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Griego: High school is a refresher for North alum

Published January 24, 2005 at midnight

Wally Ginn, North High School Class of '44, does not remember being enamored of high school. A quiet, bespectacled student, he would not have been one to gush about how much he loved it.

It was fine, mind you. He enjoyed ROTC. Had it been up to him, however, he would have dropped out to join a buddy headed to Alaska to build highways. It was not up to him.

"When I told my parents, they didn't say anything," Ginn recalls. "Not a word. All night. Absolute silence."

So, Ginn graduated.

To be drafted, to spend time in the Pacific, to attend college, to spend 24 years in England and Germany, teaching on various U.S. bases - long enough to allow "jolly good" and "good show" to forever embed themselves into his vocabulary - to come to a day in 1989 when his father dragged him to a meeting of the newly reactivated North High School Alumni Association. (The association was first organized in 1891.)

His father had nothing but affection for North. He had quit school to serve in World War I and returned to face a life of hard labor when his old principal called and invited him back. Wally's father, Carl Ginn, Class of 1920, took his diploma and turned it into a 42-year career with Denver Public Schools.

Which, it could be argued, was a life of hard labor, after all.

As for Wally Ginn, he accompanied his father to the meeting with one thing in mind: "I planned to sit in the back and read a book."

Instead, he was appointed historian of the association, and 16 years later, both he and it are going strong. Ginn - pronounced with a hard "g" - is a constant presence at North. I catch sight of him sometimes, a 78-year-old man surrounded by swirls of teenagers on his way to the Alumni Center.

Ginn never misses an opportunity to tell me about North's famous graduates: scientists, artists, judges, authors, architects, singers, teachers, police officers, firefighters.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier attended for a while. She used to have lunch with his father, he tells me. It is from Ginn that I learn North was built in the Beaux Arts architectural style. Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Every Friday at 10 a.m., Ginn meets with fellow alumni at Common Grounds coffee shop on West 32nd Avenue. It's a social offshoot of the association, a few people gathering for coffee, often joined by graduates of other high schools.

"We solve the world's problems," Ginn says. "And no one listens to us."

Last Friday, Ginn was joined by Betty Lambert, Class of 1937; her husband, Charles, who attended North briefly before joining the work force; Dave Parce, Class of 1960; and two other regulars, Manual High alumni Roy Watson and Pete Lowrey, both Class of 1940.

"Betty," Ginn says, "why don't we start with you?"

The group usually goes around the table. Lowrey is in charge of current events. Ginn catches them up on alumni business. Good news, he tells them. A $108,000 donation bequeathed by John Woneis, Class of 1966, will soon arrive. It's the largest single donation the association has ever received and will put its scholarship fund at $370,000.

Because I am present, conversation turns to North past and present. I hear often from North alumni who report the school has not changed for decades. It had problems then, they say. It has problems now. Others remember it as a grand place and say it pains them to see what it has become.

The Friday morning coffee drinkers do not ordinarily indulge in nostalgic comparisons, though they do believe they were a better-mannered bunch.

"We were more respectful," Betty Lambert says.

"Don't blame the school," Ginn says. "The school only reflects the culture it serves and we are in the midst of a coarsening."

In Ginn and Lamberts' time, most students at North were Jews and Italians. By Parce's day, in the late '50s, a few Hispanic kids also were walking the halls. Just about everyone - then and now - came from working-class families.

The obvious difference, the group agrees, was that families were more stable then. There were more two-parent households and less moving around.

"Heck," Lowrey says, "the way I look at it, the kids today are the same as the kids of any age."

"Yeah," Watson says, laughing, "We were all rotten."

The group dislikes the way so much conversation around high schools today focuses exclusively on preparation for college.

"I think Denver schools have gone insane on the subject," Ginn says.

"It's just wrong," adds Parce, whose father was superintendent of manual arts for DPS for many years. "Our society is not just made up of people going to college."

What of the trades, they ask.

"We need more schools like the Career Education Center," Charles Lambert says.

"And like the Opportunity School."

Politics, they argue, are contaminating education.

"It used to be mother, God and apple pie were enough to get elected," Parce says. "But now, the education system is being used, literally used, as a means of getting into office. They come in promising these fixes that have done nothing but caused more problems."

I later ask Ginn how it is that someone who really didn't like high school has ended up devoting so much time to it. He laughs. He tells me he began to appreciate North through the history he was accumulating, the stories he heard, the alumni he met and the students there now.

"Jim Schrant - you know Jim," Ginn says. "He retired after almost 40 years of teaching at North. He once said, 'You have to be out of school at least 35 years to begin to appreciate it.' "

Ginn has been out 61 years now. I guess you could say he's learned to love it.

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