Photos by // Michael Geason Photography
As we progress through 2019, many milestones are being remembered and celebrated. And as the years go by, events from the past seem to take on more reverence, especially for those who lived through them. This year marks the anniversary of the closing of a unique institution in Flint. Interestingly, the demographics of onthetown readers suggest it is an unknown quantity since it happened 60 years ago. This loss was the closing of the Flint Technical High School.
For most readers, a first glance begs the question “Was there actually a Flint Technical High School?” As a matter of fact, it was our area’s original STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) high school, and because STEM is at the forefront of today’s elementary and high school educational movements, it was well ahead of its time. Although the school no longer stands, the surviving graduates from all classes will gather this fall to commemorate the termination of this venerable institution.
Flint Tech was a school of less than 500 students. It had no gymnasium, library or cafeteria. Fred Meier (class of ’58) fondly recalls that two ladies from the school sold donuts in the hallway each morning– a popular stop among the students. All students brought their own lunches and kept their books and belongings in hallway lockers with no locks. The school building was set back on high ground near the corner of Saginaw Street and Hamilton Avenue and had a classic regal appearance. The brick two-story building’s front entrance was anchored by ornamental columns on either side. Nevertheless, all students used the side door entrances, since in those days the front door of a home was used only for guests. This is testament to how much “at home” the students felt at their school.
Originally established in 1935, Flint Tech was designed to offer a six-year technical curriculum. Instead, it became a senior high school (grades 10 through 12) in September of 1939, and offered technical and business tracks for college-bound students headed to the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), or other engineering and business schools. All classes focused on technical and scientific subjects, while the business programs offered specialized occupational applications such as shorthand.
A lost “art” by today’s professional standards, shorthand provided symbols or abbreviations for words and common phrases, allowing someone well-trained to write as quickly as people speak. Hanselle (Johnson) Lane (class of ’58) recalls that it was very popular, primarily among the female students, as it prepared them for a secretarial vocation. “I am so glad I took shorthand,” she says. “I used it throughout my career.” Although slightly fluctuating over the years, the ratio of boys to girls always hovered around 50%.
The only other Flint public schools at that time were Northern and Central which had defined geographical boundaries for their students’ attendance. Flint Tech never required boundaries due to its specialized academic programs and competitive admission requirements. Students simply applied, and if qualified by a minimum GPA of 3.0, were accepted.
During World War II, the school instituted shorter hours so students whose parents were on active duty could go to work to help support their families. After the war, the school was billed as a “technical expressway,” evoking as a metaphor the interstate highway system construction that was sweeping the nation at that time. The first graduating class, in 1942, held graduation ceremonies at Atwood Stadium.
The initial sports offerings were only basketball – with practices and home games at Longfellow Junior High– and baseball, with practices held in a field adjacent to the school. By 1945, football was added, with track coming into play two years later. Their mascot name was the “Eagles” with school colors of blue and red. The football games were played at Atwood Stadium, and by the early 50s, tennis, golf and wrestling were added. The only sport available for girls was cheerleading. My, have times changed!
As with any educational institution, teachers are the keys to a student body’s success. All of Flint Tech’s teachers were loyal and dedicated to the school and always seemed to supply all the tools needed for the students to reach their academic goals. But legend has it among the alumni that there were some teachers with “character.”
Paul “Pop” Elo, the math teacher, was famous for throwing erasers at daydreaming students; Chuck Rose chained the shop doors shut to keep late students out. Economics teacher Dusty Rhodes was famous for saying “price isn’t everything – take it or leave it!” One of the more acclaimed teachers was science teacher Richard Harbeck, who started the first Flint science fair in 1957 at the Ballenger Field House and secured an international science fair in Flint just one year later. This fair is still going strong as the Flint Regional Science Fair.
Former students tell of shenanigans in the halls, with the seniors as perpetrators. There was an “initiation” where new students were “placed” on an active drinking fountain by a “welcoming committee” of seniors. Legend recalls when a few enthusiastic football players escorted industrial arts teacher Homer Randall into the shop class tool crib and locked him up until the lunch bell, two hours later! Of course, all this was good-natured fun enjoyed by all – a different time for sure.
For the Flint Tech faithful, everything changed with the unexpected announcement of the school’s closing at the end of the 1959 school year. To the students, it came as a shock and they were not given any explanation, only told that their school was being “replaced” by the new Flint Southwestern High School, now called Flint Southwestern Classical Academy. After the announcement, most of the students were heartbroken to have lost something that was such a part of themselves, so a group was organized to march down Saginaw Street in peaceful protest. The students wanted, as a minimum, part of Flint Technical High School’s name preserved in the building that was to take its place, for the sole purpose of keeping that special pride alive. Louie Barger (class of ’58) can still recall the chant of the student protestors as they approached city hall before their principal arrived to disperse them: “We don’t want fame; all we want is our name!”
Flint Technical High School alumni credit some of their tight-knit connections to the simplicity of that era — a time of informal teacher-student relationships, great respect for authority and a loyal sense of community. Yet as Father Time continues to erode the memory of this esteemed institution, the former students’ bonds only grow stronger–and the legend of Flint Technical High School grows fonder.