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2020 marks a big anniversary for the local high school, which was once called 'Union High'

PHOTO COURTESY OLD OREGON PHOTOS - West Linn High School was called Union High School when it was first opened in 1920.

In 1917, West Linn, Willamette, and Bolton were three different school districts.

Willamette and West Linn districts combined in a vote in 1917 to create the first combined school, called the Willamette School, which was on the same land as present-day Willamette Primary.

Two years later, the Bolton district finally got enough votes to join with the other two, and the Willamette, West Linn and Bolton districts combined in 1919. Because of this, a new high school was built closer to Bolton. 

Raising funds for the school was not a slam dunk. The first time a bond showed up on the ballot there was a low voter turnout and the meaure failed 31-18.

At the time, 68 West Linn students attended high school in Oregon City. In March 1919, another vote was more successful, passing 115-42.

New school opens its doors

The new high school building's charter was issued by the state of Oregon in September 1919, and the school was named Union High School for the union of the three communities. The building's budget was $62,500. The land itself, halfway between Bolton and Willamette, was sold to the newly formed district by the Moody Investment Co., the builder who constructed most of the houses on adjacent streets. 

It was sold for a price of $22,075, equivalent to a value of $327,900 in today's money. "It was smart for them because it's a selling point when you're walking steps to the new high school," said Danny Schreiber, West Linn Historical Society vice president. "So when they were trying to sell the bad houses around here, they would say, 'Hey, there's a new high school right here that you can just walk right up the street to it!'"

In the early days of Union High School, the school's administration was very flexible, in order to convince students to attend.

Given West Linn's early status as an agricultural economy, the school's start date changed annually with the end of the picking season.

"A lot of the teenagers would go and pick hops," Schreiber said. "That was kind of a big job in the '20s. They would have to go to Canby and Wilsonville and beyond to go pick. So they moved the school start date by about two weeks because the picking season was running late, to give the kids more time to go and work before they had to start school."

Hops were not the only agricultural products on the market, either. West Linn was also a place to raise livestock and make paper. "This was farmland," said Sue Bradley, WLHS Class of 1967 and retired WLHS athletics and activities secretary. "Everybody's dad worked at the paper mill. That was the essence of the economy here. It was nothing when I first came to work (at the high school) for somebody to call and say, 'The cows are out, send Johnny home,' or 'It's lambing season, he won't be there for a few days.' That was kind of the community."

Big changes on the way

Over the years, as Portland expanded and became a more influential U.S. city, its suburbs changed, too. The economy of West Linn grew, the community itself became more professional and more educated. In addition, the names kept changing. It was West Linn Union High School for one year, then Oswego-West Linn High School from 1934-1937 and finally West Linn High School from 1938 on.

Over the decades the school, which originally had offered classes like auto body, mechanics and home economics, changed its curriculum. More college prep classes and AP classes started to work their way into the curriculum, which then brought the students along for a different kind of education.

"Both educations were wonderful, but people moved to West Linn to have their kids go to the educational system here," Bradley said. "So, as that evolved, the choices for the students when they left school became more and more, furthering their education. I don't know what the percentage is now, but there were years where up to 90 or more percent of our students went on for additional education."

As the times changed, the school adapted. At one point, many members of the staff smoked, and students who were over 18 were legally allowed to buy cigarettes. There was what students and staff called a smoking lounge on school grounds, right next to the track field. "Then the state laws changed, and it became deemed that that really wasn't a healthy thing to do," Bradley said. "So, it left."

Remnants of the past

But although the school has changed dramatically over the years, in the buildings themselves, the classes offered, and the general atmosphere, there are still many remnants of history that can be seen.

The one remaining piece of the original 1919 building is on display outside of the main gym. "If you go to the trophy case right outside of the main doors to the gym, there's a window frame in there," Bradley said. "It is a window from the original building, a window out of classroom six. I salvaged it. And inside of that are the years of the different names at the high school, which years those names were from, and an athletic letter from each of those."

Another piece of history that is quite literally lying around the school is the bright gold lion statue in the library. It lies on its pedestal, watching the students with painted-over eyes. To a student who has used that library for four years, that gold lion seems as commonplace as a couch, just acting as a part of the room. But the statue has a history that goes far deeper.

