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Lisa Loving of The Skanner News
Published: 08 September 2010

It's hard enough to organize a 40th class reunion. But when your school has been closed since 1981, the task is even harder.
Washington High School alum Charlene Myers Zaharakis has taken it upon herself to bring old copies of the high school newspaper around Portland to jog the memories of anyone who went or who knows anyone else who went to school in the all-but-abandoned building.
She and a few old pals hope a lot of folks will show up for the reunion party from 6 to 10 p.m. this Saturday at Clyde's on Sandy Boulevard – but it seems people still haven't heard about it.
Partly, she says, it's because the student community scattered when district officials voted to shut the school down.
"It's like when the parents sell the family home in a way, it's even worse though because you have a lot of people feeling that," she says. "Our history has been decimated in a way."
Washington High School's Wikipedia pages notes that its graduates include such beloved figures as Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling, and The Skanner News' own jazz columnist, the late Dick Bogle; not on that list but still revered are athletes Charles Stoudamire and Donnie McPherson.
Originally built in 1906, Washington was once one of the most ornate and respected schools in the city. Its original four-story gothic splendor burned to the ground in 1922. Rebuilt in brick, Washington gained a gym in 1947, and merged with Monroe High School in the late 1970s.
Soon after, declining enrollment and weakening financial support for public education led Portland Public Schools to resolve on shuttering several high schools.
Ultimately Washington-Monroe, John Adams, and Andrew Jackson High Schools were ordered closed in 1981. Adams reopened years later as Whitaker Middle School (itself demolished in 2006) and Jackson reopened as a middle school.
(Find alumni information for Adams at http://www.johnadamsportland.com, and for Jackson at http://www.classmates.com/)
Throughout the 1970s African American students from inner-North and Northeast neighborhoods were bused to Washington; though an embattled group, they created important institutions there including a Black Students Union.
Those years certainly created bittersweet memories for some alumni. Zaharakis says permanent closure of the school hurt the city, the students and their families in ways still felt today in the recent talks on closing Jefferson High School.
"I think what it does is disperse communities more, it dissipates them, you don't have that neighborhood feeling, you don't have that sense of going home to someone, and I think that's what a lot of people emotionally are feeling when people are talking about closing their schools," she said.
One big issue for the school's alumni is what happened to the memorabilia stored in its big wooden display cases, including giant trophies and silver cups commemorating sports victories and other student activities.
Portland Public Schools spokesman Matt Shelby says much of the furniture was placed back into the district's circulation and is probably being used elsewhere.
Facilities manager Kerry Hampton said that once the building was finally mothballed, the district followed the advice of local residents and gave the important items to the Oregon Historical Society, which was checking its database for such materials as The Skanner News went to press this week.
Other items, including display cases and an indigenous art collection that included woven baskets, were given to area tribal councils, Hampton said.
Today the Washington High School alumni have created a vibrant website, http://www.wahicols.com/, and a Facebook page.
However the building is set to stay abandoned at least until the economy improves.
Last year a string of meetings were held to investigate the possibility of redeveloping Washington High School – now owned by the City of Portland – into a community center, but officials elected not to put on the ballot a bond measure that would have possibly funded it.
Meanwhile, the stately brick structure is home to the annual fall event by the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, the Time Based Art Festival. Performances are held there Sept 9-19, with art installations through Oct. 19.
"The building, I think, belongs to the people, it belongs to the community, and it should be made into something that would be more mindful, and more honoring the school and all the people that have gone through there," Zaharakis said.
For more information on the school, the reunions, alumni stories and lots of vintage photos, go to www.wahicols.com. Find out how to visit the Washington High School building for the PICA TBA Festival at www.pica.org/tba/.

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