Graduates celebrate Wildcats tradition

There was plenty of gray hair in the crowd, and some of the Las Vegas High Wildcats reached the front steps of their old school Monday morning with the aid of a cane or walker.

While they would be forgiven for lacking a certain youthful spring in their step, a youthful energy pervaded the unveiling ceremony of the handsome new “Las Vegas High School Senior Squares” monument on the grounds of the historic school on Seventh Street, which now is known as Las Vegas Academy.

Scan the faces of the 100 or so Wildcats graduates in attendance, and you would have found a veritable pantheon of successful local business owners and political leaders. Although those who market the endless reinvention of the Strip and the overdue redevelopment of downtown often find their names in headlines, these are the Southern Nevadans who have helped make the valley a better place to live.

The senior squares tradition started as an improvised tribute to the Class of ’41 written in red and white paint by Robbie Robinson and his accomplices, who apparently learned the art of asking for forgiveness instead of permission. Southern Nevada education icon Maude Frazier was the principal in those days, and she decided the artistic effort was worthy of preserving. That began a tradition that lasted until Las Vegas’ original high school closed in 1988.

While the senior squares faded with time and neglect, the Las Vegas High Alumni Association made sure the memory of that Wildcat tradition has survived into the new century.

The group’s president, retired crane company owner Rollie Gibbs, Class of ’54, used his wide circle of construction industry friends to obtain everything from architectural drawings and structural engineering plans, to replica tiles and appropriate lighting.

Retired U.S. senator and former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan, Class of ’55, served as the gathering’s wisecracking master of ceremonies. (Bryan’s late father, attorney Oscar Bryan, graduated in the Class of ’27.) Noting the firebrand television station owner Jim Rogers in the crowd, Bryan said, “He was one of those remarkable guys who was able to compress a four-year program into five at Las Vegas High School.”

A U.S. senator, a television station owner and a plethora of others who have helped build Las Vegas: It was that kind of group.

Although Rep. Dina Titus, D-Las Vegas, wasn’t a Wildcat, she married one. The gathering gave her an opportunity to work on her comedy material at the expense of husband Tom Wright, Class of ’59.

“I think Tom ran with kind of a nerdy crowd,” Titus began, explaining that Wright, an author and retired UNLV history professor, was high school pals with future University of Michigan music professor John Wiley and future federal judge Allan Earl.

Sounds like they were all rebels with causes.

Wright’s interest in learning was stoked by dedicated teachers. “The teaching was really, really good,” he recalled. And their impact on their students was illustrated in the success of those in attendance.

The alumni association’s annual gathering draws hundreds from throughout the decades and generates a scholarship that benefits current Las Vegas High seniors. “The spirit of Las Vegas High is still alive,” Gibbs said with emotion in his voice.

Although the group lost its most senior senior, Class of ’28 student body president Violet Oppedyk Tracht, back in 2011, brothers Mike and John Pinjuv, who roamed the halls of Las Vegas High back when the paint on the first senior square was still wet, were present for Monday’s unveiling.

At Las Vegas High, history remains very much alive.

Attorney Jeffrey Silver, Class of ’63, looked over the crowd and observed, “This is a group of people who grew up here, who lived in this town, and who remained and are still important factors in the success of the city today. … These are people who are truly invested in the community.”

Although they came to celebrate a monument, they’re the ones who’ve been writing Las Vegas history.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295.

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