HISTORY OF URBANA HIGH SCHOOL
In 1983 Champaign County celebrated its sesquicentennial. In the 1830’s there was no high school in Urbana, just a one-room school near the Big Grove. In this school, there were no glass windows the only light being provided by omitting one log of the building and covering the gap with greased paper. A large open fireplace of stones and clay occupied one end directly behind the teacher’s desk. Since there were no student’s desks, the pupils sat on benches made from an oak log crudely carved and full of splinters. About 20 people of all ages attended school on an intermittent basis.
One of the first teachers, Asahel Bruer, occasionally treated his pupils to a party of whiskey and apples. In fact, Bruer’s failure to supply the customary whiskey and apples for a Christmas party lead to an incident in which his students barred him from the school. Bruer then climbed on the roof, covered the top of the chimney with clapboards, and calmly smoked the students out.
The first building in the county to be used as a high school was built in 1855 as a private seminary under the auspices of the Methodist Church. An entire block was donated by James Busey where Leal School is not located. It was a handsome, two-story New England style brick structure and was named the Male and Female Academy. Also, in 1855, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Free School Act and, because of insufficient funds to operate the academy, it was sold to the citizens of Urbana for $5,000 to be used as a public school. The upper floor of this building was used for the secondary school classes with the primary and intermediate grades on the first floor. Mr. T. R. Leal was the first principal.
The original building was destroyed by fire in 1872. A year later the first Leal School was constructed on the same site. Mr. J. W. Hayes was the principal since Mr. Leal had been elevated to the position of school superintendent. There was but one high school teacher. Since there were more subjects than could be taught in the course of the day, Mr. Hayes taught mathematics and some other subjects with those classes meeting in his office.
In 1883 there was a total enrollment of 59. In that year, the first commencement ceremony of Urbana High School was held with 10 graduates. Each graduate delivered an oration. The valedictorian in 11883 was not the student with the highest scholastic standing but was chosen by vote of the class. All students were required to take Latin, Grammar, Caesar, Cicero and Virgil, Algebra, Plain and Solid Geometry, Trigonometry, U.S., Ancient, and English History, Botany, and Zoology. It took three years to complete the required courses in order to receive a diploma, but many students stayed only two years and received a certificate of attendance. During this time, the school board was appointed by the city council with the mayor and city clerk ex-officio president and clerk of the school board. In 1890 the school board was first chosen by election.
In 1896 land donated by JohnThornburn was used to build the new high school on the banks of the Boneyard Creek at the cost of $23,000. It contained approximately 200 students and a dozen faculty members. The school newspaper, The Thornburn Thistle, was put into publication a few years after the school started. In 1910, a yearbook, The Rosemary, was first distributed among high school students. By the time this first copy of The Rosemary was published, the school was facing the problem of overcrowding again. Almost 450 students were now in Urbana High School on the Thornburn site. A proposal for a new township high school was voted down twice. A suggestion for a twin city high school, centrally located with one set of administrative officers, one core of teachers, one gymnasium, etc., to be shared by both Urbana and Champaign students met with strong disapproval from both cities. Finally, in 1911 a petition was circulated to build a new high school. On October 3, 1913 the cornerstone was laid at the present site on Race and Iowa of the 1914 addition to Urbana High School. Business in the town was suspended for the afternoon; school children had a holiday, and the Urbana mayor, Mr. O. L. Browder, turned out to give a speech to the populace gathered around to witness this momentous day. Among other things, a band played, the president of the University of Illinois sand “America” and a parade consisting of policemen, school officials, various chapters of the Night’s Templar, the mayor and scores of school children formed. Classes started in the fall of 1914 with the building being completed at the cost of $150,000. At this time, the old Thornburn building became the junior high school being used for the seventh and eight graders.
In April of 1915 the first copy of the school newspaper, The Echo, went to press. It featured standard school information including ads for used bicycles, social announcements and jokes. Also that year, both The Echo and The Rosemary carried a gushing poem written by graduating seniors entitled “Farewell to the Faculty.” During this time a typical school lunch consisted of two hamburgers, a piece of pie, a doughnut and a cookie and cost 10 cents. The restrooms really were “rest rooms” in that they contained couches and chairs. The students made plans to buy a “moving picture machine” as they felt that the “use of a cinematograph would help to cultivate a taste for good pictures.”
