Getting Schooled With a Program for the Commencement of Los Angeles High School, 21 June 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The traditional school calendar that generally involved instruction beginning in September after Labor Day and ending in later June reflected an agrarian bent, as children were needed to work on the family farm during the hectic summer season, but, slowly, changes have been made, so that, at least locally, many schools start in early August and conclude before Memorial Day (later start times for high schools to, it is argued, better align with students’ sleeping schedules is another matter.)

So, while many modern high schools hold their graduation ceremonies in late May, the featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post, a program for the 26th annual commencement ceremonies of Los Angeles High School, records the date as 21 June 1897. The school opened in fall 1873 at the southeast corner of Fort Street (renamed Broadway in 1890) and Temple Street on what was known as Telegraph and then Poundcake Hill.

Los Angeles Times, 10 February 1897.

In 1886, as the county courthouse was being built on that site, the school was relocated a short distance northwest off Hill Street, north of today’s U.S. 101 and close to where the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts is now. Five years later, a new, larger Romanesque structure was completed near the old building, which was used for lower grades, and was also built atop the former cemetery known as the Protestant, City and Fort Moore Hill burying ground (in fact, some tombstones and above-ground burial sites, including one for Robert Carlisle, who was killed in a notorious 1865 gun-battle at the Bella Union Hotel.)

As the 1897 commencement approached, it is also important to note that their were two graduating classes, one in winter and the other summer, although all of the graduates were listed in the program. So, the Senior B class, as it was known, had its class day on 11 February at the city’s Music Hall and began with an overture played by the combined school and First Congregational Church orchestras, after which class President E. Childs Baxter delivered the commencement address.

Times, 24 April 1897.

The Los Angeles Times reported on a class day event at the school’s auditorium under the auspices of the Star and Crescent Literary Society and included a “Scenes from the Life of the Winter Class of ’97” farce and a class song by Christopher G. Ruess. There were also songs and instrumental solos and class president Walter Krug was pictured in a drawing, as was Ruess.

A student performance of an 1881 play by Frances Hodgson Burnett called “Esmeralda” followed, with the titular character played by Susan Barnwell. The class will, long a popular tradition in which students left not possessions, but knowledge and other intangibles to the pupils of the lower classes, was penned by Charlotte Teale in imitation of the classic Medieval work, Beowulf, and read by Susie Crowell.

Times, 23 May 1897.

The student body sung the class song and was accompanied by Carrie Stanton. The Los Angeles Record added that students were to plant a new tree on the campus “in the glow of Japanese lanterns and in ghostly costumes.” A few nights later, the alumni association threw a reception and dance for the grads at Masonic Hall, several blocks south of the school on Hill between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Students from the school participated in several community events during the period leading up to the June commencement, including winning a $100 prize for a tally-ho horse-driven float in the La Fiesta parade, participation in a Home Industries Fair and contributing funds towards a parks and relief committee for the City.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 June 1897.

There were also several athletic meets and games during this period, including a proposed series of baseball games against San Bernardino High, as that school’s squad learned that the Los Angeles team “called themselves champions of all the High School nines in the State” and “wanted a trial of the fact.”

In late March, students from the school participated in a contest against University of Southern California students involving bicycle races at Athletic Park. As previous posts here have noted, the 1890s was a period of intense interest in the relatively new phenomenon of cycling, through the Trojan contingent defeated the high schoolers, 26-16, and took home the prize of two-thirds of the receipts from the gate.

Los Angeles Express, 21 June 1897.

There were also several field meets involving the school, involving track and field events like the high jump and sprints, but also bicycle races, a football punt and a baseball game, in a February contest, though it was wryly reported that, because there was only one bat for the latter, the game was ended early when it was broken during a foul ball, so the Senior As were victorious over the Bs by a score of 6-2.

A first attempt at an interscholastic meet was held in late May and involved the high school, San Jacinto High, the Normal School for teacher education, Throop Polytechnic of Pasadena (later renamed the California Institute of Technology) and Pasadena High School. Los Angeles took top honors in the meet, besting the Normal School.

Times, 22 June 1897.

Later, however, it was revealed that the winning shot put entrant for the high school was not a student, so, those points were taken away, but left Los Angeles High with a narrow win and a promise that the following year’s event would be more carefully regulated. A final field meet was held a couple of days before commencement at Athletic Park.

One of the more interesting references to the school in the days immediately preceding the commencement exercises concerned the physics class, numbering some seventy students, venturing to the Byrne Building, which still stands on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets, to see “the magnificent Edison ‘X-ray’ apparatus.” It was only in late 1895 that a German physicist, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, accidentally discovered what became immensely useful for medicine and in other ways.

Herald, 22 June 1897.

