Getting Schooled with “The Poly Optimist,” 25 January 1916

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It can be a challenge finding historical material on young people, including high school students, in greater Los Angeles during the museum’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930, though among the best sources are yearbooks and school newspapers. This is the third post in this blog highlighting, from the Homestead’s collection, an issue of The Poly Optimist, the newspaper produced by the students of Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, with this example being that published on 25 January 1916.

Los Angeles Poly began at the end of the 19th century as the commercial branch of the sole secondary school in the rapidly growing metropolis, Los Angeles High School, which opened in 1873. Halfway through the first decade of the 20th century, a dedicated campus was established at the corner of Flower Street and Washington Boulevard, reflecting the growth of the city to the south of its historic downtown core and making Poly, now the comprehensive John H. Francis Polytechnic Senior High School in the Sun Valley neighborhood at the east end of the San Fernando Valley.

In early 1916, the big news on campus was largely about the elections for the Associated Student Body Organization, the Girls’ League and the Boys’ Student League. For the A.S.B.O., there were positions of president (won by Alfred Bennett), vice-president, secertary, and members of the Board of Control, Boys’ Self Government, Girls Self Government, Reception and Information, Boys’ Scholarship, Girls’ Scholarship, and Yell Leader.

It was reported that Bennett’s win over George Klingaman was “one of the closest and most thrilling . . . in many years, while most of the others (three didn’t have competitors) were by much larger margins. It was added that Bennett “broke the political ice with an honest, snappy speech, full of democratic ideals” and that he “gave the impression of being in earnest” as he “asked the studnts to drop all personalities in voting.” Klingaman worried about “his immature years”, but “his clean-cut, right to the point speech, made many friends.” Vice-president winner Helen McDonough “drew one of the prizes for honor and appeal” and, while only a student for a year, she noted that “I am from way down South,” presumably meaning the Southern United States.

The paper also observed that election results were delayed, making this “one of the longest and slowest county in the history of the school,” with the final tallies not received until after 8 p.m., necessitating a rush to the linotype machine and then a hurried trip to the printers. The delay was attributed “to the fact that that election committee, realizing that the contest would be extremely close, counted the votes very carefully and slowly so as to have no mistakes which would make a recount necessary.”

The elections for Girls’ League and Boys’ Student League were held within those organizations as was that of the Ionian Club and another front page item concerned the arrival of two new teachers, both coming from intermediate (or middle/junior high) schools, though one was to work as attendance clerk and not teach classes, while the other was to teach science in addition to being principal of the McKinley Night School. Elsewhere, it was noted that three faculty members were following a previous departure and heading over to the newly opened Franklin High School in Highland Park where they were to be head of their respective departments, including science and the commercial section, though one’s specialty was somehow left out of the article.

Another main feature concerned the journalism classes, from which, of course, the newspaper staff was derived, and it was asserted that “well might the other clases in Poly be jealous of the journalism classes, for they seem to have captured all the notables around the school. Included were many of the officers of the A.S.B.O. and other clubs on campus. After listing all of these students, it was noted that “the journalists were a little bit better off than the average in regard to notables” and a challenge was issued to “you other classes” to “let us know what limelight material is in your ranks.”

Other prominent features included the Polytechnic Commercial Federation banquet to be held the following evening at the cafeteria, with dinner to be a quarter a plate. Included were contests in stenography, typing and stenotyping, while a demonstration sale of a Morris chair (a reclining chair popular at the time—the Homestead has one in the Tepee home office of Walter P. Temple next to La Casa Nueva), a three-scene skit called “It Pays to Advertise, and violin and piano solos were also included.

There was also an upcoming oratorical contest to be held on 4 February at Lincoln High School in what was originally East Los Angeles and then became Lincoln Heights, though it was held through the offices of Occidental College. Four schools, including Los Angeles, Manual Arts, Santa Monica and Poly, were entered with the latter’s representative being George Francis, a recent transfer from Santa Monica. While the subject was “Vocational Education Connected With the High School,” the speeches “will be entirely extemporaneous—that is, without advance preparation—and a specific topic was to be given out just 24 hours prior. The winner was to receive a two-year scholarship, said to be about $200. By contrast, tuition fees are well over $55,000 a year at Oxy today!

Another item of interest concerned a recent graduate, Leo Delsasso, of the class of 1915 and an employee of Southern California Edison, who, on his free time in the evenings, built an oscillograph, which measures changes in the oscillations of electrical current. For silver mirrors needed in the instrument, Delsasso “took glass slides from the chemistry department and silvered them” and he built his own motor. He showed the device to the Electrical Engineering Society on campus and Superintendent John H. Francis, for whom the school was named in 1931, “commended Mr. Delsasso upon his work.”

