Danville’s new high school opened 95 years ago this month. When Francis Watkins walked in the new school on opening day in 1924. she recalled her first impression was, “This is grand!”
She was a freshman and would eventually have a long career as a social science teacher in the school.
It was titled the Million Dollar High School, because that was the stated cost of the well-planned educational facility. That was an unheard of price for a school in downstate Illinois in 1924, and the actual cost of the completed project exceeded $1 million.
The money was well spent and the facility was one of the finest high schools in the Midwest, perhaps the nation. It was built large enough to absorb the projected increase in attendance in future years and provided space for an expanded curriculum.
It was constructed in what was once William’s pasture where the great traveling circus companies pitched their tents.
Among the many offerings of the new school were laboratories for physics, chemistry, and biology. There also was a swimming pool, a rarity in high schools in the first quarter of the 20th century. There also was a new gymnasium for the boys and also one for the girls. The boys’ gym was larger because it had bleachers on each side of the playing floor. There were no bleachers in the girls gym.
Francis recalled the freshmen knew their way around as well as the seniors because it was a new school, but upper-class members still sent her on a few “crazy errands.”
She had distinct memories of the first “All School Party.” It was a Halloween party and a focal point was the tunnel engineers traveled to go from building to building. She remembered it was dark and scary with wet gloves, and all sorts of frightening things that equaled any haunted house of later years.
An event in math class on her first day at school had a profound effect on her. She remembered her math teacher looked at her and said in a stern voice, “’Francis Watkins? Well, I had your mother and dad in my class and you had better do as well as they did.’ Needless to say I was scared to death, but I did make 100 on her exam, and I hated math. I also was very careful never to greet any of my students that way if I knew I had their parents.“
In her 41 years at Danville High School she taught a number of parents and their children.
Francis recalled she was very fond of the new football field in 1924. She noted the previous year she had attended a game at the I&I Fairgrounds. But what she was really impressed with was the magnificent auditorium with its large stage for performances and activities.
She remembered her first visit there, “When I stepped in the new auditorium, it kind of took my breath away, it was like being in a theater in Chicago or some big city. I could hardly believe this wonderful place was a part of our school. I remember I sat high up in the balcony in the auditorium in the last row when I was a freshman.”
The auditorium originally could seat 2,000 people, but that number was reduced to 1,792 when new seats were installed in 1978-79. To meet safety standards, aisles were added in the balcony and widened on the ground floor. The wooden 1924 seats Francis experienced were reportedly well-worn after more than a half century of service.
Francis noted tens of thousands of students and others stood on that “wonderful stage” during her lifetime. She was on it numerous times through the years and was always impressed with the stage size and the auditorium filled with people.
“I can still shut my eyes and see that sea of faces,” she recalled when I interviewed her after she retired.
She followed the lives of many of the students she taught and took pride in her long tenure at the school she “truly loved.”
One of her students was Mark Denman, who went on to also have a fine career in the Danville School district and retire as superintendent. He recalled Francis Watkins was one of his favorite teachers.
She was a dedicated educator, and on a September day in 1924 she delivered a fitting description of the new Danville High School when she declared, “This is grand!” That it was.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.