“High school,” Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything I can think of.” He’s right. It’s the one experience we Americans share; the only experience that’s more or less the same for everyone regardless of location, income level, or even historical era. Think about it. All high school students are roughly the same age, take approximately the same classes and struggle with the same social, physical, and emotional changes. Sure there are variations of the same theme for each school and even each individual, but the broad picture has always remained more or less the same. High school, theoretically at least, prepares each and every one of us for the life we will face afterwards, and the experience sticks with us forever.
High schools are also part of that experience. They are a physical presence marking a rite of passage for so many small towns and big city neighborhoods across this land. They are often the hub of the community; part institution of learning; part social and cultural haven. They are a constant in our ever-changing society and one of the ways in which we mark our progress over time. Cities and neighborhoods form special relationships with their schools, cheering for their athletic teams and taking pride in their academic achievements. Even after we leave our high schools for the broader world around us, often we return on brisk autumn nights for a homecoming celebration where we remember what once was. In this way, high schools are very near our spiritual core.
Such is certainly the case with Grand Haven High School. Although it has changed much in the 130 years since it first opened, it has remained the center of this community.
Actually, the history of high school in Grand Haven predates the first official high school. The first school in Grand Haven opened in the first public building in 1836. By the 1860s, area teens were attending the Grand Haven Union School, which included reading, spelling, algebra, arithmetic, analysis and parsing, philosophy, and Latin. The second class engaged in the study of reading, spelling and definitions, writing, mental arithmetic, geography, elementary grammar and analysis, and history. The third class studied reading, spelling, writing, mental arithmetic, and primary geography. All of this is a far cry from today's curriculum, which includes the basics as well as numerous electives.
By 1871, the first full time high school was opened at the corner of 6 th Street and Franklin. By this time, Grand Haven faced a problem which has since plagued many schools—overcrowding. A document from the mid 1860s notes that “owing to the limited accommodations of the school building, the board has felt it a necessity to exclude from the school building all non-resident scholars.” One is left to wonder how cramped the quarters must have been in that old building, for in 1876 the first class to graduate from the new school numbered all of three. The crowds grew however, and by the turn of the century, approximately 100 students were in attendance.
The school at 6 th and Franklin was lost to a fire in1901, and for the next twenty- one years, Grand Haven Senior High School would occupy the top floor of the old Central School building. In old photos, the school looks bleak and institutional, at least by modern standards, but it was loved by the students and the community who lovingly called it “The Brick School” in reference to its exterior. It was, in its day, the tallest building in town, rising a full three and one-half stories above ground. Kingsbury Scott, later to become a prominent journalist and historian, attended the school in these days and remembered that from the top floor students and teachers could see Lake Michigan in the fall. This scenic view occasionally brought a relief from studies as from time to time those near a window would become distracted by the struggles of ships trying to make it into port against the efforts of the autumn gales.
Curriculum in this time had changed from the preceding years as well. Required course work now included four years of English, two years of math and a semester each of American History, and civics. Electives ranged from zoology and modern history to shorthand and dictation, as well as physics and chemistry.
In 1922, the first separate high school opened on the Central School property. It served 350 students when it opened and included a staff of four male and 12 female teachers. The facility would give birth to many memories. A great tradition began when the first school band was created in 1927. Perhaps foremost among the memories was the old gymnasium that seated 600 spectators and was home to Buccaneer basketball squads of the legendary Gus Cohrs. Cohrs’ teams won seven state titles in a 10-year span during the twenties and thirties, a mark that has yet to be equaled by any team in the state.
In 1945, a new era in the history of Grand Haven schools was introduced when the Buccaneer football team played its first game at Green Hill Field. The field, on a parcel of land just south of Grant Street, was formerly home to Green Hill Recreation Area, a popular skiing and sledding spot. This land, when purchased by the schools became a favorite spot for the community who would turn out by the thousands to sit on the hill, which served as a pavilion overlooking the football field. In 1954 the western portion of the Green Hill purchase became home to the new Grand Haven High School, which became necessary when the local population outgrew the old Seventh Street location.
