over.

As the Class of 1951 made their way to the bus, much slower than the last time they boarded here, some walked with assistance from canes or companions. It was impossible not to see the similarities between these people and the building. Both still stand proud, even as age has affected them, and both remain filled with wonderful memories of William Penn High School.

Author: Susan Ryder


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