Central legacy: Its peopleNestled between Grand and Weeks avenues on Belknap Street was a school of stately architecture representing a community of immigrants who wanted something better for their children, a place where education was accessible to all.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
Nestled between Grand and Weeks avenues on Belknap Street was a school of stately architecture representing a community of immigrants who wanted something better for their children, a place where education was accessible to all.
Central, which opened its doors for the first time in 1910, served as one of Superior’s high schools for more than 50 years before being utilized as a junior high for nearly 40 years.
During its 93-year history as a school, hundreds upon hundreds of Superior youth passed by the Coolidge Room, sat through concerts and plays in the auditorium nestled in the heart of the school, and roamed through its U-shaped corridors or cut through the mezzanine.
“Although I think the history of the building itself is important … the real story to me will always be the people who inhabited it,” said Teddie Meronek, co-author of a new book that retraces the history of some of the famous students who once attended the former school that served as a summer White House in 1928.
President Calvin Coolidge conducted the nation’s business from Central when he wasn’t fishing on the Brule.
The school was razed six years ago in spite of fervent efforts to save the three-story structure after school district officials failed to find a viable developer to redevelop the building where many of Superior’s famous sons and daughters were educated.
“It was important for us to write this book because the tangible evidence of the school’s existence is gone,” said Kathy Laakso, who partnered with Meronek to write the book. “No one 50 years from now will know it existed unless they like us who, on a regular basis, nose our way through microfilm and dusty papers. Most people don’t do that.”
The two started the project six years ago, after the building was razed.
“This book is about people and the amazing stories of their journeys through life,” Meronek said. “I’m in awe of what these people accomplished and hope the readers will be too. Tough times, such as world wars and Depression, emboldened these people to take chances and create interesting lives for themselves.”
Ironically, neither authors of “Central A to Z” attended the school.
Laakso said she, like her daughters, attended South Shore High School in Port Wing.
“We’re East Enders and everyone in my family attended East High or East Junior High,” Meronek said. “Believe me, I’ve taken a lot of harassment from family members because I’ve written a book about cross-town rival Central.”
However, many East alumni stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Centralites in the fight to save the historic school in 2003 and 2004.
“That’s another reason we wanted to write, not only its history, but about its demise,” Laakso said. “The earnest struggle of the people who tried to save it is now Superior’s history. It will be known that someone cared. America in general is very blasé about historic preservation.”
Meronek and Laakso agree they started without any clear criteria about whose stories would appear in the book – beyond ties to Central and having interesting stories to tell. The other criteria: Laakso and Meronek had to agree the individual story had a place in the book.
And both had their disappointments, those who didn’t make the cut, from political cartoonist Dan Fitzpatrick who Laakso would have liked to include, but Fitzpatrick attended Blaine High School before Central was built.
“I think the hardest part of this book, other than finding photos, was to decide who was going to make the cut,” Meronek said. “I would have liked to have included two of Central’s principals, Clifford Wade and Maurice Brown, in the book but we just didn’t have room.”
The co-authors agree it was finding photos that presented the biggest challenge but provided the greatest triumphs in writing the book.
The book includes two award-winning photographers, a World War II flying hero, Hall of Fame athletes and people who truly shaped Superior.
“We found a natural time period for outstanding people during the Great Depression and WWII,” Laakso said. The only Central alumni featured in the book who are alive today are Lew Martin, a 73-year media veteran who worked in radio until television got its start in the Twin Ports, and Bud Grant, founder of the Minnesota Vikings.
Meronek and Laakso agree there were times that life got in the way of finishing the book, when more analysis was needed or facts had to be checked, but they wanted to get the book done published in time for the all-school reunion Aug. 3-4 to celebrate the school’s centennial year.
Proceeds of the sale of the book benefit Douglas County Historical Society, which is launching an exhibit dedicated to Central’s years as a high school, 1910-1965, “Central Centennial: What in the James J. Hill Was Going On?” The exhibit highlights school life, the Coolidge Room and teachers.
“One of those was Lulu Dickinson, who, in 1927, was fired by the board of education for speaking out against the policies of the new superintendent,” Laakso said. “She feared that they threatened to diminish the quality of education. The school board had no idea what they were getting into when over 1,000 students went out on strike.” The story was inspiration for an original play, “Strike for Dickie!: The People vs. the Board of Education” that will be performed July 30-Aug. 7 on the DCHS Theatre History stage.
A grand opening for the exhibit and book signing for “Central A to Z” is slated for Saturday, at 2:55 p.m., the time of Central’s final bell of the day. Both events are happening at the Douglas County Historical Society, 1101 John Ave., Superior.
“I think people will love seeing this exhibit about Central,” Meronek said. “We have tried to highlight different eras of the school’s history in a unique way. I don’t want to give away too many secrets – people will just have to drop by and see if for themselves.”