By Ruth Held
IN 1882 when Russ School was built—the forerunner of what would become San Diego High School—the city desperately needed more schoolrooms. San Diego had been a small Spanish and Mexican village for much of its first hundred years. In 1867 when Alonzo Horton passed up the little settlement now called “Old Town” and looked at the brush-covered, rabbit-infested terrain farther up the bay, he saw a vision of a city big enough to handle all newcomers. He bought the present downtown San Diego, 960 acres of it, for $275.
Horton was right. Fifteen years later, in 1882, his “New San Diego” was covered with houses inhabited by some 2500 persons.
Initially Old Town did have one small school. But by 1881, Horton’s New San Diego had two: B Street and Stockton schools—both full. City fathers saw the need for another school and decided to put it on the hill at the edge of the barren “City Park Reservation.”
The school was named after Joseph Russ, a lumberman from Humboldt, California who offered to donate the lumber. The Stewart brothers designed it (“free from gingerbread”) and Brown and Stevens built it. Excluding the worth of the lumber, it cost $18,428.73. Standing proudly on the hill, it could be seen from ships and railroad cars. Two stories high, it had eight classrooms—four on each floor. Two of the downstairs “recitation” rooms had a sliding. door between so they could be converted into an auditorium.
When Russ School opened on August 14, 1882, the San Diego Union said that 308 children reported, thirty-two more than there were seats for. The fathers quickly ordered fifty more seats and crowded them in.
J.C. Rice was the first principal of Russ School. His eight teachers included Kate Sessions, who was his substitute principal for four months while he was on leave. She was to become San Diego’s great gardener. Sessions planted the first climbing fig vines on the school and designed the beautiful landscaping of Balboa Park for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition. Mr. Rice was followed by Miss Halloway for a few months in 1886 and Professor Andrews for a year. By January 1888 a few high school classes had been added, taking over the upper floor, and the lower grades were moving out.
Russ High School in 1888 had a faculty of five and 100 students; by September 1893 there were 245 students. Four of these graduated in 1889. The colors blue and white were chosen in 1887. (Was it because the football team’s “uniform” was overalls and white shirts?) The first edition of the school’s newspaper, the Russ, was December 6, 1889; the first “Annual” appeared in June, 1889; Associated Student Body started in October 1899. By 1901 fraternities and sororities were active.
Women’s sports included basketball and rowing—Zlac Crew III gave a notable party in 1902. The fellows played football and baseball, and by 1903 had added basketball, track and tennis. The football team went to games at El Cajon and Escondido in a “tallyho carriage.” Mr. Lacey, the new science teacher in 1902, organized an orchestra. The Dramatic Club gave “Twelfth Night” at the Isis Theater in 1903 and raised $430. Next year they gave “As You Like It,” same place, with orchestra. There was a school launch ride across San Diego Bay to Roseville in 1903.
Jahiel K. Davis was the organizing principal of Russ High, followed by Frank H. Hyatt for two years, F.P. Davidson for seven years (leaving to become city superintendent of schools), Watson Nichols for a year, Harry Halliday four years, Nathan B. Coy several months, Harvey P. Chandler two years and Duncan McKinnon for a year, until 1906 when he became superintendent of schools.
Perhaps the most beloved staff member was Johnny Moffett, janitor for many years starting in 1890, helper and counselor of all students. (The City Schools Report for 1895-96 says the “chief janitor” got $60 a month; a high school teacher got $90).
Early teachers who were still on the faculty at the Fiftieth Anniversary in 1932 were Benjamin O. Lacey, science; and Lawrence M. Carr, languages, who arrived in 1904.
A gymnasium was built for Russ School in 1889, but was moved to University Heights in 1893. In 1899 an annex was added to Russ, but by 1902 the city had grown again, to 25,000 and the school was overcrowded. $133,000 in bonds was raised for a new high school. Old Russ was moved in 1906 to the back of the lot—where it burned in 1911.
The architect for the new high school was F.S. Allen of Pasadena. His design was very imposing, looking like a castle of large granite blocks with round towers, parapets and great oaken doors, a fitting monument to occupy the corner of the park—the cost, $225,000. It was dedicated on April 13, 1907 and stood for over sixty years looking down on the growing city. Officially known as San Diego High School, it was fondly called “The Old Gray Castle.”
By 1912 San Diego needed a second “castle” and the cornerstone was laid for a $200,000 home economics and science building. Also $145,000 was budgeted for a stadium, built in 1915 in the canyon back of the school. It was the biggest in the West, and President Woodrow Wilson would make a key speech there for his League of Nations.
A Junior College started in 1914, to stay on campus until 1921. By 1918 more classroom space was needed and “temporary” bungalows were built—they lasted until the 1960s.
From 1906 until 1910 the high school’s principal was Edward L. Hardy, who left to become head of San Diego State Teachers’ College. Arthur Gould served eight years, 1910-18, then became an assistant superintendent of schools in Los Angeles. Harry O. Wise took over at San Diego High in 1918.
