It was an era of optimism and expansion in Palo Alto when Henry M. Gunn High School opened 50 years ago.
This September, a group of Gunn parents aims to recapture that sense of abundance and opportunity in a three-day celebration of the school's 50th birthday.
If Gunn's recent history has been shadowed by a devastating string of student deaths by suicide and internal battles over guidance counseling and academic stress, birthday organizers seek to take a longer and broader view celebrating Gunn as a premier U.S. high school with a five-decade history of innovation.
"We want to celebrate the legacy of pride that existed at the school instead of having the legacy of bad news," said one of the parents involved in the planning, Miriam Rotman, who moved to Palo Alto from Israel 16 years ago. "We want to resurrect that pride in being an institution that seeks to forward education in the community."
Rotman and her friend Sheryl Humble, a 1987 Gunn graduate as well as a current Gunn parent, have teamed up with others to organize the bash, which will kick off with a pre-football game barbecue Friday, Sept. 12, and include official ceremonies, a dance party and sporting events over the remainder of the weekend.
Humble, who was a cheerleader in her student days at Gunn, hopes the celebration will rekindle some of the old traditions, such as the singing of the Titan alma mater after games.
"We used to sing it after every game," she recalled. "They don't do it any more, but it's coming back. The band directors have embraced it and learned it.
"We live in such a fast-paced world now, and it's time to just take a breath and enjoy things," Humble said.
Organizers are reaching out to as many Gunn alumni and old-timers as possible including the school's first principal, Robert McLean, who now lives in senior housing in Cupertino, the first athletic director, Robert Bow and longtime English teacher Tim Farrell.
"Through this process we've learned how much pride the initial group that came into Gunn had for the school," Rotman said. "There was a feeling that they were starting something new, and they wanted it to last for generations.
"Robert Bow (who stayed at the school more than 20 years) said, 'I can speak about Gunn all night long. I still bleed red, white and black.'"
Henry M. Gunn was superintendent of Palo Alto schools from 1950 to 1961, a period of explosive growth in Palo Alto that saw the opening of 18 new elementary schools and two new middle schools, as well as Cubberley High School in 1956.
But Cubberley filled up and another new high school, named for Gunn, opened eight years later in the fall of 1964, with an enrollment of 600 sophomores and juniors. The school's first class of seniors graduated in June 1966.
"Few people, in the course of their academic lives, have the opportunity of formulating the policy of the institution they attend," wrote Gunn's first student body president in the school's inaugural yearbook. "We who attended Gunn this past year had that chance."
The 50th birthday festivities aim to re-ignite some of the original passion and excitement of those early years, Rotman and Humble said.
"If the students today knew about this great, rich history we have and how these people felt when they were building the school, it might help them feel a little more connected," Humble said.
"Maybe they could live more in the moment and not be thinking about having to do this, this and this to get to that."
Added Rotman, "We're saying, let's not just think of school as a stepping stone to college."
Birthday organizers are soliciting memories on the "Henry M. Gunn Alumni" Facebook page and also urge graduates to email firstname.lastname@example.org with their names and class years so they can be added to the Gunn High Alumni Association.
They're also seeking local business sponsorships to help cover costs for the event.
Gunn's founding students, teachers and parents were "proud of their school, proud of this mission in opening a new high school, and we want to build on that pride," Rotman said.
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