Still in the saddle
Will Rogers College High School ropes its 75th year.
Seniors Denia Perez, Connor Bachman, Joshua Sherman and Dulce Rodriguez are members of the first graduating class of Will Rogers College High School.
From East Admiral Place to Route 66, only a few houses dotted the east Tulsa prairie in 1939, when Will Rogers High School (WRHS) opened atop a cattle-grazing hill.
Named for Oklahoma’s favorite son, who had died four years earlier in an ill-fated airplane crash, the art deco gem functions as a school and a memorial. Will Rogers’ sly smile adorns film posters and memorabilia throughout the building, reminding students to, as he said, “Do the best you can, and don’t take life too serious.”
Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the school boasts many prominent alumni. Author S.E. Hinton found inspiration from her days as a Rogers Roper to pen “The Outsiders.” Lee Mayberry led the 1988 Rogers basketball team to a state championship before becoming an NBA star. And the list goes on.
In recent decades, the school struggled to meet performance standards, and even faced a possible closure. But thanks to a dedicated group of administrators, teachers and alumni, in 2011, Rogers transformed into a college preparatory magnet school. This spring, the first class to complete the new program will graduate, establishing a renewed commitment to academic excellence going forward.
Silver generation: 1939-64
1939: Designed by Oklahoma architects Leon Senter and Joseph Koberling, WRHS opened its doors, thanks to local funding and the New Deal’s Public Works Administration. About 10,000 Tulsans attended the fall dedication, many to honor and remember Will Rogers.
1941: The Roper basketball team won the school’s first state championship.
In December, the Pearl Harbor attacks led to hundreds of Rogers students enrolling in the military, even before graduation. Forty-eight of the school’s students died in the war and are listed on a plaque at the school.
During wartime, students pledged to collect their weight in scrap metal to help the war effort. They took it a little far when farmers had to reclaim some items taken without permission.
1942: Both Time and Life magazines highlighted the school’s progressive education, which meant moving from traditional lessons to more practical, hands-on education for an industrial society. Life noted Tulsa had “one of the most progressive school systems in the country.”
1945: Rogers won its first state football championship.
1946: Around 70 World War II veterans enrolled to finish their education. “It was hard to relate to those guys because we weren’t used to older men being around,” says Paula Combest Unruh, class of 1947.
1949: The 1947 graduating class gift, a bust of Will Rogers, debuted. A tradition developed to rub the nose for good luck, which has left it shiny over the years. A northeast wing opened to help alleviate overcrowding.
1954: A rare painting of Will Rogers by Italian artist Count Arnaldo Tamburini was given to the school, thanks to a donation of $2,500 from Oklahoma grocer Sylvan Goldman (known for inventing the shopping cart). Will Rogers Jr. was present at the dedication. The artist had finished the painting just weeks before the senior Rogers died.
1955-56: WRHS won state championships in football, basketball and cross-country.
Artists thrived in this period, including class of ’55 grads Paul Davis, whose illustrations are featured in numerous national media; and Archie Goodwin, writer, editor and artist for Marvel and DC Comics. Cartoonist Russell Myers, who created “Broom-Hilda,” graduated in ’56.
1958: The school took its first state wrestling championship.
1959: Students let an alligator from the local zoo loose in the school. The Tulsa World, the Associated Press and other national media ran stories about the prank in which no one was injured.
1960: The football team was named state champion.
1964: May was the school’s silver anniversary. Graduation and reunions featured Will Rogers Jr. as the commencement speaker.
WRHS added 21 classrooms, along with a girls’ gym.
Golden era: 1964-89
1966: In the heyday of the Beatles and a burgeoning women’s rights movement, girls and boys wanted to push the style limits, but it wasn’t allowed at WRHS. “Girls had to wear skirts, and boys’ hair couldn’t touch the collar,” says Jan Davies Weinheimer, class of 1966.
America was in the middle of the Vietnam War. Weinheimer remembers, “We would write soldiers, and people had brothers and sisters in the military. A lot of teenagers weren’t taking things seriously, but it became a very serious world.”