Before long, the new building was as much a part of the community as its predecessors. Over the years, thousands of residents attended not only high school , but also various community education classes, open houses, sporting events, and various other school and local activities in the building. Among the most memorable experiences were Tuesday and Friday nights when the community wedged itself into the 1200 seat “Pirates Pit” for basketball games. By the 1970’s and 80’s the tiny gym had become a lovingly outdated little bandbox that terrorized opponents and delighted the home fans, hundreds of whom could often be found lining up hours, if not days before big games, for what was always the hottest ticket in town. Win or lose (and it was mostly win from the 1970s on) the “Pit” always provided a good time for its spectators, who came as much for the raucous party atmosphere and the pep band’s scorching renditions of “Proud Mary” as the game.
Additionally, the school hosted two National Champion Science Olympiad teams and honored 45 of the 125 classes to have graduated from the school. Furthermore, it became host to a wide range of innovative course from Greenhouse Biology to House Construction and even contained a working auto shop. However, by the 1990’s, the student population had outgrown the school’s capacity, and in 1997, it hosted its final graduating class. Today the building continues to serve the community in its present capacity as Lakeshore Middle School.
In August of 1997, Grand Haven opened yet another new high school. Located three miles south of town on Ferris Street, the new building was part of a $35 million dollar bond issue passed by the community. At 370,000 square feet and 96 acres, the school and its campus dwarfs the old building and, as of the year 2000, was the 24 th largest high school in Michigan. Included in the school are a 3,500-seat field house, a modern Performing Arts Center, as well as 88 classrooms and 96 teaching centers including over 300 computers. The spacious grounds include two baseball and two softball diamonds, a tennis complex, soccer fields, and other practice fields, with room and hopes for a new Buccaneer Stadium in the future. In 2000, a new community aquatic center opened to serve the community, complete with a 660,000 gallon main pool, a 32’X36’ auxiliary pool and seating for over 700 spectators.
Finally, in 2008 a new stadium complex opened. Including Gene Rothi field and its state-of-the-art synthetic football surface, a full scale track and a soccer field, it was welcomed by the community who turned out en masse for the opening event, a Buccaneer football victory over longtime rivals the Holland Dutch. With all of its facilities on one site once again, the high school became even more of a focal point for the community and was poised to stay that way well into the 21 st century.
When the school opened its doors in 1997, it marked the first time in years that freshmen attended classes at the high school. The addition of the extra class has pushed the school’s population to nearly 2000 students, as well as over 125 staff members. As is befitting for such a modern school, GHHS is now home to a wide variety of courses, including numerous computer courses. Offerings range from the traditional “3 R’s” to weight training, foreign languages, writing labs, marketing education, nine Advanced Placement courses and several band, orchestra and choir offerings. The academic emphasis focuses not only preparing students for college, but also for the increasingly competitive and technologically advanced workplace, not to mention the all-encompassing Michigan MEAP tests. Numerous awards have also poured in. The Science Olympiad team won another national championship. The Bucs’ Blade was inducted into both state and national halls of fame. Band and choir programs continued to win prestigious awards and traveled around the country to perform. As Grand Haven High School strode confidently into the twenty-first century, the community could rest assured it has a building and curriculum designed to meet and adapt to the needs of a new educational era.
Throughout it all, the community has remained in close touch with this school. It is part of Grand Haven’s past, present and future, as are so many other schools like it throughout the country. Many of the people listed in these pages have stayed in the community, and many of those who left still drop by for a visit or stay in touch with the school through relatives and friends or the school’s website. And for nearly all graduates, whether they realize it or not, graduation from this high school places them in a unique fellowship, one in which they have been granted a lifetime membership. As former Buccaneer basketball coach Al Schaffer put it back in 1987, “Once a Buccaneer, always a Buccaneer.”
Written by C.E. Sikkenga, GHHS Social Studies Teacher
Original excerpt taken from the 2000 Grand Haven High School Alumni Directory, Updated May 2008