With all those changes, how did it happen that San Diego High became such an extraordinarily good school? Perhaps it was the steadiness of the faculty. Early teachers who stayed at least until 1932—the Fiftieth Anniversary—were Elizabeth Freese, languages and girls’ advisor, who came in 1907; Shirley Charles, art, Maurice Wright, language, and L.C. Sherwood, mechanical drawing, 1908; H.H. Ross, science, 1910; Ada Jones, librarian and Gilbert Deere, history, 1911; Harriet Southwick, art, William Dunlevy, math, William Stanton, commercial law, 1912; Percy H. Herron, technical department, Bernet S. Hale, math, Mary Barkley and Anita Hathaway, both English, 1913; Louise Wilson and Katherine Dickson, English and Susan G. Stokes, science, 1914; Mr. and Mrs. William F. Reyer, music, and Thomas A. Walton, accounting, 1916; Ruth Price and Frances Reed, history, 1917.
Students during this time were enthusiastic about sports. The 1916 football team won the state championship. Several of its members showed up with Coach “Nibs” Price at U.C. Berkeley after World War I and played on the Cal “Wonder Team” of 1920 that beat Ohio State 28-0 in the Pasadena Tournament of Roses (the Rose Bowl was not built yet): “Brick” Muller, Cort Majors, Stanley Barnes, Karl Engebretsen, Carl Deeds, “Dutch” Eels, “Pesky” Sprott. Also under Price in 1917 San Diego High School won the Southern California championship in baseball, beating USC along the way.
But the most dramatic episode to concern students was the Strike of 1918. That June dismissal notices were sent to Principal Arthur Gould and about twenty teachers. The students were so indignant that they went out on strike, marched downtown to protest, and never came back that semester. The school board finally re-hired most of the teachers and Gould went to Los Angeles to a better job.
They’re called The Roaring Twenties, but San Diego High students didn’t find them wild. They did perhaps shock their elders with bobbed hair, lipstick, skirts worn above the knees and silk stockings “rolled” below the knees—and by dancing crazy new dances like the Charleston with the jazz music of radio, Victrola records and big bands. Although magazine cartoons of the day showed girls smoking and boys with hip flasks, most students didn’t smoke or drink. Only a few knew speakeasies and bathtub gin.
Girls at San Diego High wore uniforms—navy blue and white middies and skirts. Boys could join the ROTC and wear those uniforms to school; otherwise they wore jackets and ties, the youngest ones in short pants. Fads like dark glasses and earrings so disrupted class discipline they had to be suppressed.
Graduation was usually at the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park— boys in suits, girls in pastel “formals”—short one year, long another. Ditch Day for the February class was usually at Hulburd Grove, with hope of snow; the June class went by train to Del Mar and hoped for sun.
Baseball and football were the big sports, and “everyone”— urged on by boy cheerleaders at pep rallies—went to the games. The baseball teams won many honors, including, in 1921, the “national” championship against Cleveland. Football turned out some later well-known college stars like Hobbs Adams, Russ Saunders and Bert Ritchey. Track produced Harry Smith, 1923 national pole-vault champion, and in 1925 a national winning 4-man relay team. In 1926 Ed Moeller broke the state discus record and in 1928 Bill Miller set a new world interscholastic pole-vault record. In 1919 the school won the state championship in track.
San Diego High’s orchestra under Nino Marcelli was outstanding and the glee clubs, Grand Chorus and quartets under “Pop” Reyer were very popular.
Principals didn’t seem to last long in the twenties. Harry O. Wise, who had come in 1918, left in 1921, followed by two who left under a cloud, Thomas A. Russel, 1921-23 and Glenn O. Perkins, 1923-27. Then at last came John Aseltine, who lasted for many years.
San Diego High School soon became overcrowded again. In 1922 and 1923 the Girls’ and Boys’ gyms were built. The Freshman class was dropped when Roosevelt and Memorial Junior Highs were built in 1922 and 1923. La Jolla High, built in 1922 and Point Loma High in 1925 made a slight drop in the school’s numbers, but attendance had risen to 3,327 in 1928, with 132 on the faculty. Finally Hoover High opened in 1930 and the student body dropped to a manageable size. The Russ Auditorium, built in 1926, was big enough to house many San Diego civic events.
Prior to the construction of Russ Auditorium, Dee H. Nichols, Class of 1912, remembered a smaller auditorium:
“. . . a fine small theater, in which drama productions, operettas, assemblies, and sundry programs were held. Harold Lloyd was an ardent participant in excellent dramatic productions in the auditorium. Irma Case MacPherson, Class of 1915, now an ardent supporter of Old Globe Theatre, was often a leading actress in excellently portrayed plays in the ‘little theatre/ At least thru 1914 graduation ceremonies were held in the auditorium. On the north side of the auditorium was the large study hall, where Class Proms were held as was the June 1912 Senior Prom. However, my Freshman Prom in 1908 was held in a hall downtown. There were no weekly or monthly dances at San Diego High School in my era. Dancing was smooth and graceful. Music was classical—Strauss waltzes, etc.”