The architect of the original 1914 building, Joseph Royer, used the impressive Gothic revival style of architecture for the school. Its E-shaped design was regarded as revolutionary at the time. On each corner post of the building there was a quotation from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. One of these reads, “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teche (teach).” In 1925, the first addition to the school as wadded when locker rooms, a swimming pool, and gymnasium were added. Urbana High School was one of the first high schools in the state of Illinois to have a swimming pool. In 1925, bobbed hair and skirts below the knees were the fashion. The upperclassmen wore long pants with sharp creases, but the freshmen wore knickers. Numerous clubs were formed, including those involving foreign languages, the honor society, and the Social Klub. The SK, as it was called, sponsored hops, dances, picnics, banquets, and swimming and costumes parties throughout the year.
Urbana High School continued to grow from 1925 to 1955. Obviously, the school and the community went through the Depression, World War II and the Korean War. In 1934, the Girls’ Athletic Association reached new heights of popularity when they held a circus in the gym at Urbana High School. By 1935, a school chorus had been formed, and The Echo carried a report on the bad influence of radio on school work. In 1936 the Urbana High School Student Council was born. An extra vacation occurred that year due to a flood that covered all of Race Street. By 1937 Carle Park, then known as “Lincoln Statute Park,” was a favorite student gathering place. At that time, Lincoln faced the school directly, his back to the park. In 1938 a separate marching band with drum majors, majorettes, and baton twirlers was begun, and the first Miss Rosemary contest was held. By 1940 the first cheerleaders at Urbana High Schoolhad appeared with three girls and two boys forming the squad. They all wore long pants with a stripe down the side and a matching satin shirt. In 1942 a refugee from a German concentration camp enrolled at Urbana High School. Girls signed up for bandage rolling at the Red Cross and Urbana High School started another war effort, the Victory Corps. The year 1946 showed things getting back to normal once again. Boys greased back their hair and started wearing blue jeans to schools. In 1949 the first pep assembly was held and the Steak ‘n Shake became the place for high school students to converge after school and on weekends. By 1950 several students had their own cars, and an article inThe Echo warned against reckless driving.
It was in the early fifties that the enrollment of the school necessitated the third major construction on the Urbana High School campus. This resulted in the 1955 wing to the building built as the north elevation along Iowa Street. Television was becoming the popular means of entertainment we know today. Students marched in their first homecoming parade in 1956, and a program called “Echos,” a student radio program, was aired over WDWS every Saturday morning. Of course, Elvis Presley was the rage at this time.
By the early 1960’s Urbana High School again had outgrown its facility and the final addition, the 1964 addition was added to the east of the current building. This addition included “a giant size cafeteria with the searing capacity of 350.” This was the time when girls were now wearing pants to school, though quite a few were still sticking to their traditional skirts and dresses. In 1969 the student council became the Urbana High School Student Senate. It was also in this period of time, specifically in 1961, that Urbana High School lost its freshman class and became a three-year high school.
In 1985 the voters approved a $14.5 million referendum. This money was used to renovate the 1914 building and the three later additions. A separate referendum was defeated to build a swimming pool. A new gymnasium was built with a seating capacity of 1,500 allowing all students to meet in assembly.
Work on the renovation began in the spring of 1987 and was completed in the fall of 1989. Also that fall, the ninth grade was brought back to the high school for the first time in 25 years.
We are currently a building of 1,200 students and more than 100 teachers, administrators, and support staff. We are proud of the traditions of Urbana High School. Our graduates have distinguished themselves in all walks of life. Two Nobel Prize winners of medicine and physiology are included in our alumni.
The need for quality education has never been greater. The staff of Urbana High School is committed to providing the best education to all students. Our motto is “Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Challenges.”
Written by Dr. Craig A. Zeck, Urbana High School Principal, 1981-1990
This article was located by Vickie Kunza Johnson