An original copy of the 12-page program provided to all who participated in an October 1952 three-day dedication of the next George Mason High School campus in Falls Church was stumbled upon late last week and was shared via the school’s website.
As citizens of Falls Church today are faced with the responsibility of voting on a $120 million school bond referendum next month for a new George Mason High, the vivid reminder of the 65-year-old dedication of the original school footprint has underscored the importance of the upcoming vote. Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly, who came across the original program, posted it on the daily morning briefing site for the schools this week.
Falls Church citizens of that era were clearly very proud of their new school, as a perusal of the the Dedication Ceremony program makes clear. The dedication was billed as “A Festival of Progress,” and celebratory events ran from Friday night through midday Sunday.
After the City of Falls Church was incorporated as an independent city in August 1948, and therefore totally responsible for its own school system, one of the first moves was a voter approval of a $700,000 bond referendum in 1949 authorizing the purchase of 25 acres at the corner of Leesburg Pike and Haycock Road and more acreage at what became the Mt. Daniel Elementary.
The cost of the land purchase by the City was $40,000 and the high school was designed to accommodate 325 students, including 22 full-time and five part-time teachers. (Today, the bond referendum on the ballot next month is for $120 million and 10 acres of the school land is valued at $40-45 million. The new high school would accommodate 1,650 students).
Construction of the new school was delayed when a major backlash erupted in the City leading in 1951 to overturning of the City Council and to the resignation of six of the seven members of the then-appointed School Board. in 1951.
But the new George Mason Junior/Senior High School was eventually completed and opened for grades 6 to 12 in 1952. Its design plans had been acclaimed as among the top 14 of over 200 entries from school systems across the U.S. but a shortage of funds offered by the new City Council delayed the completion of a larger footprint, and from its opening classes had to be held in the gym, for example.
A lot of what needs fixing at the high school now are materials and components that were part of the original 1952 construction.
The October 10-12 dedication as a “Festival of Progress” was proclaimed in the program by Falls Church Mayor Charles E. Kellogg, who invited all citizens of the community to “participate in this festival as good neighbors and friends, remembering with humility our debt to the past, cherishing with pride our present achievements, and facing the future of our city, state and nation with confidence and unity.”
Fifty-six original patrons of the festival included such groups as the Greater Falls Church Citizens Association, Page Hughes Buick, the Lions Club and Kiwanis, Robertson’s 5 and 10 Cent store, Goot’s Linoleum, Bunny Gibson’s Seafood Market, Horace E. Brown, the Chamber of Commerce, Falls Church Community Theater, the Cherrydale Cement Block Company, the Falls Church Womens Club and City founding father Claude Wells, after whom the City Hall was later named. The program’s illustrations were the work of students Kasha LaRew, Marylou Taylor and Roberta Rucker.
The events began with a citywide dance in the school gym (still there, now known as ‘The Pit’) and on Saturday they commenced with a parade from Cherry and Broad west on Broad to the school site.
Outdoor ceremonies began at 2 p.m., with the groundbreaking for the new addition by School Superintendent Irvin H. Schmitt and School Board chair John A. Johnson.
Future F.C. Mayor Herman L. Fink was among the keynote speakers along with Virginia State Sen. John A. K. Donovan.
On Sunday, the events continued with “a pilgrimage of historical places in the City of Falls Church” sponsored by the Falls Church chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Members of the Falls Church School Board then were Johnson, Oliver Caldwell, Richard Saintsing, Daniel Stapleton, H. P. Strope, Francis W. Trapp and John W. Wells.
In addition to Fink, another future mayor, Charles Hedetniemi, was an officer of the high school PTA and future mayor Lee Rhoads was on the dedication committee.
The program included a statement congratulating the clergy and congregation of the St. James parish on the completion of its new parish, and suggested that “everyone go to the church of his choice on Sunday, Oct. 12, to thank almighty God for his blessings which have inspired our Festival of Progress.”
A robust drawing of the school mascot, the Mustang, up on its hind legs, filled out the program for the event.
But the most momentous individual listed in the program was Johnson, chair of the School Board. The general counsel to the Air Force, he was the only member of the School Board who did not resign in 1951, and went on to spearhead the City schools’ integration efforts following the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown Vs. Board of Education in 1954.
Leading the effort over the reluctance of other members of the School Board, he championed the effort in the 1950s such that the Falls Church schools eventually became only the second district in Virginia to integrate, though not until the early 1960s.
In 2005, on the occasion of the dedication of the new Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School, the News-Press tasked reporter Darien Bates with an extensive research project that led to a two-part series in September 2005 spelling out a detailed history of how the Falls Church City schools were integrated. It included interviews with Lou Olom and the late Jessie Thackrey.
It was then that Johnson’s seminal role was first and decisively documented.