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At Wilson High, Clock Is Symbol of a New Day

Teachers Refurbish Broken Timepiece

By Judith Havemann
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page DZ03

The Wilson High School clock tower had already started to look a little seedy when David Thompson was a student in 1988, and while he was away at college, the clock stopped working entirely.

By the time he returned to his alma mater as a computer science teacher eight years later, the neglected clock was just one more broken item on an interminable list of D.C. public school repair projects.

"I wanted the clock to stand for a place that works," said Wilson High teacher Joe Riener, right. With him is fellow teacher David Thompson. (James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)

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But two summers ago, the Wilson Parent Teacher Student Association raised the money to paint the tower, and Thompson and English teacher Joe F. Riener took the matter of the clock into their own hands.

"Joe was really the impetus. He says that as long as he is working, he intends to see that the clock is working, too," Thompson said.

"My commitment is to Wilson and the public schools," said Riener, an English teacher, soccer coach and former contractor. "We are a public institution. We work. A lot of teachers do a lot of work, a lot of coaches do a lot of work. When the PTSA got the money to paint the cupola, I wanted the clock to stand for a place that works."

Thompson said: "He thinks of it as a sign of things to come in D.C. public schools. We are fixing things, and things are starting to look better and be better."

"It is very symbolic," said Wilson Principal Stephen Tarason. "People walk by and see cracked and peeling paint. It is supposedly on the highest point in the city. It is symbolic of the community and the school. It should look sharp."

Thompson said the clock stopped working when all the windows were replaced in the school, which was built in 1935, as part of a renovation project about 15 years ago.

The clock was powered by an electric motor that had burned out. The hands were the wrong kind for the motor. Riener started working on finding parts last year. He sent away for two cheap motors, but when they burned out, he searched the Internet for a heavy-duty motor and the right-size hands.

Riener and Thompson, who was recruited as laborer's assistant, tossed their tools into buckets and hauled them up on ropes. They climbed up three or four stories of ladders, drilled new holes for the hands and installed the lights and the new heavy-duty motor, paid for by the PTSA. It cost about $400, Thompson said.

The clock began to turn again in June. A community newspaper, the Northwest Current, first wrote about it last week.

The clock face remains the same, although part of it had melted because it was too close to the incandescent bulbs that lit the face at night. The lights are now fluorescent, both to save energy and protect the clock face. It is visible at night for the first time in decades, Thompson said.

Now a school committee is working on a bigger project: the school's collapsed swimming pool.

A wall of the Wilson pool collapsed in July 2003, and the pool, which had been used by the community as well as the school, has been closed ever since. The Wilson facilities committee of the Local School Restructuring Team has developed a master plan calling for the replacement of the pool at the same location.

Money has been appropriated in the budget of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to start the process.

"We're hoping that this will be a catalyst for a renovation of the whole school," said Jack Koczela, the business representative to the Local School Restructuring Team.

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