Oh, the stories the walls of Sunset Primary School could tell. Just consider how much the world has changed over the past 100-plus years.
Grover Cleveland was in office when the first Sunset School (then called West Oregon City School) was built in 1890 and the world's population was roughly one-eighth of what it is today. West Linn didn't even become an incorporated city until 1913, and electricity didn't become widespread until Sunset had been in operation roughly 30 years. Students at Sunset saw major worldwide wars and endured the Great Depression and recent recession. It thrived during multiple civil rights movements, too, all the while shepherding thousands of students toward high school and beyond.
Now, 127 years later, it's time to say goodbye. Demolition of the "old" Sunset school building — which has remnants from multiple different eras — will start in the coming days, making way for the reimagined Sunset Primary, which will open its doors to students for the first day of school Aug. 29, 2017. That date will mark an exciting chapter in Sunset's history, but it also serves as an opportunity for the community to reflect and remember what Sunset has meant to West Linn over the years.
The first iteration of Sunset was also the first school in West Linn when it was constructed in 1890. Originally called West Oregon City School, the school was followed by Stafford in 1891, Bolton in 1892 and Willamette in 1896. The one-room school for grades 1-12 became the first school in Oregon to provide public transportation in 1904 — a horse and wagon that carried children to the school house from the Rosemont Area.
The original building was then torn down in 1916 and a new school was built in its place in 1917. That building burned down in 1940, but the gym — which was built in 1930 just 20 feet from the main building — survived the fire. The 87-year-old gym remained in use up through the end of this past school year, and was accompanied by the main two-story classroom section of the school built in 1941.
"The old school burned down when my siblings were in school right before I got there," recalls Marilynn (Quint) Rabick, who attended Sunset from 1944-52 when the school taught grades 1-8. "I remember the Sunset kids went to Willamette while the new school was being built. It was a different time back then, but for the most part it was a good experience and I have good memories."
Sunset then received additions in 1957, 1960 and most recently in 1966. Since then there has been a great deal of remodeling — including a new boiler, computer network and phone system in 1998, and a remodeled kitchen and library in 2003. Nonetheless, Sunset has remained largely unchanged since the largest addition 57 years ago. While the school's paint is new, the walls are old, and are bursting with memories. Although the content of those memories have likely changed with the times, they maintain the same sense of excitement and impact such events can have on a young person's life.
Remembering the "old" days
"I lived only two blocks away so it wasn't just my school, but my playground too," says Kenneth Graap, who attended Sunset from 1959-1967. "I remember I was in the third grade when we were marched into the center of the building to practice the 'duck and cover' drill during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. In the fourth grade, not long after the 1962 Columbus Day storm, I broke my leg playing in the park next door to the school. I spent a long time in a cast and remember being called 'peg leg' when I returned to school on crutches.
"My friends and I also figured a way to get up on the roof so we spent time up there just hanging out. I think I got sick trying to smoke a cigar up there once!"
Walk the hallways and you can feel the memories lingering inside the walls. Explore the 87-year old gym or stand on the stage and it's easy to imagine the various basketball games and school performances that have taken place there. Venture into the crow's nest — the third-floor attic which once served as an office but has recently been reserved for storage — and you'll find boxes of documents and school relics, proof of the rich history that has made Sunset the place it is today.
"I'll miss the bones and familiar feel of the building ... when you can wander the hallways and remember which teachers taught in which classrooms, when a mural was painted or tiles were installed or books were purchased," says Superintendent Kathy Ludwig, who served as Sunset's principal from 2004-11. "(I'll miss) sneaking up to the crow's nest to look through old photos of students from decades ago. Those memories are connected to people and good times."
Those boxes, which were there until just recently when they were packed up for the move, contained facts and examples of how much has changed in more than a century. Those documents show that multiple classes have buried time capsules through the years — dating back as early as at least 1958 — but none have been found during construction and building updates over the years, despite efforts to find them.
There are old pictures of the longstanding tradition "Breakfast with Dad," field days and choir concerts. There are meeting minutes of PTA meetings from the early 1960s, which show total annual budgets of less than $300. There are even old bus routes, and pictures of the school's Bald Eagle mascot, all which show a much different West Linn than the community knows today. Each item tells just a small story, like anecdotes from 89-year-old Barbara Hauck, who implemented the school's first lunch program.
"Myself and another mother thought it would be nice to serve something once a week to the kids, so a bunch of us mothers got together during apple season and just got to work procuring apples and canning applesauce," Hauck says."Eventually we decided to do more and served hot dogs once a week at $0.10 per hot dog. I have a lot of memories of my kids growing up in that school."
Preserving the past
The school district began planning for a new Sunset school as early as 2007 when it was clear that the building was close to the end of its life. But before the district could replace Sunset, it needed to add another primary school in West Linn to accommodate population growth. That new school was Trillium Creek Primary, which opened in 2012, and families naturally flocked to the newer building.
That left some of Sunset's existing students envious, but fifth-grade teacher Rosalynn Pesicka saw Trillium Creek as a teaching opportunity. Over the course of the school year, Pesicka and her students researched Sunset's own rich history, identifying former students and teachers while digging up historical documents relating to the school. By spring they'd compiled mountains of research, gathered handfuls of historical photographs, and conducted dozens of interviews.
