Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 7, 2014

From 'jolly ups' to World War II meetings to 'donkey basketball' to sleepovers

Old gym holds personal, communal memories from eight decades of Palo Alto life

by Chris Kenrick

The indelible smells, sights and sounds of the old boys gym stir powerful memories, personal and communal, for generations of Palo Alto High School students.

Sports pedigree aside, the gym's parallel history as a venue for non-athletic events reflects the life and times of a growing community over eight decades: dances called "nickel crawls" and "jolly ups" in the 1920s and '30s, World War II "block warden" meetings in the 1940s, "donkey basketball" in the 1950s and '60s — and countless sock hops, proms, assemblies, concerts, ceremonies and private milestones large and small.

The 85-year-old gym, with its signature painted wooden bleachers, will be demolished later this year — precise date still unspecified — to make way for a new, state-of-the art athletic center.

All the memories and history, athletic and otherwise, will be honored in a free public farewell celebration Sunday afternoon, March 16, at Paly.

"It's a memorial service and a celebration for all the education of boys and girls that went on here," said Jane Gee, a Paly parent who is organizing the farewell event. It is co-sponsored by the school and the school district, the Paly Alumni Association, the Paly Sports Boosters, the Palo Alto Historical Association and the Palo Alto Weekly.

"We want people to leave their woes at home and just come enjoy the afternoon.

"This event is about sharing stories so that the kids in 2014 can understand what it was like here in 1939," Gee said.

If history is any guide, the event will be well attended: More than 2,500 people turned out for the dedication ceremony for the "new" gym when it opened in 1929 — seven years before the Palo Alto Unified School District even came into existence.

Noted Palo Alto architect Birge Clark — designer of the downtown Post Office, Lucie Stern Community Center and Stanford University's Lou Henry and Herbert Hoover House — had been hired in 1928 to plan "a complete and adequate gymnasium for boys of the school."

Clark prepared sketches for what he described in a letter to trustees as a "proposed new boys' gymnasium and basketball pavilion in its relation to the probable development of the high school when its enrollment is two thousand pupils."

The architect was thinking big — at the time, Paly's enrollment was little more than 600.

But unsure of available funding, the school asked Clark to break down his cost estimates "so that the trustees may have all the data necessary for determining at a later meeting which, if any portion or portions might or might not be built from available or from augmented funds."

Early Paly coach Howard "Hod" Ray pleaded with trustees to fund a complete facility.

"The old idea of letting Physical Education take what it could get is passť," he argued in a 1927 letter to Palo Alto school trustees. "We are a part of the school program as much as are Chemistry, Physics, etc."

Ray also mentioned strong demand by community members for use of school facilities.

"I think it is a mighty fine thing to promote good spirit between the town and the high school, and with a new gym and more room we could do it," he said.

Architect Clark warned trustees in his letter that with the $40,000 or $42,000 likely available, "It will be possible to get only the shell of the main building, a building 116 feet wide and 125 feet long."

The gymnasium floor itself would be completed, he said, but a finished lobby, shower rooms and offices would have to be deferred and the main locker wing not built at all.

At its dedication on Jan. 11, 1929, the $38,000 gym remained unfinished, with an 84-foot by 50-foot basketball court and "a large space on two sides" left open for bleachers, according to a Jan. 11, 1929, report in the Palo Alto Times. "The building is not yet fully completed, as dressing rooms are yet to be installed."

Harry Haehl, board chair of what was known as Palo Alto Union High School, thanked taxpayers at the dedication ceremony while apologizing for the incomplete project.

"He explained that since Palo Alto has no large tax-paying industries, it can raise only a relatively very small amount, in proportion to the size of the school, in taxes," the Times reported.

"Being hampered in this way, Mr. Haehl asserted, the board of education has been unable to spare the funds necessary for the completion of the building."

The Friday night gym dedication ended with a basketball game between traditional rivals Palo Alto and Sequoia High School in Redwood City.

Lois Santos, a 1939 graduate of Paly, recently recalled in an interview with the Weekly that girls wore gardenias to dances held in the gym in its early days.

Leon Wentz, a 76-year-old Menlo Park resident, remembers playing in the gym as a 5-year-old while his parents attended National Guard and block-warden meetings there, discussing things like night blackouts to protect Palo Alto from possible World War II air raids.

"My mother was a block warden in Palo Alto, and they had to coordinate with all the neighbors as far as lighting and sound every night, so areas were black," Wentz said.

"My dad used to go to his National Guard meetings at the gym, and Mom and I would go with him because she was scared to stay home. Most people who live in Palo Alto now don't even know that type of thing, fortunately."

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Wentz said, the gym was open on weekends for kids to play pickup basketball.

Around the same time, Wentz recalled, a traveling basketball team called the Colored Ghosts — presenting "one of the most colorful exhibitions of court work in the business today," according to a 1939 report in the Lodi-News Sentinel — drew sellout crowds to the Paly gym.

Wentz went on to become a Paly varsity basketball player in the early 1950s.

Pranksters from Paly's Class of 1955 brought in a crane under cover of darkness and hoisted a Ford Model A to the roof of the gym, Wentz said.

"In the morning, there was a Model A setting on top of the gym," he said. "These things sound stupid but I tell you, they happened."

The 1950s and 1960s brought the unusual practice of "donkey basketball" to the Paly gym — four-on-four games with players mounted on donkeys. While a popular school fundraiser in those decades, donkey basketball has declined under pressure from animal rights groups. It is still played in some rural areas.

Don McPhail, a 1958 Paly graduate, recalls watching singer Joan Baez perform in the gym. Meri Cox Gyves of the Class of 1969 remembers the band Santana played in the gym that year for the grad night party.

A Paly graduate from the 1960s reported having his "first and last make-out session with a girl ... way up in those dark bleachers. It was so traumatic, and she scared me so bad, it actually helped turn me gay," the graduate wrote. "That was back in '67. Old now, but still gay."

Marriette Ring, of Paly's Class of 1933, had a first date with her husband-to-be, Sequoia High School student Leon Wentz, in 1932 — surely one of countless memorable first dates in the old gym.

The father of a girls volleyball player recalled team sleepovers held in the gym — with parents watching from their cars outside the gym to guard against party crashing by football players.

Tanuj Chopra, a member of the Class of 1995 and a basketball player, recalls staying for hours after practice ended to shoot by himself.

"There's something about the gym, something about the meditation of shooting and being in that rotation with the ball and the ball going through the net, especially in that gym," he said.

For Chopra, the son of Indian immigrants, the gym also served as a point of access to American culture. He believes he and his younger brother, also a basketball player, might have been the first Indian-American basketball players at Paly.

"For us it was a real entry point into the culture and the country," Chopra said. "It was a big part of shaping who we were."

More than once the gym's hard edges have been unrecognizably transformed into a tropical paradise or a forest, or made plain for a memorial service — as recently as 2008 for Travis Brewer, lovingly remembered as an upbeat, sports-minded member of Paly's class of 2011.

"We have many fond memories of the Paly gym, but the one that will be with us forever will be the memorial service for our son," his mother, Becky Brewer, wrote.

"He loved everything about Paly sports. It meant so much to our family that we could celebrate his life at the gym with all of the people that he loved and loved him."

Online Editor Elena Kadvany, Staff Photographer Veronica Weber and retired teacher Bob French also contributed to this report. Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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