Franke: Old Schools
A high school senior who attends the same church as I do qualified for the state golf championship as an individual. This is a big deal for him and for all of us who know him. A big enough deal, apparently, that Huntertown, the small Hoosier town where he lives, put on an old-fashioned parade to see him off to Carmel for the tournament.
The township fire department mustered their trucks and the town utility maintenance department added a couple more. It was lights, sirens and a dozen or so friends along the route. In spite of the fact that this township is one of the fastest growing in the state, the old part of Huntertown is still a small town so the parade was a quick one from the elementary school, past the fire house and out to the highway.
This brought back memories from my childhood when Fort Wayne South Side won the state basketball championship in 1958. That was also a big deal back before class-based tournaments. The team was brought back into the city on fire trucks and my father took us out to the highway to watch. We had a vested interest in this championship as the high school was my mother’s alma mater.
It must have been my weekend for nostalgia. My wife’s uncle and aunt celebrated their seventieth anniversary and, of course, we attended. This was in Terre Haute, the other side of the state from Fort Wayne, but you don’t miss a milestone like this.
Her uncle was an athlete in his day. One of the photos on display was of him in his high school letter sweater. Another attendee, whom I had never met, struck up a conversation about that photo and its memories.
He told me about a nostalgia sectional basketball tournament that was held 30 years ago in which alumni came back to play for their old high schools. My uncle-in-law (if that’s a word) played for the since closed Fontanet High School in the day and in 1991 he played for it again.
Here in Allen County, there used to be a county basketball tournament that was perhaps more important to the county schools than the sectionals. It was played at the War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne and carried on local radio and TV. My father graduated from Hoagland so we always watched the finals on TV if we didn’t attend them in person.
Alumni from these old schools organized a nostalgia county tournament also in 1991 in which nearly 300 former athletes and cheerleaders representing nine high schools suited back up. As I looked through the program booklet, I recognized a lot of names — some as players I watched in my formative years and others who became friends since. I asked several about the experience and they didn’t need words to express the joy they experienced reliving their days of glory . . . no matter that it took more ice, BENGAY and heating-pad applications than it did back then.
There is a sad note about all this, however. I can’t speak to Vigo County, but nearly all the Allen County tournament high schools are gone, both metaphorically and physically. Most succumbed to the “bigger is always better” school consolidation mantra Indiana chanted throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Small towns and townships lost the focal point of their communities when their high schools were shuttered. Frequently these schools were consolidated with those of the next town over who were, of course, their primary athletic rivals.
I can recall back in the 1960s listening to my cousins, most of whom still attended Hoagland like our ancestors, commiserating about the consolidation with their hated rivals from nearby Monroeville. If it was any consolation to them, and I’m not sure it was, both buildings were abandoned and a new school built in-between.
Just for the record, here is a recap of the unfortunate disposition of these former schools and their buildings: Seven are closed and consolidated with their buildings demolished or otherwise utilized while only two are still open after absorbing others and modernizing the buildings on their original sites. If you think I am just a cranky, whiny old grouch, check basketball game attendance numbers pre- and post-consolidation. I don’t know if such statistics even exist, but I am absolutely convinced they will bear me out. Community spirit left town with the high school.
We tend to remember the good times best, even at the expense of absolute fidelity to detail. No matter. It’s just God’s way of keeping us from feeling miserable all the time. So I won’t dwell on these closed schools and the small towns that still mourn their passing. Instead, I will recall the intensely competitive basketball games I saw in crowded gyms with nearly the whole township in attendance. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just watch the movie “Hoosiers.”
Mark Franke, M.B.A., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review and its book reviewer, is formerly an associate vice-chancellor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.