El Camino High School: Six decades of education, memories, tradition

By LANCE ARMSTRONG

With the recent change in the calendar year, El Camino High School is nearing a special milestone in its history, as this September will mark the 60th year since the school’s opening. And in recognition of this fact, the following history of the school is presented.

El Camino High School at 4300 El Camino Ave., at Eastern Avenue, opened in September 1950. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
El Camino High School at 4300 El Camino Ave., at Eastern Avenue, opened in September 1950. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
El Camino High School was a pioneer school of the San Juan Union School District, which became the San Juan Unified School District on July 1, 1960.

As the district’s second high school, El Camino High began with a class of 225 students, a staff of seven full-time teachers and three part-time teachers, who met in a new unit that included eight classrooms and a shop building.

The school, which is located on 40 acres at 4300 El Camino Ave., at Eastern Avenue, continued to be in an under construction status for the following nine years, as more classrooms and facilities were added each year.

 

The early years

During the first year of its existence, El Camino High was complimented by its first principal, W.F. Hunter, who expressed his satisfaction with the school’s growth.

“Less than a year ago, El Camino High School existed only as a partially completed building,” Hunter wrote in 1951 for the first edition of the school’s yearbook, The Aerie.

Continuing, Hunter wrote: “(The school) had no student body, no constitution, no organizations, no teams, no colors; it didn’t even have a name. Today (in 1951), it is a living institution, full of dynamic, intelligent boys and girls. With the cooperation of the board of trustees and the administration, the faculty, the parents and the entire community, it has demonstrated its abilities in athletics, in public speaking, in the dramatic field, in preparing a constitution and organizing the student body. Best of all, it is developing students who can think, who can and will become leaders in community, national and world affairs.”

During El Camino’s initial year, the school established its green and white colors, its eagle mascot, a constitution, the aforementioned yearbook, various clubs and The El Caminian newspaper, the predecessor to today’s The Eagle Eye, which was first published in 2001.

Pictured left to right, Lynnette (Rhoades) Purvis, Kathy (Scott) Clay and Mary (Ahlquist) Harger of the Class of 1959 are among the many El Camino High alumni who have continued to keep in touch throughout the years. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
Pictured left to right, Lynnette (Rhoades) Purvis, Kathy (Scott) Clay and Mary (Ahlquist) Harger of the Class of 1959 are among the many El Camino High alumni who have continued to keep in touch throughout the years. (Photo by Lance Armstrong)
By the beginning of its second school year, El Camino expanded to include 585 students and 19 full-time and two-part time faculty members.

And by following school year, El Camino had grown to an even greater degree, as the number of students reached 1,014 and the number of teachers reached 41.

 

Growing the campus

Much of the school’s expansion during its early years was due to the rapid growth in the area’s housing market and the increase in military and civilian personnel at the nearby McClellan Air Force Base.

The school’s first graduating class was the Class of 1954, which consisted of 269 students who participated in commencement exercises at the Memorial Auditorium on Saturday night, June 19, 1954.

Other events of the 1953-54 school year, which began with 1,535 students and 60 full-time teachers, included the first football game at the school’s football field, Eagle Field, which later included 5,200 seats, and the first Senior Ball.

In 1956, the school was under the direction of its second principal and the former superintendent of Yuma (Arizona) Union High School, Dr. Alva D. Abbott, who headed El Camino High for the following 16 years.

Abbott is remembered for his overall love and dedication to El Camino High.

In speaking about the alumni and then-current students at El Camino in 1967, Abbott said, “My heart fills with pride to have had a share in the making of the great Eagle image and tradition. El Camino has taken its rightful place among the leading schools of California and the nation in scholarship, athletics, music, drama, journalism, student government, cadets, school activities and clubs.”

In appreciation of Abbott’s longtime commitment to the school, El Camino’s football field became known as Abbott Field and the 1973 yearbook was dedicated to Abbott.

Replacing Abbott as principal at the beginning of the 1972-73 school year was Bill “Doc” Dresser.

