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WATCH NOW: Hammond High alumni reflect on school’s legacy ahead of demolition
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WATCH NOW: Hammond High alumni reflect on school’s legacy ahead of demolition

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Taking a tour of Hammond High School before it is scheduled for demolition to make way for the new Hammond Central High School. 

HAMMOND — More than a hundred years of history lie within the white subway tile-lined stairwells at Hammond High School.

The halls, flanked by purple lockers and filled with student murals, flags and college banners, however, soon will see their last days. The historic school is set to be demolished this summer. 

After speaking with more than two dozen people, including alumni and current and former staff, it became clear that no matter what, the Wildcat legacy will live on. 

The end of Hammond High was set in stone in October 2018, when officials broke ground on a new $115 million high school, later to become known as Hammond Central. 

The new 340,000-square-foot school, set to open this fall, is located behind the current Hammond High off Calumet Avenue. 

Though Hammond High is slated to be demolished in early June, the legacy of the high school won’t go down with the building, alumni and staff agreed. 

"The legacy will live on forever because we are the legacy. We are the ones that continue to show who the Wildcats are. And when we say Wildcats forever, that's what we mean," said at-large Hammond Councilwoman Katrina Alexander, a 2001 Hammond High alumna.

"Once a Wildcat. Always a Wildcat. We can still wear Wildcat alumni clothing. We can still say I went to Hammond High. The building is just gone, (that) doesn't stop the pride."

Humble beginnings

Though known today as a three-story building across the street from City Hall, Hammond High was first established in September 1884 in the Central School Building, a two-story, wood-frame building with six rooms on the southeast corner of Hohman Avenue, according to a centennial commemorative chronicle for the school. 

The building that still stands today at 5926 Calumet Ave. was built in the 1910s, and would open to students in 1917 as Hammond High School after a lawsuit held up construction.

The building was set ablaze Dec. 13, 1967, causing $750,000 in damage, or $5.86 million by today's standards, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistic's inflation calculator.

No arrests were ever made in connection with the five-alarm fire that displaced students while the school was repaired.

Hearing of Hammond High's impending demolition was "as bad as the fire," said Dorothy E. Walker (nee Nelson), who graduated from Hammond in 1947.

"When Hammond High had the fire, at that time I had three children, and I packed those three children in the car as fast as I could, and we were down at Hammond High and standing on Calumet Avenue watching that fire burn," Walker said. "I just felt so bad because, to begin with, Hammond High was a very pretty school."

Walker, whose three children also went to Hammond High, said she understands the building likely needed a lot of work, but "it's just too bad that old buildings have to be torn down here."

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A rich history

Over the years, the school forged an identity as a college preparatory school and boasted a strong athletic department, along with rich extracurricular activities, including the speech and debate team, band and choir and various clubs.

Hammond High also has seen its fair share of famous alumni, including writer of "A Christmas Story," Jean Sheperd; vocal producer of "Empire," Jeff Morrow; late NFL player Irv Cross; and Pixar animator Aaron Hartline. 

"There was something special about being in a place where a lot of people have been and learned, and recognizing that as a student, I thought I was fortunate to be able to see that at the time," said Bob Delano, a 1996 Hammond alumnus and former algebra teacher and coach. 

Alumni expressed sadness over Hammond High being torn down, with many acknowledging students need, and deserve, new facilities. 

Though upset about the building's fate, alumni can snag a piece of Hammond history for themselves — the school plans to launch a commemorative brick sale, said Hammond High Principal Johnny Goodlow. 

Plans also are in the works to incorporate the legacy of Hammond High into Hammond Central, Goodlow said. 

"In conjunction with the Clark alumni, we have two memorabilia committees that have been discussing that very thing," Goodlow said of preserving Hammond High's legacy. "The goal is to try to have a showcase. Right now, we're looking at a mural, including a trophy showcase to commemorate the histories of both Hammond High and Clark."

For Goodlow, who has been at Hammond High for eight years and in the School City of Hammond for 19, it's difficult to put the school's legacy into words. 

"You're talking about over 100 years of pride, academic excellence, fortitude. ...  Just the tradition that has come through this institution. It's rich and one of the greatest in the city of Hammond," Goodlow said. 

Robert Urick, who began teaching math at Hammond High in 1966 and retired in 2003, said it was interesting to see the school change over the years. 

"It happened so slowly that I didn't notice it, then I look up and see the kids are dressed differently. The kids are more diverse, and basically, the condition of the school changed somewhat," he said. 

Urick met his wife, Anna, a fellow teacher, at the school in 1967. The pair still maintain friendships made from their time teaching, he said. 

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A school for all 

Hammond 3rd District Councilman Barry Tyler Jr., a 2002 graduate, said Hammond High shaped a lot of his life, noting there was "a ton of pride about Hammond High and going to that school and proving yourself."

The new school, while bittersweet, will offer students the chance to be at the forefront of technology and academia, he said. 

"It's exciting because the community is getting a brand new school," Tyler said. "At the same time, it's sad that we're losing the history and heritage of what Hammond High is and was and what it meant to the larger community."

Hammond High meant a lot to many people, including Denise Horn (nee Ritchie), who credits the school with giving her freedom. 

A 1979 graduate, Horn said she was the "first physically disabled person in a wheelchair" to attend Hammond High. 

She chose to attend the school, where her mother also went, after Public Law 94-142, also known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, was enacted.

Horn recalls her then-physical therapist telling her mom Horn was "maxed out," on what she could do, but by letting her attend regular classes, and not being afraid of that, Horn would do what she could. 

"From that, I've just taken off," Horn said. "That was like my ticket to freedom. My ticket to do whatever I wanted to because from graduation, I went on to Ball State, and I got a bachelor's degree." 

Emanda Jones was the second black teacher at Hammond High School, where she taught English to all levels for 36 years, as well as a speech and debate class. 

When she arrived, Jones was able to start the Interested Students Establishment, which was open to everyone. 

"It was to try to bridge the gap between the kids because when I first got to Hammond High in 1971 there were some racial problems," Jones said. 

She recalled recently that Hammond High was often the most racially diverse school when travelling for debate competitions. 

"A lot of schools that we went to for competitions, there were no black kids, and our kids would be the only black kids there," she said. "I would have to prepare them before we went into situations, so that they wouldn't react in anger. ... Our kids got along together really well. They had a lot of respect for each other. A lot of them are still friends. They were very encouraging."

The veteran educator, lovingly called "Mama Jones" by her students, also started Pep Club, the Pom Kats and Bible Club and was a class sponsor every year. 

"My 36 years there were just probably the best years of my life. I loved my job. I loved everything about it. I loved the people I met," said Jones, who doesn't understand why Hammond High's name won't live on at the new high school. 

One thing remains true, however, even after the building is razed: "Hammond High will never die," as alumna Suzi Kaplan (nee Silverman) put it.  

Alumni or community members who wish to have a last look at Hammond High should call the school at 219-933-2442 to reserve a spot for a May 15 tour. 

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South Lake County Reporter

Mary Freda is the South Lake County reporter at The Times. She is a proud Ball State graduate, where she studied news journalism and Spanish. You can reach Mary at mary.freda@nwi.com or 219-853-2563.

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