Gone, but not forgotten

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The buildings are now down and buried, but the memories will live for years to come.


For the hundreds of students who passed through Lehigh school halls through the years, the razing of those buildings during the past month was a difficult event to watch.


“In a way it’s depressing to see them tearing it down,” said Pete Goering of Topeka, a member of Lehigh High School’s last graduating class in 1966.


“I was there this summer on my way to a Lehigh reunion in Hesston,” he said. “I looked inside the windows and it was in such a bad state. It’s probably better that they tear it down than watch it literally falling down.”


City leaders in Lehigh had been feeling much the same way for the past 10 years or so that the city has owned the property. The recent past had not been kind to the old buildings.


After Lehigh High School closed in 1966 in the face of statewide consolidation, the new Unified School District 410 partnership of Lehigh, Hillsboro and Durham used the buildings for the next decade as a junior high school.


But when all USD 410 schools were consolidated in Hillsboro, the Lehigh campus was abandoned and eventually sold to the Talley family, who used it as the operating base for their Empire Home Furnishings business.


But the business eventually closed and the City of Lehigh acquired the property through a sheriff’s sale. The intent of city leaders already then was to demolish the structure because it was seriously deteriorating and there wasn’t much hope for change.


“We’ve been living in town six years, and when we moved here it was already in the shape it was now” said Mayor Rick Hauschel. “They had been talking about getting rid of it I think for four years before that.”


The problem was money.


“They had different contractors come in and look at it, but the funds needed to tear it down was so high they couldn’t afford to do it,” Hauschel said.


In time, the building became a real health hazard and city leaders becoming increasingly concerned about liability issues.


“Especially in the older, three story-part, you could go up there and see clear to the bottom-the boards were that bad from the leaking roof,” Hauschel said.


“More than anything, the residents now wanted it down because of the safety factor for the kids. Kids like to explore-and so do adults, for that matter.”


City leaders got a break when the Kansas Department of Commerce & Housing initiated a grant program two years ago to help small cities demolish abandoned buildings.


The Lehigh City Council applied for the grant and was awarded $66,454, which, combined with the city’s share of $7,384, was enough to fund the project. Bahm Construction Inc. of Silver Lake began demolishing the buildings July 23.


As part of the grant qualifications, the city needed to come up with a plan for the school grounds once the buildings were razed.


“We had a town meeting and what came out of that was that they’d like to see it become a park for the older kids in town,” Hauschel said. “We’ve already got a pretty good park for the younger ones. So we would make this one for the teenagers.”


“At the present moment we saved the concrete slab that was underneath the west part of that building,” Hauschel said. “At the time of demolition we didn’t know if it would be worth anything, but if it was we were going to save it.


“We’ll make either a basketball court out of it or a tennis court. We’ve got a pretty good-sized slab there, so we have some pretty good options.”


Hauschel said the community’s senior citizens have asked for a walking path to be included, too.


“We’ll probably end up with a walkway clear around the whole property for them to go walking on because they don’t feel safe out on the streets. Now they’ll have a place to go.”


Meanwhile, Lehigh High School alums won’t soon forget the old building. The contractors saved the stone from the oldest part of the building that bore the name of the old school and the date (1920) it was built. Workers have also cleaned some 2,000 bricks. The materials will be used to build a small memorial in the future park.


But the memories shared by the students will form another, living memorial.


“I remember playing baseball and softball,” said Goering, who went on to become one of the state’s top sportswriters and now editor at the Topeka Capital-Journal. “We didn’t have a fence. You’d hit the ball underneath the teeter-totter and the merry-go-round, which was out there behind the old original school.”


“But mostly I remember all the people I went to school with,” he added.


As for many LHS alums who have moved on to other places, Goering said his next visit to Lehigh will be bittersweet.


“I can’t imagine nothing being there,” he said. “It was such a big part of my life growing up and now it’s not there.”

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