Last week they began tearing down my alma mater — Granite High School. It is a bittersweet experience for me. It’s bitter because of all the great memories I have of that school. It’s sweet because the grand lady can finally be laid to rest and the property given new life.
Granite opened in 1907 and served the farming communities of the Big Field and Mill Creek. Located on 3300 South, it was one of only two high schools in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley; the other being Jordan High way down on 9400 South.
The students, proud of their farming heritage, adopted the Farmer as their mascot.Students proudly wore the moniker of the Mighty Fighting Farmers until the school closed in 2009. Hundreds of thousands of students have graced her halls over the years and it seems everyone I meet has a Farmer connection.
Over the years, the area around the school became less rural. By the 1960s, the area became fully developed and two new high schools (Olympus and Skyline) opened to serve the burgeoning population of the east bench. Granite continued to serve the blue collar neighborhoods of the lower valley with excellent academic, extra-curricular and athletic programs.
Famous Farmers include professional and Olympic athletes; LDS General Authorities; a U.S. Senator and congressman; a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist. Movie score composer Leigh Harline (If You Wish Upon a Star) was a Farmer as were business leaders Fred Lampropoulos (Merit Medical) and Ed Catmull (Pixar). And, of course, there is Vincent Bath, the American Grandpa.
I came to Granite in 1971 as a wide-eyed sophomore and loved every minute of it. I found the culture of Granite unique. We middle class kids from the blue collar neighborhood fought to prove we were as good as the rich kids from the east bench and did a pretty good job of it. This group inferiority complex tended to bond the diverse population of Granite into a tolerant and accepting brotherhood. There was little in the way of class distinction or cliques.
There was opportunity to try so many things and learn so much about myself at Granite. I was the sports editor for the school newspaper, on the debate team and starred in the school plays. I associated with people from many races and cultures and learned to love and appreciate them all. I had good friends. I had just enough struggle and disappointment to start me getting over myself, but not so much to crush my enthusiasm for life or my unbridled confidence. It was a great experience.
Eventually, cultural and political forces combined to bring Granite to a close. The beginning of the end came when the new Cottonwood High School drew a large number of Granite students away. The school fell on hard times in the 1990s, when the state passed a law allowing students to choose which high school to attend. Defections began immediately and grew over the next ten years – syphoning off many of the brightest and the best.
At the same time, the demographics of the area took a downturn. By 2000, South Salt Lake’s population was the poorest, least educated and most dense in Utah. The area became home to thousands of immigrants and refugees. The local schools had so many non-English speakers that teachers had to spend the majority of instructional time on literacy, leaving math, science, history and the arts to suffer.
Debra and I are very familiar with the final days of Granite. Our children attended Granite and her feeder schools and we were active in the school support groups. Our oldest daughter had a great experience at Granite (94-97) and she could not have received a better public education or had better friends. There were signs that Granite was in trouble, but the principal (Diane Hesleph) worked hard to maintain a great program and there was good community and parental support.
We took a work transfer to North Central Washington and were gone for six years. When our children returned to Granite in the fall of 2003 we were shocked at how badly things had deteriorated. The only word we could think to use was “ghetto.” The pride and quality were gone. Students, teachers and administrators talked about how Granite was a special school for special kids – meaning the only place that the dysfunctional could function. Standards had not just been lowered they were gone.
Instead of pulling our kids out of the school like all the other parents who were serious about their kids’ education, Debra and I choose to stand and fight. We joined the booster club (closest thing they had to a PTA) and I was elected to the school/community council. Debra started a parent center to try to get parents to support the school. We helped organize and chaperone a choir trip to California. We worked with the principal, offered support to the teachers and talked with whoever at the district would listen.
We worked for three years, but morale had sunk too low. The community had abandoned the school and the district was determined to close it. We saw the handwriting on the wall when the district changed the format of the school, removed all extra-curricular activities and refused to make the necessary repairs to the building. We pulled our last daughter out of Granite and sent her to Cottonwood in 2006.
The school closed in 2009 due to plummeting enrollment and the aftermath has been tumultuous. The property was offered to South Salt Lake, but their $25 million bond measure to buy and renovate the school into a park and community center failed by a handful of votes. The property when up for sale and has been the subject of several proposals (movie studio, art center, housing, Walmart), but all have failed due to funding or been blocked by the city.
The building sat vacant for years and the school district became more and more neglectful of its upkeep. It has, in the last year, been fenced off (liability concerns) and become a target for dumping and vandalism. Finally, after another failed bond attempt and the rejection of an alumni group’s offer to buy, two companies purchased the property. A large section will become about 70 new homes and the other is slated for some, yet announced, commercial development.
Last week the trees around the football field came down along with the fence around the tennis courts. Yesterday they took out the softball backstop and the baseball dugout. Demolition crews are gutting the classrooms and the seats from auditoriums are stacked out on the front lawn. The sound of heavy equipment replace the noisy cheers of the football fans and soon the “S” building, the “I” building and the “A” building will heave a sigh as they crash to the ground.
No longer will the boys swim naked in the “L” building pool (school policy before the 1950’s). There won’t be anyone cussing out referees in the pit-like main gym (using a megaphone stolen from Highland High and repainted red and blue). There won’t be any tater tots flying across the cafeteria to hit you in the back of the head. But, you know, there hasn’t really been anything going on there for almost a decade. It’s time for her to rest and to quit missing all of us as much as we miss her.
Goodbye Old Friend!