Lowell Bradford, who graduated from Washington's central High School 50 years ago, says he no longer has either a standing alma mater or a boyhood town. They tumbled into nonexistence when World War II ended, the face of the city changed and Cardozo High School occupied the old Central High building.
"It's extinct. Like a dinosaur, it's just plain gone. The town is now a city and the school is gone. We simply crated up our trophies, our pictures and records and took them all away," said Bradford, a semiretired lawyer, who now lives far away in the Spring Valley neighborhood of upper Northwest Washington and seldom ventures to the huge red-brick-and-stone building at 13th and Clifton streets NW that was once one of the better-known schools in the city.
For Bradford and about 100 other graduates and their spouses who gathered Friday evening for a 50th anniversary reunion at the Columbia Country Club in Chevy Chase, the talk was of good times in the old days of a Washington long gone.
They spoke with pride of their old school and the accomplishments of its numberous teams and clubs. Everyone was anxious to note that it was Washington's oldest high school and had famous graduates, including J. Edgar Hoover, Helen Hayes and the late Joseph B. Danzansky.
But the dinosaur isn't really gone. Cardozo is alive and well, struggling to be a citadel of learning in a community usually known for its bad housing, drug traffic and teen-age crime. It is not only an area torn and scarred by the 1968 riots, but also an area that is beginning to feel the effects of neighborhood revitalization as mostly young, affluent blacks and whites move into the community. And Cardozo is trying hard to raise enough money to be the first school in this area to send its marching band to the prestigious Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day.
Friday night's reflections on a Washington that was -- and the Washington that is -- were a rare commentary on how much the city's face and people have changed in the past half century, and how some native Washingtonians view those changes with difficulty.
Like people not wishing to speak about a relative in disgrace, most everyone avoided talking about the building that remains on the block bounded, by 11th, 13th, Clifton and Florida Avenue NW.
"Let's keep it happy," Bradford volunteered to a younger visitor. "We don't want to talk about 1950, about Martin Luther King and all that. We're not here to talk about that. Itgets people angry. I still live here. It's my city. We don't want to talk about that tonight."
Central High School, built in 1915 for the white high school students in a segregated school system was a model of the modern school with the largest auditorium in the city, a regulation-size swimming pool, two gymnasiums, a green house, a firing range and an attached football stadium. It replaced an older building 16 blocks away 7th and O streets NW. The new school was in a prosperous white neighborhood and drew students from as far away as Takoma Park and Darnestown in upper Montgomery County.
"We were neighborhood-inclined," remembers Doris Thomas Poore who used to walk to school from nearby Columbia Heights. "There were so many things to do at the school. We had lots of clubs and activities. And we'd dance at a place on Columbia Road [L'Aligon, according to her classmates].
"And on Saturday, we'd take the streetcar down to F Street and go shopping and to the theater. You'd always see someone you knew along F Street," she said. "Now, if I were to go downtown, I won't know a soul."
For Poore and many of her classmates, Washington is no longer home. Many live in the suburbs around Washington or traveled from as far away as California and Alaska to attend the reunion.
Bob Burkart, one of the reunion organizers, said the high cost of Washington hotels made them choose the country club for their gatherings, "and if we held it in D.C. no one would come anyway. We have a lot of widows and they are afraid of the crime," he said.
Washington is much different city from the place where the "Centralites" proudly wore the blue and white, cheered the Vikings, graduated and went on to college and careers, many in the military. The biggest change for most is the transition of Washington from a predominantly white town to a majority black city, and the changes in the once-segregated school system.
In 1950, the District school board, following a year-long discussion, made the controversial decision to designate the Central High School building a black high school. Nearby Cardozo High School, at Ninth and Rhode Island, was so overcrowded that students were meeting in triple shifts each day.
The Cardozo students were to move to the much larger Central High building and the students from Central, where enrollment was declining, were to be moved to one of the several other white high schools in the city.
Embittered by the polarization of the closed society of that day, the Central students tried to take much of their revered old school with them. Portraits of school leaders, student groups and favorite teachers were removed, along with trophies and even the school's corner stone.
"Our thought was let's get out and their thought was let's get in," said Walton Shipley, an archivist for the school's alumni association. "There was a lot of bitterness. The whole thing was handled badly. No offer was made to us to let us leave our things at the school. So we took it all out. We hated to give that school up. That's why we took the corner stone."
Today, the corner stone sits incongruously against the garden wall of the Columbia Historical Society near Dupont Circle where the Central High School Alumni Association maintains a two-room museum.
On the top floor, where servants once lived in the old mansion, Shipley and Eleanor Stolle Wright (class of 1939) display photographs, scrap books and graduation programs. Another room contains about 100 silver trophies won by teams before 1950.
Centralites think the tone of the departure was clearly a product of the times. "Back in the 30s, there just wasn't any contact. The Negro population in those days was a good one," recalled Burkart, now a retired FBI agent. "We had our life and they had theirs."
"We never thought about mixing back then," said Poore. "That was just the way we lived."
The maintenance of the archives, a biannual newsletter, frequent reunions for various classes, a Christmas party and a spring tea are run by the alumni association. They have even published two histories of the school.
Ten years ago, Danzansky, former chairman of Giant Food and the "prophet" of the Class of '30, suggested that maybe Central should live again. According to two graduates, neither of whom wanted their name used, Danzansky rose at the 40th reunion of the class to suggest that Central and Cardozo join together and become one school with one name.
"Everyone booed and shouted 'no'" said one of Danzansky's classmates.
Another remembered it differently: "There wasn't much said at the time but everyone was angry about it. We didn't invite him back to the 45th reunion."
[Ethel Danzansky recalled that her late husband was somewhat afraid of making the suggestion but did so anyway. "It was met with stony silence," she said yesterday.]
Many of the alumni recalled times, events and situations hardly imaginable in the hectic, inflation-ridden and crowded downtown corridors of the nation's capital.
Frazier and Betty Rose Hilder, retired lawyers now living in Sarasota, Fla., remember when there was diagonal parking on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue and police stood at intersections with stop-and-go signs in their hands.
Poore remembered going to Keith's and the Palace Theatre. The trolley ride cost 10 cents, admission was a quarter and a soda afterwards cost a nickle. In those days, she said, there was sledding in the winter on Park Road, with bonfires at the intersection to keep warm.
Those were days of Prohibition, Bradford recalled, "but there was alcohol available. We'd mix Niehwehler's Cream Ale (ginger ale) with whatever alcohol we could get. We'd stuff it altogether in a big bottle and spread it around and make it last for a whole party."
Most of the graduates at the reunion said they had not seen the school in the last 30 years and were not interested in seeing it now. Robert Graves, a California rancher who flew in for the weekend, was an exception.
"I stopped by the school today. It looked about the same. It never was very pretty," he said. "I went down to the stadium where I used to play ball and talked to some of the kids there. They seemed kind of surprised to see me. You know what they told me? They said they have this terrific band and they're trying to get to California for the Rose Bowl. Isn't that grand? I'd like to donate some money."
Then Graves paused. "I wonder where I should send it. I guess to Cardozo High School at the old address," he said.