Because there was a new commercial department at the school, a graduation ceremony was held for those students at Music Hall and, among those performing in the school orchestra was cornetist Harry Knoll, who several years later, while working as a professional musician in the Angel City, married Josephine Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste. The couple had a daughter, who showed, from a young age, some talent in music and dance, but the dual disaster of the deaths of Harry and little Josephine took place in a short time, but the elder Josephine soon rose to stardom in the early silent film industry as Princess Mona Darkfeather.

John H. Francis, who headed the department, and for whom the current polytechnic high school, located in Sun Valley, is named, discussed why the commercial course was established and what classes were created for it to meet the needs of those students not aiming to go to college, but who could find work in the business world after completing their studies. Other speakers, including a graduate, Hubert Morgan, spoke further about the importance of commercial education at the time.

Express, 22 June 1897.

As for the commencement ceremonies for those students in the classical, literary and scientific courses, the event, which was previously slated to be held at the Simpson Auditorium, was carried out at Hazard’s Pavilion, located across from the north end of Central, or Sixth Street, Park, later renamed Pershing Square. Subsequently, this became the home of the Temple Baptist Church and the Temple Auditorium, a well-known venue, including for the Philharmonic Orchestra, for many decades.

The Los Angeles Herald reported that the venue was packed and well-decorated with plants, flowers, bunting and ribbons, and the school colors of blue and white and the Times also provided much detail about the ceremony. After the playing of an overture by the orchestra, Charles L. Boynton, who went to be a missionary in China for many years, gave an oration of “Civics of the Aeneid” of Virgil concerning the ancient Greeks. Alice Hanly followed by talking about poetry and focused on the early British versifiers, Chaucer, Milton and Longfellow.

Following another orchestra piece, Charlotte Teale, who became a school teacher after completing study at the Normal School, related her fictional tale of Fernando López, a soldier with the expeditions of Junipero Serra in the founding of some of the California Missions, and how a diamond he was supposed to have worn awed the indigenous people, who sent a young woman to discern the secrets of this precious jewel, only to learn there were none. So, in her anger and retribution, the story went, she made an oasis in the desert the barren Death Valley.

Ruess, mentioned above and who went on to study at Harvard University and became a social service worker and Unitarian minister (a sister was married the stage actor Tyrone Power, Sr., whose son with another spouse became the film idol, while a son, Everett, was known for his solo wanderings in the Western United States and disappeared in Utah in 1934 at just age 20), discussed “Man, the Poet.” The speech included the assertion that poetry was essential to national character and averred that the American flag and the Star-Spangled Banner were poetic forms.

Susan Barnwell, who went on to study at Stanford University, was long associated with the Y.W.C.A. and whose life partner Harriet C. Robbins was a well-known administrator and vice-principal at Hamilton and Beverly Hills high schools, spoke on “A Trio of Child Lovers.” This oration discussed how Eugene Field, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote works that were excellent devices for understanding children. Barnwell concluded by reciting a Field poem, while Edna Foy, of the well-known local family and director of the orchestra, played on the violin.

A chorus was sung by the class and the keynote address delivered by University of California professor Thomas R. Bacon, chair of the modern history department. Bacon spoke about higher education and its importance in the country, while also stressing the important of public education as preparatory to higher education and lauding California’s leading role in these helping to share public spirit and patriotism—this latter becoming more emphasized the following year with the onset of the Spanish-American War. Bacon warned, however, that the goal was not to die for one’s country but to live for it and use education for a better application of local and national issues.

Principal William H. Roush then presented the 83 graduates, the best known of which would be Asa Keyes, who rose to serve as Los Angeles County District Attorney before a dramatic fall as he served time at San Quentin for accepting bribes and which appeared to be almost totally comprised of white students (Petra Pelanconi was descended from the Avila and Ramirez families on her mother’s side and Arthur Yorba hailed from the prominent Orange County family.)

It was highlighted that this was the largest graduating class yet, but Housh emphasized merit over sheer numbers (though 83 is, of course, a tiny number compared to today’s class sizes and many teens did not attend school then.) The president of the Board of Education, Dr. Elbert Mathis, was not present, though listed in the program, so diplomas were given by James A. Foshay, the superintendent of city schools and who is the namesake of a school just west of USC.

Herald, 19 June 1897.

The ceremony ended by the school chorus of the class song written by Carrie Belle Stanton, who also went on to a long career as a teacher in Los Angeles schools. The tune, sung to “Auld Lang Syne” and “Fair Harvard,” included the lyrics,

Dear friends, we greet you with hearts that are light,

And brimming with glorious glee;

For our fetters have fallen, our shackles are gone

These years, we’ve been true, Alma Mater, to thee . . .

O cradle of knowledge, the home of our youth,

‘Tis with sorrow we bid thee farewell;

Though joyous with freedom, the parting will pain;

In our hearts thou forever will dwell . . .

Two decades later, the campus moved to its current location on Olympic Boulevard, then 9th Street, and Rimpau Boulevard and Los Angeles High celebrates its sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) this year. Long may the “cradle of knowledge” continue in its work.

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