Dresser arrived at the school to encounter a much improved campus, which by this time had grown to include 45 classrooms and administration offices in the main building, eight annex classrooms, a shop with eight classrooms and a little theater, a pair of gymnasiums, a swimming pool, a library, a music building, guidance offices and a cafeteria.

 

Memories of yesteryear

According to the school’s records, El Camino, which added midterm graduations in 1963, had 7,093 graduates by the end of its 1968-69 school year.

And of course, many more students have graduated from the school since this time and like students before them, they carry with them many memories of their years spent at El Camino High.

One of the school’s early graduates, Mary (Ahlquist) Harger of the Class of 1959, which was the last El Camino class to graduate at Memorial Auditorium, recently shared her memories of the school.

“To those of us attending El Camino in the 1950s, it was a great place to be,” Harger said. “We received a great education, but found lots of time to work together on activities that included the pep club, The Aerie yearbook, the El Caminian newspaper, dance committees, student government and attending many sports events, including football and basketball games followed by fun at the “Oaks,” our local drive-in. Recently, we celebrated our 50th class reunion and we were able to bring back the original school fight song, which was performed by the current El Camino pep band at the reunion. We continue to treasure these traditions and our memories of El Camino High School.”

El Camino High School is shown from above in this February 1991 aerial photograph. (Photo courtesy of El Camino High School)
El Camino High School is shown from above in this February 1991 aerial photograph. (Photo courtesy of El Camino High School)
El Camino is also recognized for its most notable alumni, who include: Larry Linville, who played Maj. Frank Burns on the famous television series, MASH, former state assemblyman and Sacramento mayor, Phil Isenberg, Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, Olympic gold medal swimmer Mike Burton and Ken and Tom Fat of the Fats restaurant fame.

 

Changing and evolving

In September 1979, El Camino, which was then under the direction of Principal, Dr. Joseph Petterle, became known as El Camino Fundamental High School.

In an attempt to set higher standards for a school that had declining enrollment and a truancy rate of about 20 percent, El Camino underwent various changes as a fundamental school.

These changes included a closed campus with an atmosphere conducive to learning at all times, challenging curriculum with an emphasis on basic English and mathematic skills, college preparatory classes and a four-year educational plan for each student.

Another unique aspect of El Camino as a fundamental school is that it has no specific attendance area and is open to any student in the district.

With the school’s commitment to providing an atmosphere conducive to learning, several projects have enhanced the campus, such as its more recent modernization project, which included new parking lot surfaces, new concrete near the A-wing, tree, grass and flower plantings, and the installation of new sprinklers, cameras, heat detectors, clocks and an intercom system.

Unfortunately for El Camino, an earlier enhancement of the school occurred as a result of a tragedy.

A mysterious firebombing at the school in 1970 caused about $25,000 in damages and resulted in an unexpected rebuilding and remodeling project that was paid for through district funds.

In addition to the passion for El Camino demonstrated by many of the school’s alumni, many current El Camino students have developed much pride in their historic school.

Julio Escoto, 15, of the Class of 2012, for instance, said that he especially enjoys that the school offers various high level learning opportunities.

Mayor Phil Isenberg, a graduate of El Camino High School, participates in the school’s 1978 homecoming. To his left is homecoming queen Michele Fielding. (Photo courtesy of El Camino High School)
Mayor Phil Isenberg, a graduate of El Camino High School, participates in the school’s 1978 homecoming. To his left is homecoming queen Michele Fielding. (Photo courtesy of El Camino High School)
“The classes are great and they have good programs like the Back on Track afterschool program to help (students improve their grades),” said Escoto, whose uncle Tino Perez also attended the school. “We also have good sports teams.”

 

El Camino today

Sixteen-year-old Lorin Sukkary of the Class of 2011 said that she truly loves El Camino High.

“I just love El Camino,” said Sukkary, who writes for the school’s newspaper and is a member of the school’s nationally-ranked dance team. “It’s not necessarily a school where you have to pretend to be someone who you’re not. It’s a place where the teachers will sit down with you and help you through anything, whether it’s a school matter or a personal matter. It’s like a second home to a lot of people. It’s a really good place to go and it’s a really good place to send your kids. I want to live (in the area) and teach here (at El Camino), just because I want to give generations further down the experience that I had here.”

