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Danville Express

Living - February 20, 2009

Presenting the Past: Historical Society plaque recalls high school origins

by Beverly Lane

On Aug. 23, 2003, the Historical Society dedicated its 17th plaque, this time in front of San Ramon Valley High School. Set on a handsome brick monument, it recalls the valley's first high school, which began classes in 1910. The new high school building was constructed in 1916-1917 and opened for students in March 1917.

At the dedication, graduates recalled the beauty of the school, the camaraderie of the small classes, and the rural life they led. The school was designed by Norman Coulter in a popular Mission style with classic arches and a tile roof, surrounding a courtyard. Ivy grew to soften the building over the years.

Speaking at the dedication were three graduates. Millie Freitas (class of 1936) recalled that, when she grew up, Diablo Road was still used by horse-drawn wagons with only an occasional car. Ardith Osborn Steger ('39) said all five of her brothers and sisters attended; she went to UC Davis and then taught home economics at her alma mater. Historical Society President Betty Mattos Casey ('55) said there were 80 students in her class.

The Society's Landmarks Committee, composed of Gerald Apostolo, Jim Casey and Mark Stott, planned and placed the column and plaque. Teacher Jeff Torquemada developed the drawing, which was cast in bronze and made at the Richmond Brass Foundry. Steve Staats, an owner of Morgan's Masonry Supply, donated the materials, and brick mason Pasquale Palmieri donated his time to build the brick monument.

Assistant Superintendent Rob Stockberger helped get the monument placed and spoke that day, with Danville Mayor Mike Shimansky joining the graduates in cutting the ribbon. About 40 people attended.

Students in the first classes began some long lasting traditions. They chose green and gold as the school colors and named the annual The Valley Kernel in 1914, a name that lasted until 1955. The early Kernels provide slices of life in the pastoral valley, with photographs, short stories and special dedications.

Original information about the school's early years can be read in the school board's minute books, Valley Kernels and newspapers. Prominent in those early years was a rancher named Will Stewart whose service to the community included being secretary and president of the school board for 34 years. He also founded the Contra Costa County Good Road League, was Grange Worthy Master and lecturer, and served as a Presbyterian Church deacon from 1909 to 1935. In the early 1950s, he donated land on Diablo Road for the Danville Grange building, which is still used today.

The school board minute books themselves have an interesting history. They were rescued from fire two different times. According to historian Inez Butz, Stewart did much of his secretary writing at the Presbyterian Church office on Front Street. When the church burned down in 1932, Jim Root ran to the unlocked church office, grabbed up papers and carried out as much as he could. One of the school minute books still is singed from that fire.

When Stewart died in 1955, his sister Victoria was clearing the house and invited Miss Butz to take some of Will's books. As she was leaving, she saw a box with old newspapers next to the door. Victoria said the box was on its way to the incinerator but that, if Butz wanted it, she should take it. Miss Butz reported that months later "I got that box out of my wood box and came upon this record entitled 'The Clerk's Record of the SRVUHS Dist, of CCC' from March 31, 1910, to March 23, 1923 .. .this volume, beat up as it is, is living history, as alive today as the day it was recorded - names, dates, action, reactions, questions, doubts - it is all there."

Stewart himself wrote a brief high school history in the 1925 Valley Kernel. In that year the total enrollment had grown to 89 with 15 graduates and six teachers. Auto mechanics was added to the curriculum and a Honor Scholarship Society was established.

The San Ramon Valley Union High School was the valley's only high school from 1910 to 1966 when Monte Vista High School was opened.

Sources: Inez Butz speech May 1, 1984; Valley Kernels; Museum archives; Contra Costa History Center archives; San Ramon Valley Herald, Aug. 24, 2003.

Beverly Lane is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon" and "Vintage Danville: 150 Years of Memories."

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