Las Vegas Sun

April 23, 2014

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Getting back to Basic High School

The red brick schoolhouse at Henderson's Van Wagenen Street and Pacific Avenue, in the foothills of Black Mountain, is boarded up and fenced in, awaiting a date early next year with bulldozers.

The facility was Burkholder Junior High for 31 years until it was closed last year. For 18 years before that -- from 1954 to 1972 -- it was the second site of Basic High School.

That institution produced future community leaders who built Henderson from a World War II-born factory town of a few thousand into Nevada's second-most-populated city with 240,000-plus residents.

The old building is a remnant of a time in the valley before burgeoning growth caused attendance boundaries for high schools to have to be redrawn year after year, so there was a different kind of school spirit and community pride tied to the old high school.

Jackie Cartwright Dillard, a member of the class of 1963, has been a teacher's assistant at Basic High for 27 years. Her children went to Basic and her grandchildren go to the school.

But back when she was a Basic High student herself -- and sweetheart of her future husband -- "Henderson was a small town where everyone knew everyone. We were a working class, blue collar bunch.

"But our spirit was unbelievable. We went to every game to support our teams. While many of today's students don't do that, many of us alumni still do. We love and support Basic even if our team loses every game." It was in that "be true to your school" spirit that alumni from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s held a "Farewell to Basic" party on Saturday at their old school building. They buried a time capsule and recalled the sweet memories of their youth.

"The old school site represented the small, tight-knit town of the 1950s, '60s and '70s," Henderson City Councilman Andy Hafen said. "It stands as a memorial to what the town was. It's demolition will mark one of the last stages in the process of what the growing city has become."

Hafen was a member of the class of 1972, the last to graduate from the old high school building before Basic moved to its present location at 400 N. Palo Verde Drive.

"The closing of the Basic High that I went to coincided with things starting to boom in Henderson," Hafen said.

Hafen, a lifelong Henderson resident, agrees with school officials that the dilapidated school has to be torn down to make way for a new, modern Burkholder Junior High at that site.

Basic High School opened in 1942, a year after Basic Magnesium Inc. built its wartime magnesium plant on 2,000 acres of desert land. The school, then located where city hall now stands, had its first graduating class -- 10 students -- in the spring of 1943.

While Henderson's earliest residents came and went -- especially went after the war ended -- many of the next generation's residents, including the graduates of the second Basic High School, remained to develop a strong community.

"The growth that followed was remarkable because we were a town of vagabonds," said Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the Senate minority leader and a member of Basic High's class of 1957.

The veteran lawmaker was a 190-pound guard on the 1956 Basic football team that went 6-3. He was student body president and, in his yearbook, was named "most humorous student."

"Our parents initially came here for work but did not intend to stay a long time," Reid said. "It is amazing any of us did anything. But we hung around, became business and community leaders and built the town."

Others, like Glen Charles, a co-captain of the 1960 AA state champion football team, and his brother, Les, graduated from Basic and left the area. The two went on to write and produce the hit TV sitcom "Cheers."

Some Basic alumni say the loss of their old high school building is softened by their attachment to the present Basic High School.

"I view myself as a product of the sum total of those who came before me -- teachers like (former Nevada governor) Mike O'Callaghan and alumni like Mayor Jim Gibson," said Dave Bennion, a member of the Basic class of 1974, who also married his high school sweetheart and for 23 years has taught life sciences at present-day Basic.

"It's sad to see the old school go, but Basic High School lives on here."

Clyde Caldwell, a member of the class of 1969 who was then a 5-foot-7, 130-pound cornerback for the Basic High football squad, went on to run the Henderson Boys and Girls Clubs for 24 years. He laments not only the pending demolition of his alma mater, but also the apathy that Southern Nevada exhibits toward preservation of its historical buildings.

"What is so sad is that because we are growing so fast we don't save anything in Henderson or Las Vegas," he said. "There is little sense of history. Tearing down my old high school is another example of that."

The architect for the new Burkholder school, Ron Hall, says he plans to blend elements of the past and present into the project.

"I want to recapture the charm of the old school," said Hall, who was born in Henderson, attended the old Basic High as a freshman and graduated from present-day Basic in 1975.

"We will be remodeling the existing gym and keeping the grassy hill near that building as the heart of the new campus," he said, noting the weed-covered football field will be refurbished and some of the bricks from the buildings will be recycled into the new building, which will be more energy efficient.

Still, the demolition of the school is especially hard on some of the older alumni.

"It will mark the actual visual end of our era," said Colleen Osiecki McGinty of Basic's class of 1959. "As long as these buildings stand we have this visual tie with the 1950s and our youth. Now all we will have is memories."

Former Basic High quarterback John Moiseve of the class of 1958, who today operates a marketing company, said that since high school he rarely has lived in any one community for more than three years.

"Over the years I found that Basic was the only place I truly considered home -- I lived just 300 yards from the school," said Moiseve, who along with McGinty, organized Saturday's Farewell to Basic party.

"I just wanted one final chance for us to meet on this hallowed ground. It is a chance for us to pay our respect to our school and share our memories. This place was something special."

Ed Koch can be reached at (702) 259-4090 or at [email protected]

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