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1,000 bid farewell to historic Whittier School

This is the school that Mary Condie's grandpa built.

Where Elsie Macbeth learned to sing alto.

Where Owen Gaisford blew the bugle and raised the flag each morning.

Where Ron McBride of Sandy learned Kennedy had been shot.

Memories of Whittier Elementary span generations since its 1910 opening on 300 East and 1500 South. Soon, they'll be nearly all that's left of the school.

Whittier will become a pile of rubble by month's end. Students and teachers will move into a new building on the same campus as part of a project to fix up all Salt Lake schools, in part for earthquake safety. Whittier could have been retrofitted as some alumni would have liked, but the cost would have been the same. And in those cases, the district would rather build new.

"We are sad," principal Patti O'Keefe said Tuesday at the school's farewell open house that drew more than 1,000 visitors. "There is a lot of history here. It is a real emblem for the community."

The school, named after Civil War-era U.S. poet laureate John Greenleaf Whittier, was built to replace the crumbling Waterloo School. It is the work of architect Richard K.A. Kletting, who designed the state Capitol and buildings on the University of Utah's Presidents Circle.

That was back in 1910, between the nation's smallpox epidemic and World War I. Utah had been a state just 14 years, and Salt Lake City was one of the country's fastest-growing cities with one of the nation's highest concentrations of children. Whittier was a community centerpiece from the day its doors opened.

It has thus remained for Gary Neeleman, nicknamed Gus during a 1940s marbles match outside what is now Room 13. The vice president and sales director for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate downtown gets together and talks old times with group of 18 or so Whittier classmates to this day.

Allen Brooks is about 10 years older than Neeleman's classmates. With the charm of a 1930s schoolboy, Brooks recalled the old wood shop out back, where he carved a pointer-stick for his teacher. He still chuckles about the time he dipped his classmate's curly locks in ink.

Retired teacher Mildred Malmstrom was delighted to see old colleagues at Tuesday's open house. "I have a lot of good memories here," said Malmstrom, who came to the school in 1968. "I was always (wanting) to come back and visit."

She still can, and find some familiarity in the new school.

Friezes of the mountain man and American Indian just inside the old main door will move to the new school library. A mold of the old embellishment and pedestal owls framing the entrance will go in the new foyer. Even the old statue of Abe Lincoln will remain in the new school's halls.

The school also is trying to raise money to preserve the school's "Lamp of Learning" and special globe. "We would hate to lose those," O'Keefe said.

So would former student Lillian Castillo, a senior at Hunter High in Granite District. She and some classmates are making a documentary of Whittier. She hopes to sell copies to help fund the art restoration project or secure donations for the cause.

She's certain one or the other will happen. She knows her old community.

"People love this school."

Pictures of the old and new school can be viewed at www.slc.k12.ut.us/sites/whittier/index2.html.


E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com