Back in 1913, Irene Rice graduated from Western High School in Georgetown and went on to study history at Goucher and Yale before returning to teach at Western in 1919. By the time she retired in 1958 she was the school's principal, and two decades later, in 1984, she married one of her former students, the late U.S. Court of Appeals judge Roger Robb ('24). "I had never married before," she says, "because I gave all my attention to Western."
Some principal. Some school. Today marks the 100th anniversary of Western's founding in 1890, and graduates of most classes -- including those from its newest incarnation as the Duke Ellington School of the Arts at Western -- are gathering to celebrate and reminisce.
Margaret Gorman Cahill ('23) was a student at Western when she became the first Miss America in 1921. "None of the students, nobody even cared outside of Atlantic City," she remembers. "It was a joke at school."
U.S. District Judge Oliver Gasch ('24) met his future wife, Sylvia Meyer ('24), there -- in Rice's history class. "She was the outstanding girl athlete -- she played on all the teams," he recalls. "I was in debating and dramatics." Meyer, who had a long career as a harpist with the National Symphony, says Western was "a terrific place," a public school that "was like a college preparatory school."
Theodore Stoddard ('44), an anthropologist who later went into computers, "got more out of Western than I got out of Harvard."
Gloria Steinem ('52), the journalist, transferred from an integrated Midwest school and found herself "walking around the halls thinking 'there's something wrong here.' People were all the same color."
David Clarke ('61), the punctiliously progressive D.C. Council chairman, donned his cadet uniform and marched close-order drill at Western with an M-1 rifle on his shoulder.
Xerox executive Clegg L. Watson ('62) became the first black president of the otherwise all-white student council there, "opening the door of opportunity to other blacks."
Metropolitan Opera soprano Myra Darlene Merritt ('66) got the idea of a singing career when music teacher Charlotte Bostick Givens told her, "Darlene, you should take your voice seriously!" (Givens: "She had fire and drama, a flair for the operatic.")
Likewise, it was at Western that Hollywood writer ("ALF," "Bagdad Cafe") Thad Mumford ('68) "fell in love with theater. I was exposed to what a writer should do."
And now Mike Malone, head of the musical theater program at Howard University, who directed Western's metamorphosis during the early '70s into the Ellington School of the Arts -- a unique program of traditional academic subjects combined with in-depth "majors" in the arts for its 400 students -- says he can't turn on his television set "without seeing one of the graduates working as an actor."
Mingling of the Generations
A thousand Western/Ellington graduates from the Washington area and around the nation are coming back to school this weekend for the 100th-anniversary gala, bringing together for the first time those who attended Western as the city's premier academic high school with those who know it today as the home of youthful brilliance in the arts.
The D.C. Council, led by Clarke, has declared today "Western/Ellington Day" in the District. Newsletter king Austin Kiplinger ('35) will keynote this morning's opening ceremony, and Merritt will sing the spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and an operatic selection accompanied by Ellington's choir and orchestra. Tonight there's a banquet and dance at the Grand Hyatt.
The Gasches have reserved two tables to entertain their former classmates and friends, including Rice. "I'm looking forward to it," says Rice. Cahill was invited, but declined. "I'm not going," she says. "That lovely lady called me, Sylvia Meyer. ... I remember her as a very beautiful young girl with long blond hair, and she played the harp -- she reminded me of an angel."
Says Judge Gasch: "We weren't able to persuade her, and I can't issue a bench warrant."
Not everyone is happy with the change from Western to Ellington. Mumford, for example, says he's "saddened that, in a city having difficulty turning out students who can compete in college, a school which was once a benchmark of academic excellence has now been turned into a specialty school."
But Ellington principal Martis Davis says his students have an unusually demanding double program -- a full academic load plus their arts classes -- which keeps them in school from 8:30 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. The college placement rate -- about 90 percent -- is running as high as ever, he says. Back when Gasch, Meyer and Robb were in attendance, the school was so crowded, with 1,000 students in 1924-25, that they attended only half days.
"I hope this centennial will really fuel a coalescence between the old and the new," says Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who with Malone led the lobbying to found Ellington in 1974 and who now chairs the private Ellington Fund, which kicks in $1 million annually to supplement the school's standard allotment from the D.C. school system.
"I want the old grads to become more helpful," says Cafritz. "I think that when they understand what has happened to their school, they'll be extremely proud of the legacy that's being continued. It's important for them to realize that the earlier level of academic excellence has been restored."
Western High School opened in 1890 in the building of the old Curtis School in Georgetown with 56 students and two full-time teachers. There were classes in Latin, English and German, algebra, history and natural science. In addition, part-timers taught drawing, music and what was known at the time as "physical culture."
In June of 1896 Congress passed an act authorizing a new building, and two years later school opened in September in the new location at 35th and R streets NW -- where it still is today. Over the years the building was greatly expanded, and by the 50th anniversary in 1940 there were 1,600 students and a faculty of 60.
The school's racial makeup has reflected changes in society as a whole. Western was a white school that by the early '60s had, according to Watson, only about "70 black students from the elite, the talented tenth of the race. In 1961 we were just knocking on the door. By '62 it had opened dramatically." Busing brought students from all over the city at the same time the high-school-age population of Georgetown was plummeting, and today the citywide public school is largely black.
Over the years Western/Ellington has, by attracting the itinerant children of American military families and foreign diplomats, acquired an international flavor. "I had friends there from all over the world," says Leon Collins ('67), general manager of WPFW-FM in Washington. "My whole life has been professionally multicultural as a direct result of that experience. I worked in the eastern Caribbean, Puerto Rico, the U.S Virgin Islands. I've done things in Africa and Europe."
Today Ellington is "a dream come true," says Cafritz. "We finally have a place where kids could begin the journey toward becoming a professional artist or a college grad with a specific interest in the arts, and kids who go on to law or medical school. And we've been able to keep a lot of kids in high school who would otherwise drop out because we've found a way to align it with their true interests."
Love and History Here's a story:
Both of the distinguished future judges, Gasch and Robb, were in Irene Rice's history class in 1924, and one day she gave them a joint assignment. "I wanted them to understand the politics opposite to what they themselves believed," she says, "so I asked each to support the political campaign of a party they didn't approve, and to debate the matter. I had a theory that you strengthen your own argument by getting the argument of the other side. But they came to me one day after class and asked if I would mind giving them something else to do, because they had found that their friendship was harmed by political argument."
Rice excused them from the assignment, having perhaps learned something herself too.
The Washington-born daughter of a merchant, she entered Western in 1909. That she would marry Robb 60 years after he attended her class is a bit of strange magic. "His wife died, and he asked me to do it, and I did," Rice says simply. "At first I said no, but he said yes. Then I said yes. It's what you call 'the cream of the cup.' I have a long and very happy life, and then, in the autumn years, I had a delightful marriage."
Maybe you could call it Rice's Rule: She who says no must say yes.
The Gasches drop by and visit her from time to time.
"Now when I go over," complains the judge, "I get a quiz on what's happening in the courts and the world. If I don't give good responses I get called on it."