S.E. Hinton graduated this year. Kevin Burr, WRHS principal from 2006-08 and now the Sapulpa Public Schools superintendent, recalls the author’s visits with students in the 21st century: “I taught her book to ninth-graders for many years, and it was just spectacular to see her walking the halls of her school.”
1972: An annex building provided for 27 new classrooms.
David Rader, a 1975 graduate who played in the NFL and became head football coach at The University of Tulsa, recalls the intimidation he felt as a sophomore during the welcoming assembly in the auditorium: “The seniors sat in front, the juniors behind, and sophomores in the balcony. The seniors and juniors each sang a victory cry and then looked at us to dare us to do a victory cry. We had to sit there and be silent, which historically was the tradition. We were going to be the first class to do it, but we chickened out.”
1973: Tulsa Public Schools fully implemented the court-ordered integration of schools, as based on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The district was slow to adapt the original ruling, and like many American schools, it wasn’t a smooth transition. But, Rader says, “We were fortunate to have people from all different races and socioeconomic backgrounds, and we learned from each other.”
1979: WRHS won the state baseball championship.
1987: Smoking was banned by the TPS Board. The former Rogers “smoke hole” is just west of the new cafeteria (constructed in 2012).
1988: In the spring, the boys’ basketball team was state champion (the last such title to date). Then-senior Lee Mayberry was on the team: “I had some great coaches and teammates, and we were all close and supportive. They instilled in me a good work ethic and prepared me for going on to play for the University of Arkansas (and later, the NBA).”
By the fall, yearlong 50th anniversary celebrations kicked off with school architect Koberling, then in his 80s, as a guest.
Diamond jubilee: 1989-2014
1990: Construction on the football field, track and baseball complex was completed.
1996: The school resurrected its annual Round Up musical theater performances, which had ended in 1972.
1997: The Will Rogers painting presented to the school in ’54 was given on permanent loan to Gilcrease Museum to ensure its proper preservation. A replica was added in its place at the high school.
The building also was wired for new technology.
1998: Then-senior April French, who received her doctorate in chemistry and now works at the University of Kentucky, remembers her time at Rogers: “It wasn’t known as the top-notch school in town, but I worked hard, became involved with several organizations and had the chance to be around a diverse crowd. My senior year was the first time the school offered us AP credit courses, and I took AP chemistry, which made my college chemistry classes much easier.”
2006: Rogers completed its new field house with 1,145 seats.
2007: Thanks to the efforts of Betty Ann Brown Trinka (class of ’55) and preservation consultant Cathy Ambler, the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which will help protect its legacy for future generations. “The school is so beautiful that it deserves this recognition,” Trinka says.
2010: Will Rogers High School Community Foundation was established to provide the school with financial and volunteer assistance. The nonprofit has, among other things, helped pay for uniforms, sports equipment and art supplies, and has given student scholarships.
2011: The school was transformed into a magnet program called Will Rogers College High School for grades six through 10. Students within the school’s neighborhood receive priority admission; those from other parts of Tulsa can apply through a lottery selection process. Students entering high school programs must have qualifying GPA and pre-ACT/SAT scores.
“We were concerned about students entering college and dropping out quickly,” says Lisa Reynolds, TPS dual enrollment coordinator, of the program’s impetus. “But taking college courses through the Rogers tutoring program has been phenomenal. It shows them how much they need to study and what it takes in a supportive system that really makes a big difference.”
That year, Rogers hosted the state chess tournament, with the eighth-graders taking first place. By November 2013, the same group of students had won a third consecutive championship as sophomores.
2012: In the spring, the sixth- to ninth-grade Roper chess team won a state championship.
By June, school renovations were complete. This included replacing original windows for better energy efficiency, restoring the 1939 green color to outer doors, a new cafeteria space on the first floor, and the old, second-floor cafeteria now renovated as computer labs and classrooms.
First-year test results found students scoring “satisfactory” or “advanced” in math and English courses — all higher than average scores for TPS.