The sports page focused, given the season, on the exploits of the Mechanics basketball team as it claimed victory against Hollywood High, 25-24, and then avenged a prior loss against Manual Arts with a 35-27 win. Meanwhile, there was an intramural game between seniors with a B team defeating an A team 47-21 and the coverage was light-hearted, saying that the contest “closely resembled basketball” and the referee only calling every other foul so as not to slow the game down. As you can easily see, high school basketball games were low scoring affairs a century ago plus, and the style and sophistication of play today, with three-pointers splashing through the net from deep and acrobatic slam dunks and alley-oops, would shock the players of yore!

The boys’ water polo team won a close 2-1 contest against Manual Arts in a game held at the Bimini Hot Springs resort at Vermont and 3rd streets, while a recent match against Redondo High, which Poly thought it won, also 2-1, turned out to have been disputed and reclassified as a 1-1 tie. There was also news about plans for boys and girls tennis teams at a countywide level with more details forthcoming.

The last page of the weekly publication featured humor, cartoons and editorials, with the latter including one about “Real Self-Government.” It noted that “speaking of national nominating conventions,” there being a presidential campaign later that year, with Democrat Woodrow Wilson running for reelection against Republican Charles Evans Hughes, a former governor of New York and future Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, “how about our own important selves?” It went to say “we know all about how it is done now, except the ‘mud-slinging” as “that experience is saved for our more mature years.”

That said, “the impressive thing” in the school election campaign, “was the entire lack of self-interest and self-glorification” as candidates displayed “an entire absence of personal egotism” in showing “a noble impulse to work for the student body.” While there was only one A.S.B.O. president, a second bit observed, “you are the chairman of your own self and there is no one who can oust you.” This was to suggest that “if we all govern ourselves right we won’t need any other leader” and asked if our self “organization” was “helping those other larger ones in their work. A third editorial reminded students who were having trouble with courses “to get everything fixed now” to avoid problems later, including graduation.

The feature cartoon was titled “About This Time O’ The Year” and lampooned student body elections with Paul Krempel, who, as noted in a previous post in this blog, not only became a film industry artist of note, but competed in gymnastics in the Olympic Games of 1920 and 1928 and was a judge at the 1932 Games held here in Los Angeles. One could easily see how the 15-year old Krempel had true talent through the example shown here.

As for the humor, there was one that tried to make light of the world war consuming Europe and which the United States, which had pledged neutrality (a Wilson campaign promise in 1916), would enter a little more than a year later, as the joke was “Did you know that Mt. Vesuvius has joined the German cause and is now trying to bombard Naples?” Another had a senior composition class teacher asking for an exclamatory sentence to which a student responded “Oh, wait a minute! Let me think of one!”

An unattributed poem called “Three Candidates for Lunacy” has verses on a musician, artist and poet and the artistic temperaments of each and it ends with:

So thus we have them; they are three.

Their faiths are all the same.

They toil, these martyrs, one and all,

To gain some future fame.

The old musician, “tunes her up,”

The artist blends his hues,

The poet simply raves about

The early morning dews.

Each morn they rise and start their work,

Then from each noble head

The world receives some betterment,

While I am still in bed.

I’m glad I;m just a common sort

Who lives by simple means;

I may not feed on “porterhouse,”

But I am sure of beans.

There is one last item of frivolity in this issue of The Poly Optimist and it is a reminder of just how pervasive racism was a century and a few years ago. To raise funds for the Board of Control on campus to buy instruments for the school’s music department, a minstrel show was held. Deemed “one of the best performances of its kind that we have ever had at Poly,” the performance was held on a Wednesday night and the morning of the next day.

The school band began the entertainment, followed by a Russian dance and a duet encore. A pair of cello solos led to “a chorus of dainty little Japanese maidens” from the Girls’ Glee Club, who, of course, were not Asians at all, but were almost certainly all Caucasians. The orchestra returned with “a medley [played] so vigorously that some of the students couldn’t make their fee behave.” Moreover, the article went on, “if the audience has not been told, no one would have known thase black men in the second act as the Boys’ Glee Club.”

These teenagers in blackface used such stage names as Woodrow Wilson, Napoleon Bonaparte, George Washington Brown and Nebuchadnezzar Peters and “tried very hard to live up to their brilliant titles, and succeeded in making the audience howl with laughter,” at the expense, of course, of a race probably completely unrepresented in the student body’s demographics. The summation of the article was “on de whole, Ah reckons dat minstrel show was a’right” and it was added that “it left such an impression on some of the students that they went to their English classes imitating the accent they just heard.”

Given the editorial about “mud-slinging” in political campaigns, but that those who ran for student government lacked “self-interest and self-glorification” as well as “personal egotism,” the contrast with the approbation of the minstrel show is glaring.

Looking at the pages of The Poly Optimist along with yearbooks, of which there are a good selection from the region in the museum’s holdings, gives us an opportunity to learn about the lives of high school students in ways not otherwise easily available. Look for more examples of both types of sources in future “Getting Schooled” posts.

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