By year's end, the class had self-published their own book, documenting the school's history for future Sunset generations.
"My kids loved working on that project and I was amazed by their motivation and work ethic during the whole process," Pesicka says. "It was great to be able to do that for our school."
Pesicka says her students found that many former teachers and students shared their same feelings about Sunset. The school has always been old, as long as most anybody alive today can remember at least, but it's always contained a sense of excitement. The class' goal was to catalogue that feeling in their book, which will remain in the school library for years to come.
Even more than Pesicka's book, however, Sunset's history will live on in the teachers and students who have gone through the school over the years. Whether it was in the 1950s or early 2000s, Sunset has always been a place of growth and of learning.
"I did my student teaching there, my very first teaching in the spring of 1968," says Jane Stickney, a longtime employee of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District who retired as deputy superintendent two years ago. "It was (a first grade through eighth grade) school and the district didn't have kindergarten at that point. It had been a community school for a long, long time. The district was much smaller then, and it had that really intimate community school feel to it. As I worked as deputy superintendent, I found Sunset had an extraordinarily sweet community around it. People loved their school and supported their school, and I don't think that's ever changed."
Like attending the same college or rooting for the same sports team, attending Sunset has provided a common link for many generations of students who otherwise wouldn't be connected. Many friendships have been forged at Sunset over the years, many of which have proven to be lifelong relationships — further proof of the building's impacts on people's lives.
"My (West Linn High School graduating class), class of '56, has gotten together annually ever since high school," Rabick says. "I'm still friends with a few girls that I went to school with all 12 years and we get together every once in a while for high tea or lunch. A lot of us still live in West Linn and I actually live on the same property. I made some lifelong friends at that school."
The future of Sunset Primary
While it's true that any grade school plays a vital role in molding young people, Sunset stands out. It has shaped futures and changed lives over the past 127 years. I know this to be true because I attended Sunset Primary myself, starting kindergarten in the fall of 1997 and finishing up fifth grade in 2003.
For me, elementary school was more than learning to read and write. I can't count how many "firsts" took place at that school. Sure, it was the place where I learned to add and subtract, multiply and divide, but it was also the place where I learned to shoot a basketball, barter for Snack Packs and say the Pledge of Allegiance.
Sunset is where I developed my first crush and where I learned to work with others. It's where I made some of my first friends, including my best friend to this day. But more important than anything else, Sunset is where I learned right from wrong, and where I learned to be a responsible member of society.
That old building has always been a direct portal to my childhood. Visiting the school over the past couple years to cover student talent shows or report on the ongoing construction of the new school, I was amazed at how vividly I was transported back to when I was 6 years old. I can visualize the long walk from Ms. Webber's first-grade classroom to the cafeteria, or the gym where I held my 10th birthday party.
I remember buying hot lunch for the first time — a cheeseburger that didn't taste quite like I had envisioned — and falling off the monkey bars on the playground. I remember playing "sludge ball" on the wall ball courts and kickball on the baseball field. I remember waiting in line at the bottom-floor drinking fountain after recess, where you got exactly "three Mississippis" before you had to go to the back of the line.
I remember many class projects, like my second-grade research paper about the rhinoceros, where I first learned to use an encyclopedia and find nonfiction books. I remember riding the bus to school for the first time, scared but excited to truly be on my own. But more than anything, I remember the sense of possibility that Sunset gave me. I remember dreaming of the future, like my temporary desire to become an architecht after my third-grade field trip to downtown Portland to learn about bridges and buildings, as well as my short-lived goal of becoming a doctor after my fifth-grade teacher Ms. Pepper told me I could do anything.
There were laughs and there were tears, but all the memories and all the experiences — good and bad — contributed to the values and beliefs I hold to this day. It was a safe place to grow up, where I felt valued and empowered. I will always be thankful that my teachers and that building provided those things for me.
I talked to many people while researching the old building's history, and every single person relayed similar experiences and memories. So while a lot has changed in the past 127 years, much has remained the same, too. Out front of Sunset Primary sits the old fire bell, which was used to alert volunteer fire fighters at the old Sunset Fire Hall of emergencies until 1934. Its purpose is to honor those firefighters who volunteered their time and service nearly 100 years ago, but it has served a second purpose for many years.
For decades it has acted as a symbol of safety and pride for Sunset Primary patrons, both past and present. The bell will be enclosed in a glass box at the new school's entrance, ensuring it continues to do so for generations to come.
"I still (remember) 'This is my school, this is my school, my Sunset school.' That's the school song that would erupt across the gym during assemblies, with the fifth-graders being the loudest of all the grades," says Shannon Taball, who graduated from Sunset in 2005. "Sunset holds so many fond memories I will cherish forever."
"This old building will always be a big part of my life," Graap says. "It is sad to see it go, but I understand nothing lasts forever. I'm sure 50 or 60 years from now someone will be reminiscing about all the wonderful things that happened while they attended school in the 'New' Sunset Primary School."