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Getting to Know the Roof Over Our Heads

It’s August 3, 1908, and “The Shack” is opening its doors for the first time. This four-room, canvas-roofed building makes up the entirety of Tamalpais High School, a new establishment built just after the devastation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Four rooms, four classes, four teachers…and just four students in the entire senior class. The only subjects being taught are history, english, science, and foreign language. By September 21, an unfinished wing of the main building will open and the students will have a real roof over their heads, but for now, this is their reality.

A century is a long time – a lot can change and a lot can be forgotten. While attempts have been made to bring Tam’s rich history to the attention of the students and faculty (for example, naming the buildings and structures on campus after influential individuals), the truth is, if more people were interested, they would know. A summarized history of the school and its monuments is downloadable right off of the school website, in the form of a walking tour guide of the campus. It’s a little long, and might have some extra information that isn’t necessarily gripping, but the story is there, fragment by fragment, starting from that very day in 1908, over a month before the main building was even complete.

Said building is Wood Hall, named after the first Tam High principal and history teacher, E. E. Wood. Wood was born in a covered wagon as his parents were crossing Kansas, and supported himself and his mother after his father died by doing carpentry work. He retired from Tam in 1944, after 36 years of faithful service to the school. Now, the building is home to the administration and counselors’ offices, as well as all of the history classrooms. The history teachers of today barely know of the man their building is a tribute to, even though he set the entirety of our history into motion.

While the first Tam High principal is memorialized in the main building, in 1924 he had two multiple-story buildings named after another member of the original staff: Elizabeth Keyser, English teacher and sewing teacher, who also sponsored the school paper and directed multiple senior plays. Keyser retired three years after Mr. Wood himself, after teaching at Tam for 40 years. During her tenure, the Shack evolved into a campus with multiple large classroom buildings, an indoor pool, athletic fields and tennis courts. She and Mr. Wood were probably the most influential teachers in Tam High history. However, most of the present-day teachers in her building aren’t even sure of her first name.

Some teachers have closer connections to those immortalized in their classroom buildings. Ben Cleaveland, drama teacher and Tam alumni, works in Caldwell Hall, a newer building constructed in 2006 and named after his former teacher and the founder of the CTE (Conservatory Theatre Ensemble) program, Dan Caldwell. Both Cleaveland and fellow drama teacher Susan Brashear worked alongside Caldwell before he retired in 1999. When Caldwell first arrived at Tam in ‘62, there were only 17 drama students in the entire school. By ‘71, there were around 80 students, and by  ‘80, the student-run company originally called ETC (Ensemble Theatre Company) had been up and running for four years. According to an article by the Marin Independent Journal in 1988, Caldwell’s students thought of him as “a genius,” “Santa Claus,” and even “God.” Caldwell thanked both present-day drama teachers, along with the many other guest artists who helped him make the drama program what it was, in his farewell newsletter from ‘99. “I will miss them all greatly… not the meetings, the grading, the paperwork, the fighting to keep the gains we’ve made, etc., etc.,… they will not be missed; but, oh my, how I will miss the people.”

These few tributes mentioned are not unique. Almost every building on campus is named to honor individuals who were influential in this institution’s evolution from “The Shack” to a campus that many compare to a little university, and was named one of the top 40 most beautiful High School campuses in California. Most students simply refer to Palmer Hall as the science building, but it’s officially named to honor Raymond Palmer, Science Department Chairman from ‘27 to ‘59. Gus Gym, originally called Wood Auditorium when it was first built in ‘23, is now dedicated to George Gustafson, a dedicated football, baseball, tennis and swimming coach for 37 years. Ruby Scott Gym remembers Ruby Rowena Scott, who was a Latin, Greek, and French teacher at Tam for 44 years, and was so beloved that after she retired in ‘57 and was diagnosed with terminal cancer, a former student offered to pay all of her medical bills. There is Woodruff Hall, named for Mrs. Margaret Swan Woodruff, head of the history department until 1950, and Hoetger Hall, once home to Tam custodian Ralph Hoetger, who went on to become the first Director of Maintenance and Operations for the entire school district prior to his retirement in ‘66. Even the Amphitheater, officially titled Mead Amphitheater, was named for Ernest E. Mead, the president of the board of trustees of Tamalpais Union High School for 20 years.

Over a century has passed since that first day of school in 1908, and Tam High today is completely unrecognizable from its humble origins. While “The Shack” may have not been too glamorous a beginning, it was an essential chapter in Tam history. The reason these buildings are named after old teachers and administrators is to remind us to celebrate and honor our past. Unfortunately, while we might recognize their last names, most of us don’t know who any of these people are or what roles they played in getting us to this point. Someday, this campus will be covered in new buildings with all new names, names of individuals we know now or are yet to come, and chances are, no one then will understand what those structures represent either. It reminds me of my favorite reason people give for studying history; not so that we can learn from our mistakes, but so that we don’t forget.




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