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'A palace' - Walter Cole, aka Darcelle, recalls old Lincoln High
Walter Cole grew up in Linnton and when it became time to choose a high school to attend, he went in one direction and many of his classmates the other.
Boys teased Cole, calling him "sissy-boy" and other names. He didn't like it.
"I wasn't fond of my class at Linnton and I was not about to follow them to St. Johns and Roosevelt," Cole said. "And, it would have taken two buses to get there and back, anyway.
"I chose Lincoln. It was more metropolitan, urban, social."
Indeed, before there was Lincoln High School at Southwest 16th Avenue and Salmon Street, and a huge new Lincoln High under construction on the same block, there was Lincoln in the South Park Blocks in downtown Portland. It's at the location that holds Lincoln Hall now, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. on the Portland State University campus, and even today Cole remembers it well.
It "felt like a palace to me; still does," he said.
Cole, Lincoln High class of 1950, would later be more well-known as one of Portland's most famous citizens — Darcelle the drag queen. The 91-year-old Cole is the world's oldest working female impersonator, having danced, sang and joked his way to historically lovable status as Darcelle for 50-plus years. Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Back in the 1940s, Cole was just one of the guys growing up in Portland. He would take the trolley to eat and watch movies with his mother. Cole's father, Richard, and aunt raised him after his mother died. He worked at a local skating rink, blowing the whistle for skaters to change direction and doing other duties for $1 a day.
"I was the last one picked for football (at recess), but I could play jacks better than anyone, and I liked hopscotch," Cole said. "We had a radio at the time, and we'd listen all the time. I'd hurry home to hear 'Lone Ranger' and hear the horse. Your imagination took over."
He attended Lincoln, starting in 1946, and liked art and history, doing "OK in school. I enjoyed school." He was part of Pi Eps Club for biology, the movie finance committee, the skating club and the Rail Splitters for promotions. He enjoyed watching basketball and football games. While in high school, he worked a job as a page at Multnomah Athletic Club. He had a girlfriend, Jeanette Rossini, who later became his wife. She remains his wife even through Cole's coming out as gay and his long-term relationship with the late Roxy Neuhardt.
Walter and Jeanette would go to dances and proms.
"We had a group," Cole said, of his Lincoln friends. "We weren't (rich) 'hill people.' During recess or lunch we'd go to the drugstore and smoke — Camels, no filter in those days.
"The pressure was off from being called names. It felt like more of a college atmosphere."
Interestingly, Cole said he never ate lunch at the Lincoln cafeteria. As a boy, he visited Berkeley, California, and had lunch in a cafeteria and the crowd, noise and commotion "scared the hell out of me."
Lincoln High had two floors then and 45 rooms; the new school has six floors.
"I'm so glad they kept it" and part of the building became 450-foot Lincoln Performance Hall. It's where "Darcelle: That's No Lady" musical was held a few years ago. "When I learned he went to Lincoln High School, I thought it'd be the perfect place to do the musical," said Donald Horn, the show's producer and Cole's good friend.
Cole recently attended a reunion as part of the last days of Lincoln High, and watched the school's production of "The Sound of Music." He didn't recognize anybody; only a few people from the old Lincoln High attended the reunion.
Lincoln High was moved out of the South Park Blocks and to the newly built building in 1952.
"Every once in awhile somebody will come in (to Darcelle XV Showplace) and say, 'I went to school with you,'" Cole said. He befriended late Mayor Bud Clark, and found out Clark attended Lincoln at the same time. "I didn't know him until I had the coffeehouse at Third and Clay," Cole added.
Cole recalls his 1950 graduation.
"I had a brand-new suit, bought it myself," he said.
At the time, Cole had no future plans.
"We didn't have money to go to college," he said. "If you don't have money to go to college, you get married."
So, he got married in May 1951 and then joined the U.S. Army, during the Korean War. After basic training at Camp San Luis Obispo, California, Cole was assigned to Italy.
The rest is history, literally, as Cole returned from military service, evolved into Darcelle, and certainly goes down as one of Lincoln's most recognizable alumni.
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