For the fall classes, sixth grade was dropped, and seventh through 11th grades continued the new program. Juniors began taking AP classes and college courses offered through a partnership with Tulsa Community College and Tulsa Tech. Participants can graduate with up to 24 hours of college credit.
2013: Second-year proficiency scores continued on a positive path, with Rogers topping all other TPS high schools in geometry, algebra II, English III and U.S. history.
By the fall, seventh through 12th grades were offered and will continue in coming years.
2014: The current enrollment is 1,021 students, with 63 of those as the first senior class for the magnet program. The previous Rogers graduating class was in 2011.
“It’s really neat walking down the halls, seeing the history and being part of one of the first schools in Tulsa that is coming back to what it once was,” says senior Joshua Sherman.
Editor’s note: Special thanks to Steve Wright, class of ’56, for providing historical information.
2013 Hall of Fame Inductees
The Will Rogers High School Community Foundation honors WRHS graduates through the Hall of Fame. The first class of honorees was inducted in 1989.
Paula Combest Unruh (class of ’47) was active in the Oklahoma Young Republicans before becoming congressman Page Belcher’s campaign manager. President Gerald Ford appointed her to serve on the national USO Board. President Ronald Reagan selected Unruh to be the director of consumer affairs for the Department of Energy and the deputy director general of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service.
Gordon Morgan (class of ’53) was an all-state Ropers baseball player who later played minor league ball for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. He returned to teach and coach at Rogers from 1962-88, winning four state championships. He co-founded the Sunbelt Classic Series (now the Heartland Baseball Classic), a national high school baseball series. He died in 2005.
Lynette Danskin (Bennett) (class of ’55) is an award-winning Broadway, film and TV actor/singer/dancer. Her Broadway performances include “Funny Girl,” starring Barbara Streisand. Her former pianist Barry Manilow orchestrated Bennett’s cabaret act. She performed in the one-woman PBS show “Will Rogers’ Romance with Betty and America.”
Janet Wright Kizziar (class of ’57) earned a doctorate in psychology at The University of Tulsa, which led to Kizziar and her late twin Judy Hagedorn opening a psychology practice and hosting TV talk shows. Kizziar was a founding member of the Phoenix-based Fresh Start Women’s Foundation, which has helped more than 200,000 women seeking self-sufficiency.
Richard Counts (class of ’59), as a medical doctor, established one of the first centers in America for comprehensive treatment of hemophilia, a rare and inherited bleeding disorder. Today, because of efforts from Counts and others, most hemophilia patients have normal life expectancies.
Linda Chambers Bradshaw (class of ’60) is known as the owner of Tulsa World of Gymnastics. But she also became a leading authority on Will Rogers as a docent at the Will Rogers Memorial and Museum in Claremore. She was the first woman to serve as president of the Tulsa Rotary Club.
James Russell (class of ’62) became active in the civil rights movement and was the first editor of New Left Notes, a national newspaper of Students for a Democratic Society. Russell was a Fulbright professor in Mexico and the Czech Republic. He authored eight books on social policy, class and race issues.
Source: Ride On! magazine produced by the Will Rogers High School Community Foundation
Rogers Ropers will celebrate 75 years with various activities April 10-12. This fall’s homecoming football game and tailgate party will be announced.
April 10-11: Current students will perform in the Round Up musical theater show at 7 p.m. in the auditorium. Tickets are $5 at the door.
April 11: Individual classes will host reunion events. Check with class representatives.
April 12: A golf tournament will begin at 8:30 a.m. Register at www.willrogersfoundation.net.
A school open house and tours are available from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., along with a classic car zyour kids growing up together, someone from your church or another relationship,” said Iris Warlick Studenny, anniversary chairwoman and class of ’66 graduate.
Ongoing: Steve Wright, class of ’56, has become a historian for the school. Along with the anniversary weekend tours, Wright typically offers free 90-minute tours of the art deco treasure on the second Monday of every month at 6:30 p.m. The next tours are April 14 and May 12. No reservations are required.