ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Forward Lehigh, forward Lehigh, grand ole LHS.
In defeat or victory, we love you none the less.
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Forward Lehigh, forward Lehigh, champions of the right.
Forward-our motto, we will win this fight.
The reverberations of this fight song no longer linger in the walls of the old Lehigh High School building-torn down just over a year ago and buried on the grounds. But by the end of October, a group of alumni found a way to preserve their treasured school-day memories by erecting a monument in its place.
“The school is buried, but we still wanted to have something in Lehigh that represents our school,” said Joyce Kessler, secretary/treasurer of the Lehigh Alumni group responsible for making the new monument a reality.
“Our slogan is ‘Gone but not Forgotten.’ The school’s gone, but we haven’t forgotten the memories.”
Kessler and husband Gerald-rural Lehigh residents to this day-are both alumni, having graduated in the mid-1950s.
As a child living north of Lehigh, Kessler attended grades one through eight at Waldeck School. She spent her last four years of schooling at LHS. Gerald attended elementary through high school in the Lehigh school system.
The original red-brick structure was completed in 1920. Above the front door of the three-story building was a hard-cement marker engraved with the words “High School.” And above that, close to the top of the structure, was another marker engraaved with the completion date of “1920.”
A long, one-story brick gymnasium-designed to tie in with the original school-building’s architectural style-was added in the early 1940s. After Lehigh and Durham consolidated with Hillsboro to form USD 410, the high school was closed in 1966 but district had its junior high there for several more years.
When the junior high was moved back to Hillsboro, the once-proud structure lay dormant.
At one point, the building became the home of a furniture store. After that store closed, talk surfaced about saving the structure and developing it into a community building.
“I wish they would have,” Kessler said. “But nobody kept the roof up, and it was very expensive to repair it.”
Time and heavy furniture took its toll on the gymnasium floor, too.
“It was a beautiful gym and the floor was beautiful when the school was open,” Kessler said. “My husband and I were both basketball players.”
In disrepair beyond the financial means to bring it back to life, the building was demolished in August 2002. Kessler drove past as the memories were going under the blade of the bulldozer, and rued the loss of the stones and bricks that formed the shell of tender teenage years.
Sharing her feelings with the demolition contractor, Kessler was told he might be able to help.
“So he did a little sketch,” she said of his suggestion of a monument.
Kessler told him she wanted to save the two markers and some of the school’s old bricks. In his sketch, he incorporated those and added some of the stone architectural pieces located between the windows of the gymnasium.
“He said those white stone pieces are very valuable,” Kessler said.
The current alumni group of about 200 former LHS students meets every two years on the Sunday prior to Memorial Day.
During the last reunion held in May this year, at the Crosswind Conference Center in Hesston, Kessler had an opportunity to tell her friends about the concept for an LHS monument.
“I presented this sketch at our Lehigh reunion, just to see what the alumni thought,” Kessler said. “And they said, ‘We’ve got to do it.’ I said, ‘I’ll save you about 2,000 bricks from that, and that should about do it.'”
The monument is about 12 feet tall and incorporates the bricks saved by Kessler. The design resembles the three-story front section of the old school building.
During the alumni meeting, two key people volunteered to help with the proposed project. Jim Goentzel, a builder from Wichita, took the contractor’s sketch and volunteered to help build the monument-brick by brick.
“Then Jerry Plenert did the foundation, the cement work,” Kessler said. “They both volunteered that day, which was really wonderful, because they knew what they were doing.”
The work was completed by the first of November, and the project took only three days from beginning to end.
Final costs had not come in by mid-November but at that time, Kessler said the group had amassed about $2,000 to offset some of the costs.
One generous alumnus donated half of that total, Kessler said.
“He was a postmaster in Lehigh for years, and he donated $1,000 toward this monument to get it started,” she said. “That just got everybody going.”
The monument was placed in a spot that would have been west of the front door of the old building-a location close to the city sidewalk along North Avenue.
“It’s easy to see, and we couldn’t go too far back because of the buried-building spot-it could sink in,” Kessler said.
In the wake of a completed project, Kessler said she hasn’t had an opportunity to think too much about plans for the monument or the surrounding area.
But one possible fund-raiser project would be to sell individual bricks with donors names etched into them and build a patio incorporated into the monument area.
“I’m just dreaming of ways to raise money,” Kessler said. “We’ve already sold individual bricks, which my brother has sketched a picture of the school building on one side by hand. His name is Paul Thiessen, and he lives in Wichita.”
Having the foresight to gather bricks from the building at the time of demolition, Kessler said the alumni group has sold about 60 of those etched bricks so far.
The Lehigh community’s response to the finalization of the structure, and the response from former LHS students scattered around the country, has been good.
“The alumni are excited,” Kessler said.
Remembering the demolition worker who took the time to help her with the idea for a monument, Kessler said she owes him a special thank you.
“They could have pushed the whole thing down, and there would be nothing there,” she said.
She said she was also grateful for alumni willing to embrace the idea of a structure built to honor high-school memories.
“We’re very close,” Kessler said about the group. “We just put things together, and it all worked out.”