The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:56 pm

Alumni recall long-closed Central fondly

Jamie Duffy The Journal Gazette

In a glass case in one of the numerous hallways at the Anthis Career Center, there is a 1902 rendering of the building.

With men in top hats and ladies in long dresses, standing in the street or next to a horse-drawn carriage, the rendering resembles some of the fancy mansions that lined Fifth Avenue in New York City in the days of the robber barons.

The former Central High School on South Barr Street in downtown Fort Wayne is still relatively intact, even though the school was closed in 1971 to become the career center.

But the roar of the Central Tigers can still be heard. A dozen or so alumni keep the heart of the beast beating. They are the core members of the Central High School Alumni Association, founded in 2002.

"When we have our class reunion, when we get back together with people, it’s like time stops," said Barbara Schoppman, the alumni president and a 1964 graduate. Mostly, the former classmates play the game of ‘do you remember when we?" she added.

Not only have the alumni organized memorabilia and social functions, they’ve also created scholarships and made decorative changes to their beloved building, all of which is discussed at their monthly meetings.

Unlike their two rivals, South Side and North Side high schools, the alumni group didn’t get started until later, in 2002, in part because the school was closed and there was a loss of place, said Schoppman and David Beer, a 1955 graduate. 

The late Vernon Sheldon, 1950 graduate and a former judge, wrote the alumni group’s constitution and bylaws, Beer said. Around the same time, others found that school memorabilia was stored at South Side High School.

"Boy, did we run into a ton of problems trying to retrieve all the trophies and photos and memorabilia," Beer recalled. "Some of that stuff got wet when rooms flooded. There was a controversy between the two schools on who owned what."

That is all resolved now. Some of the memorabilia is kept in a glass case that also displays the1902 rendering by Charles R. Weatherhogg, a British-born architect who settled in Fort Wayne after a stint in Chicago. Central High School opened in 1904 as Public High School, then changed its name to Central in 1922.

The alumni association has awarded scholarships to descendants of Central graduates, since there have been no new graduates since 1971. The largest scholarship, for $1,000, is named for Patty Martone, a former Central High School teacher and community educator. The scholarship is awarded to a college student in his or her third year of teacher preparation, Beer said. Scholarships for $500 are given as funds allow, he said.

One of the association’s biggest projects didn’t cost the group anything – but outrage.

For some reason, and no one knows for sure why, the original exterior lighting fixtures were removed when Central closed. In their place, modern fixtures, the likes of which horrified the school’s graduates, were installed.

"I was probably the one who was offended the most," Beer said, "or at least the most vocal. They were just gaudy. Then they (the alumni group) appoint you chairman because, well, South Side and North Side both have nice ornamental lighting around the building."

Beer went to work with local architect Victor Martin, and last year, new, more appropriate fixtures were installed to complement the Beaux Arts architecture.

Although Beer said he doesn’t know who was responsible for the replacement lighting and he doesn’t want to point any fingers, he can’t praise the Fort Wayne school board enough for going along with the plan. The Fort Wayne Community School district picked up the replacement cost, Beer said.

"Victor and I worked many hours and talked to a lot of people, and you just have to be patient," Beer said. "You can’t get mad. They don’t want to talk to mad people."

In July, the alumni association mounted a bronze plaque on the Barr Street side, commemorating the history of the building. "That darned thing cost $3,600," Beer said. "We put out an appeal, and before you know it, we had it paid off."

One of the organization’s sources of pride is the Tiger’s Den, a small, windowless room just off the Barr Street entrance that holds memorabilia and alumni photos taken after the school closed.

"Have you been to the Tiger’s Den?" the alumni ask each other at meetings, many of whom wear their school sweatshirts. Only three or four people have the key. Schoppman, leafing through an old photo album, gets tears in her eyes when she finds a photo of her mother, Alice Koontz Schoppman, a 1940 graduate, and herself at an alumni function.

The Tiger’s Den is the closest thing to an office the alumni association has – something rival North Side not only has, but also employs a part-time staffer. The North Side alumni association, with years’ more alumni to draw from, outnumbers Central’s alumni association of 400 members. North Side’s roster is 516, said Mike Morris, the North Side alumni director. South Side High School’s alumni association has about 500 members this year, said Connie Wuellner, alumni office manager.

Board member and 1960 Central High graduate Martha Curry wore her Tigers sweatshirt to the December meeting and brought a large, yellowed photo album, mostly dedicated to her husband Willie, an outstanding Central High School athlete who died at age 27. He was a teacher at Memorial Park Junior High School (now middle school) and coached basketball, a sport he played at Winston-Salem Teachers College.

"We went down to State and lost in the afternoon," Martha Curry recalled as if that 1960 game were played yesterday. "We lost by one point" in the semifinals to East Chicago.

Schoppman says it was a more innocent time. The school was desegregated, and folks got along. Photos of the basketball team displayed in the Tiger’s Den show black and white players together.

"We used to have an open lunch hour. We might go to Coney Island and get a couple of hot dogs or to Murphy’s downtown," Schoppman said. Murphy’s "made potato chips and doughnuts. For 50 cents, you could have a hamburger and a Coke," she said.

Mary Lou Hutter, co-chair of the scholarship committee, graduated in 1961. She remembers wearing poodle skirts with crinolines to keep them full.

"We all had bobby socks and saddle shoes. We did not wear jeans and shorts," Hutter said.

"Central was a great high school," Schoppman said. "People who graduated from Central, it still exists in their memories and in their hearts."


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