At the entrance to El Camino High is a sign, which reads: “Through these halls walk some of the finest people in the country – our students.”

And with the school’s six decades of developing many students, who have led successful lives in the local community, the nation and beyond, it is difficult to dispute such a time-tested statement.

As El Camino High nears its milestone anniversary, the school appears on track for another 60 years of maintaining and establishing traditions and producing many more contributing members of society.

 

E-mail Lance Armstrong at lance@valcomnews.com.

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17 comments so far

  1. Brenda Goodman Lutz
    #1

    Trying to find classmates and friends that attended El Camino High 1978-1979. Though I didn’t graduate from this high schoolmy fondest high school experiences started and ended here. I was moved in the middle of my sophmore year because of the death of my step-father. I would have graduated early as a JR if I was able to stay. :^( I have my yearooks and was very active in the California Cadet Corps at the time I was a student.

  2. Kelly Powers
    #2

    I Graduated 1981

  3. johnette smith(mitchell)
    #3

    I graduated in 1959. I am trying to find the email address for our alumni. hello to all who remember me. its been such a long time.

  4. Tim Tribble
    #4

    Class of 1982…

  5. Teresa (Payne ) Johns
    #5

    My family is 3 generation Eagles. My Dad is class of 1956, Mom is 1957, husband and myself 1977 and 1976. Our boys are class of 1999, 2002 and 2010. Lots of memories.

  6. Christina Glasson
    #6

    great article on my beloved high school. not all great memories, but I learned many lessons here. Go Eagles, forever!

  7. Ron Vogel
    #7

    Class of ‘76…That’s the spirit!

  8. kristi kraemer
    #8

    I taught at El Camino with some of the best teachers anywhere: “Granny” Davidson, Jack Kelly, Liz Dangerfield, Paul Lathrop, Frank Calcagno, and a host of others. My guess is that the number of lives these folks touched would be in the thousands…and certainly the world is a better place for their efforts.

  9. Martha
    #9

    El Camino has a very active presence on Facebook, and it’s easy to find classmates there.

    I was class of 1979, but graduated in 77.

  10. Tom Johnson
    #10

    Kristi Kraemer! You were my all time favorite teacher at El Camino. I think I had you for English Junior year,1978. You were awesome.

  11. Melissa Halverson
    #11

    I graduated from ECHS in 1986. I loved my High School years!!! I made many friends and went on to further my education, LOVE those Eagles!! OMG>. Kristi Kraemer!!! I have actually tried to talk to you… YOU WERE THE TEACHER that I loved the most!! I hope this gets to you!!! I still remember SOME of the SAT words you drilled into us!!

  12. Melissa Halverson
    #12

    Kristi Kraemer, I would love to talk to you again and tell you how you impacted my life.. I was a Senior in your English Class.. Darren and I probably drove you nuts!! BUT, your words stayed with me..

  13. Melissa Halverson
    #13

    TOM JOHNSON.. I found Mrs. Kraemer!! She is doing awesome!! I am so happy to FINALLY have contact!!!

  14. Kristi Kraemer
    #14

    Tom, Melissa, you have made my day. I LOVED teaching (I am not currently in the classroom), and it is sooooo cool to hear from you two. It’s funny…after talking w/ Melissa, I thought about how, even though I knew you guys when were in high school, I still feel connected and am sooo curious to see where you’ve gone and what you’ve done in your lives. Thank you thank you thank you for getting in touch with me.

  15. Rosemary Bohmbach Harringto
    #15

    Kristi Kraemer..I graduated in 1967. Were you teaching then under your maiden name? El Camino was a terrific high school and I have remained in contact with many of my classmates throughout the years.

  16. Chuck Depp
    #16

    Class of ‘64. Drop me a note on Facebook if you knew me. ECHS was a great school!

  17. Kristi Kraemer
    #17

    I did teach under my maiden name: Kristi Kraemer. I never changed it. I wasn’t teaching in 1967, though: I was attending Del Campo.

    Go Cougars.

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