Mark J. Price

West High was built to last. Long after the final bell, the Akron school still has spirit.

It’s been 100 years since the first day of classes Sept. 8, 1914, in the four-story, brick-and-stone structure at 315 S. Maple St. Designed by local architectural firm Harpster & Bliss, West High School cost $225,000 (about $5.3 million today) and took more than a year to complete.

Akron Public Schools needed a new building to alleviate crowding at Central and South high schools as the rubber capital’s population swelled from a manageable 69,067 in 1910 to a seam-popping 208,435 in 1920. The city had more than 21,400 school-age children in 1914, a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

Struggling to accommodate the growing number of pupils, Superintendent Henry V. Hotchkiss expressed disappointment in the Ohio legislature for failing to provide adequate funding for education.

“The state now gives the schools an average of $2 per pupil but the state should give at least $5 per pupil,” he said. “Whether the lawmakers will pass a common-sense school law is doubtful. It is the only way that Akron schools will be able to meet the emergency unless the bond market opens up. We can’t go on forever issuing bonds to build school buildings. We would go broke in a short time.”

West wasn’t just a high school when it opened. It welcomed 400 student transfers from South and 150 transfers from Central. However, it also set aside nine classrooms to house about 450 elementary pupils from Grace, Perkins, Crosby and Portage Path schools, and taught grade school for seven years.

The board of education selected E. Louis Marting, athletic director at Central, to serve as West’s first principal. He assembled a winning team of teachers, including Cora Bockstahler (English), George Bohler (gym), Fern Carter (domestic science), Ralph Chapel (English), Albert Gerber (math), Mabel Marsh (Latin), Hugh Smith (physics), Albert Snearline (chemistry), Lawrence Suhadolink (mechanical arts), Alice Tier (music) and Grace Todd (history).

West High School was built on the same wing plan as South and featured large classrooms, wide halls, natural lighting, marble floors and ornate staircases.

A Beacon Journal reporter toured the school a few days before it opened and wrote: “Passing along the first floor hall, one can take a peep into some of the special departments, as the domestic science, where they teach the girls how to become good housewives, and the manual training department with its drafting room, where the boys plan what they do on regular blueprints, the pattern room, and the forging and mechanical rooms. It is in fact a small factory.”

Other amenities included a 1,200-seat, two-level assembly room, a steam-operated heating plant and a walled, rooftop garden with a lovely view of downtown. The basement gymnasium, “modern in every respect,” provided a running track, gymnastic horses, climbing ropes and “every thing to help the student develop a good solid body,” the newspaper reported.

Surveying the school, Principal Marting declared: “Everything looks well for a very successful year at West High.”

A dedication parade, sponsored by Commodore Perry Council No. 209 of the Junior Order of United American Mechanics, was conducted Saturday, Sept. 19, and featured more than 1,000 marchers, including members of the National Guard, United Spanish War Veterans, Grand Army of the Republic, Women’s Relief Corps, the Sons of Veterans and Daughters of the American Revolution. The parade formed at East Market and High streets at 2:30 p.m., marched to Main Street, south to Exchange Street and west to Maple Street.

More than 2,000 people attended the dedication ceremony on the north side of the building. The crowd sang The Star-Spangled Banner and America. The Rev. W.M. Davis, pastor of First United Evangelical Church, presided over the exercises. Summit County Common Pleas Judge Samuel G. Rogers, attorney Charles Smoyer and attorney Freeman T. Eagleson delivered patriotic speeches.

The fraternal order presented a Bible and U.S. flag to the school and hoisted the banner on a new pole. Principal Marting thanked the board of education for building “such a magnificent structure as a house of learning.”

West chose red and black as the school colors. Keeping with the western theme, it named its team the Cowboys. Within a decade, the school had a newspaper, the Lariat, and a yearbook, the Rodeo.

The school was the pride of West Hill for decades.

The Cowboys won dozens of city championships in football, track, basketball, tennis and other sports. West went to the state basketball tournament five consecutive times in the 1930s, and captured the state title in 1932.

The school’s famous alumni included Metropolitan Opera singer Helen Jepson, College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Howard Harpster, Negro League baseball player Ed Finney, television and movie actress Lola Albright, Hee Haw star Grandpa Jones, renowned surgeon Dr. James L. Berk, mystery writer Ione Sandberg Shriber and actor Jesse White, who portrayed the Maytag repairman in TV commercials.

As the Akron area’s population grew, more high schools were built, including Kenmore (1916), East (1918), Ellet (1921), Garfield (1926), Buchtel (1931) and North (1931). Eventually, that put a dent in West’s enrollment.

West graduated its largest class in 1931 — 125 students in January and 221 in June. Its final graduating class in June 1953 had only 136 members.

Akron turned West into a junior-senior high school in 1950. Three years later, the building was converted into a junior high.

West Junior High School held classes for 27 years on South Maple Street. Its peak enrollment was 1,300, but that fell to 765 students in the late 1970s.

In 1980, the school board voted to close the school, saying it was too old and too costly to operate. Too old? Heck, it was just getting started.

Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority purchased West for $135,000 in 1981 and transformed its classrooms into 68 housing units, bringing a new meaning to “home room” at the school. While other high school buildings were closed or demolished, including the original Central and South, good old West continues to stand 100 years later.

West High Apartments, managed by K & D Group Inc., is inviting West High School and West Junior High School alumni to attend a centennial celebration from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 8, the date of the building’s opening in 1914. Lunch, refreshments and door prizes will be available in the community room. For more information, call 330-434-6070.

A party like that comes along only once a century.

The Cowboys ride again!

Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or mjprice@thebeaconjournal.com.