On Jan. 30, 1959, there was a basketball game played between the varsity basketball team and school faculty. During the game, coach John Jubb accidentally inhaled the gum he was chewing, which caused him to asphyxiate and die on the court, in front of the entire student body. That year, the class of 1959's senior gift to the school was a statue of a standing lion in honor of Coach Jubb. 

Tragically, Jubb's wife, Mabel, lost their infant son two months later to a respiratory infection.

The statue was placed on a pedestal in front of the high school with a dedication plaque. "[The lion] got painted red by Oregon City," Bradley said. "It was concreted in, so you couldn't steal it. But it got vandalized a number of times." According to past students, the lion was tarred and feathered, tagged, and TP'd by numerous rival schools over the years.

Because of all of the vandalism, the lion statue was moved inside the school permanently. The face lost its features, it had to be repainted, and the tail had to be repaired several times.

After many, many years, it was time for another remodel and the building housing the lion was razed. 

The school tried to save the lion before the demolition. "They chipped it out of the concrete, and they put belts underneath the tummy," Bradley said. "When they tried to lift it up out of the concrete, and it just crumbled apart. It just had had its day." The original standing-up lion was replaced with a new prone lion, the same one that can be found in the library to this day. The original plaque that honored Jubb has been restored and placed behind the statue.

There was another sports-related artifact in the school for many years, and from its tragic loss stemmed one of the most recognizable features of West Linn.

"Prior to 1984, the lower baseball field was the main activity field and had a really cool old wooden grandstand," said Nick Dechenne, class of 1984. "In that year the structure was set fire by students who went back there to smoke. However, the upper field would become the main sports field going forward (and) the grandstands there today stemmed from that event."

This year, on June 2, the 100th senior class from West Linn High graduated. Were it not for COVID-19, the ceremony would have been held at the Chiles Center at the University of Portland.

But in the early years, the ceremony was held at the school.

So when and why was the change made? "Prior to 1988, all graduating classes graduated at WLHS," said Angie Baker McNett, class of 1988. "If the weather was nice, it was held outside. If it was rainy, they moved the graduation into the gym. The class of 1988 didn't want to chance it that we would have to have our graduation in the gym."

So, it was proposed to the principal and later to the school board to move it to an alternative location. The proposal was approved, and thus the class of 1988 was the first graduating class to have graduation off-campus at the Chiles Center at the University of Portland.

In 1920, the first graduating class of what was then Union High School had only five seniors, all female. As the school changed over the century and evolved into the modern-day West Linn High School, its attendance grew. This year, the 100th graduating class had around 450 seniors.

And even though the first 30 or so graduating classes are most likely no longer with us, those students can still quite literally be seen in the school. Thanks to the wonder of photography, there are class photos of every single graduating class hanging in the halls.

"When the pictures came down when we did the remodel," Bradley said, "the class pictures were stored in a barn for two and a half years, and they were not very well taken care of. And then we wanted to get them up. I worked for about five years, with the classes of '49, '50 and '51. And they took it upon themselves to repair the broken glass on them, and some of them had to be reframed or re-created. I think it was two years ago Thanksgiving that I finally got them all up, and I keep them current every year."

A lot can happen in a century. In all of the time that the high school has sat on the hill, there have been 18 U.S. presidents, 24 Oregon governors, and six major wars in which the U.S. was involved. When WLHS was founded 100 years ago, commonplace items such as insulin, the ballpoint pen, the microwave oven and the car seat belt had yet to be invented.

Over the past century, the school itself has transformed from a tiny unheard-of school in a tiny unheard-of town, to one of the top-ranked high schools in the state of Oregon. It has left its mark on its graduates, and its graduates have left their mark on all corners of the globe.

"I wish to show my appreciation to every faculty member for the time and effort spent giving all the students a good education and, at the same time, allowing us to enjoy our childhood," Cash Cottrell, class of 1961, said. "Many of us didn't realize how instrumental that would be until later in life."

"So many kids over 100 years have walked through these hallways," Gregory Neuman, WLHS principal, said. "West Linn High School has been the pillar of this community for a hundred years, it has changed students and people's lives this community for a hundred years. I think it's great that our students, currently, in 2020, get an opportunity to understand that."

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