Fortunately, many other former San Diego High School students are still available to question regarding their years at the city’s oldest institution of higher learning. The following “recollections” by some of these students can perhaps best bring this brief history of the school up to the present.
Nona Straugn Andrews—Class of 1931
. . . Girls were victims of sexual discrimination: we were expected to wear uniform dress . . . Disregard for the rule meant a visit to Miss Freese and, probably, demerits. Meanwhile, male students went to see Mr. Taylor for smoking, swearing and setting trash cans on fire—but not to explain their style of dress.
We travelled to school by foot or by streetcar; no one had heard of Driver Education classes . . .
When we went dancing at the Mission Beach Ballroom, we put our arms around each other and danced close—relatively speaking.
Beverly Ohler—Class of 1946
The war had an effect on everything from what we could wear to where we could go. Saddle shoes and penny loafers were “in;” however until the late 1940s you had to be able to find them and have the ration stamps before you could proudly buy and wear them.
Fellows leaned towards unwashed Levi’s or cords with white shirts; girls wore skirts with lengths that started a few inches below the knees to several inches above and ended the decade with the “new look” of ankle length—ALL worn with bobby sox—it was the rule!
Kathy Hubbard Curran—Class of 1950
. . . The Sergeanette’s Ball, “Midnight Kiss” was a tradition every February; the new Colonel, Major and Captains were announced and a queen was crowned. The theme of the 1950 Commencement was “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Gift Day in Russ Auditorium, Prom at Mission Beach Ballroom, with Merle Carlson’s band. Commencement in Balboa Stadium (with 650 grads), the girls in white robes with white dresses underneath; boys in slacks, shirts and ties under blue robes . . . Dancing at Pacific Square on Saturday nights to Les Brown, Harry James, Frankie Lane . . .
Diane Chambers Nicol—Class of 1960
The beginning of the 1960s found us in the full swing of Rock and Roll music. Elvis was still on top of the charts and we enjoyed the Platters, Johnny Mathis, Chuck Berry, Paul Anka, and many more. We danced a lot in those days—remember the jitterbug, bunny hop, hully gully, and the ever present slow dance?
The in look was Ivy League all the way. The girls with pony tails, dyed-to-match sweaters and skirts (don’t forget matching socks) and the fellows with flat-tops or duck tails and button-down shirt collars.
John Aseltine remained as principal of San Diego High School until 1954, with Miss Freese his girls’ vice-principal through the thirties, then Ruth Munsell. Boys’ vice-principals were Ed Taylor, Bill Lyons, Percy Allen and Lawrence Carr, Jr. Mr. Carr followed Aseltine as principal and stayed through the sixties. His father, Lawrence Carr, Sr., had taught at San Diego High from 1904 to 1942, so between them there was a Lawrence Carr on the faculty for over fifty years, from the old Russ High through most of the life of the Old Grey Castle. Vice-principals under Carr were Ruth Munsell and Delight Smith, Percy Allen, Bob Heilbron, Bill Burrows and Bill Bailey.
It was during the 1970s that many of San Diego’s high school buildings were declared not earthquake-safe and therefore had to be replaced. Old grads were heartbroken when San Diego High’s “Gray Castle” was among those selected for demolition. Some took consolation in the fact that the building stubbornly resisted the wrecker’s ball and may have told others “See, it could have lasted forever.”
The new San Diego High School was designed by architect Delbert Cole of Richard George Wheeler and W. Gayne Wimer Architects. It utilizes the big entrance doors of the old building as well as the gargoyles from Russ Auditorium. The new school is sturdy, efficient and colorfully decorated. The climbing fig will eventually cover it as it did its predecessor. The dedication of the new plant was November 6,1976 and was built at a cost of $6,200,000.
In the 100 years since Russ School was built, the world may have seen more changes than in the previous 500, but youth, as always, took it in stride. Every generation seems to think it went to high school in the ideal time.
San Diego High in its hundred years has contributed many outstanding leaders to the city. The faculty, from the earliest days, inspired them to work to their very best, for themselves and their community. The city can be proud of those graduates of San Diego High School.
Amero, Richard W. The San Diego High School District and Balboa Park, 1977
Carr, Lawrence W., Jr. Interviews. Alumni File, San Diego High School.
The Clarion. Russ High School, 1896, pp. 8, 9.
“A History of San Diego High School, 1882-1932.” Quill and Scroll, Porterfield Chapter,
November 1932. Copy in the San Diego History Center Library.
Russ. “Memories of the Old Russ School by Gertrude E. Allen,” June 1913, pp. 140, 141.
San Diego High School Alumni News. Volume VI, No. II and Volume VII, No. II.
San Diego High School Annuals. Copies at SDHC Library.
The San Diego Schools Report for the school year ending June 30, 1895 to the Board of Education from Eugene DeBurn, Superintendent of Schools. Copy in SDHC Library.
THE PHOTOGRAPH of Russ School facing page 77 is from the San Diego Historical Society’s Title Insurance and Trust Collection. All others are courtesy of the San Diego High School Alumni Association.