Cordova Chronicles: A strange centennial graduation

From 1920 through 1968, CHS Graduating Classes attended the high school up on “the hill,” displayed on the cover of this 1951 Copper Nugget annual. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

History is full of contradictions, and it seems like the further back one looks, the more there are.

For example, 2020 is the 100th year of Cordova High School’s existence, yet there have been only 96 graduation ceremonies.

The first came in 1923.

In its May 19, 1923 edition, The Cordova Daily Times, in the flamboyant prose of that era, proclaimed: “With well-planned smoothness and dignity the graduation exercises of the first class to go forth from the Cordova High School were conducted last night to the keen interest of an audience that filled to capacity the Empress Theater. On a stage tastefully arranged with a lattice background of crimson and gray, the class colors, and brightened by shields bearing in letters of gold the class monogram and numerals, were seated the four members of the graduating class, together with faculty, the board of education, Father McMillian and the speaker of the evening, Mr. Edward F. Medley.”

There was much more, of course. So much so, that some of the information ran in the edition a day earlier, describing the upcoming graduation:

“The event is one of moment, not only to the deserving young people themselves, but to Cordova, for it marks a significant point in the growth and progress of the community. Nothing is quite so vital to the life of a town as the development of its schools.”

“Cordova is justly proud of the little group of graduates who are the first to place her among communities dually accredited for college qualifications.”

Yes. Congratulations to the Class of 1923, all four of them. But how can we be celebrating the 100th anniversary of CHS in 2020?

After all, 1923 + 100 = 2023, right?

The first class to graduate from CHS had three members, who finished the available three-year program in 1920. It wasn’t until 1923 that CHS offered an accredited four-year course of study. Photo courtesy of Cordova Schools Centennial Yearbook, 1908-2008

The answer lies in the Cordova Schools Centennial Yearbook, 1908 to 2008, a massive work of efforts from countless locals that was spearheaded by retired local teacher Jim Casement.

Before providing photos of every graduating class for that time period, the yearbook starts with a history of Cordova schools that is a must read for history buffs.

For example, it describes a school election that was held in 1908, almost the same year as Cordova, the railway town, was established. It mentions leasing a building and hiring a single teacher, Miss M.E. Nettleton, for the coming year. In her charge were 36 school children of various ages for a six-month program.

The number of students and locations of schools quickly changed. By 1910, a two-story wooden schoolhouse had been built on the hill across from the present location of Dr. Urata’s dental office. By 1925 it had been expanded with a solid concrete addition with numerous classrooms that served upper grades as well as high school for 43 years.

After years of various temporary locations for expanding lower grade level classrooms, Mt. Eccles Elementary was built in 1955. The current Cordova Jr-Sr High was completed in 1968. Over the years, both have undergone significant expansions and remodeling.

But what about those missing earlier graduations? The Cordova Schools Centennial Yearbook 1908-2008 starts with photos of the Classes of 1920 and 1921, each with three graduates.

It includes an easily overlooked note.

“The years 1920 and 1921 were three-year graduate programs — ninth, tenth, and eleventh grades. The first four-year program ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth, began in 1923. There were no seniors in the years 1922 and 1924.”

So, there you have it. The eloquent Cordova Times articles in May 1923 were referring to the first accredited graduating class of a four-year program. The first graduating class, in 1920, as well as the class of 1921, each with only three students, were pioneers, but not of the required four-year program.

The first teacher in Cordova was Meldah Nettleton, who taught 36 students at various grade levels in the Dooley Building. Principal Adele Pickle arrived a few years later, when the enrollment expanded. Photo courtesy of Cordova Schools Centennial Yearbook, 1908-2008

Since that modest beginning in 1920, Cordova High has been a model of success, and all should feel proud of the achievements of its many graduates.

In its 100 years of existence, CHS has graduated 2,040 students, an average of 20.4 students per year.

The smallest graduating classes had zero students in 1922 and 1924; the next smallest were 3 per class in 1920, 1921, 1927 and 1929.

The largest classes were 43 in 1973, 1998 and 2006.

Yet on this milestone 100th anniversary of CHS, the Class of 2020 will go forward with the least pomp and circumstance, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

No packed gym, proud parents, music, speeches, hats tossed in the air and tearful farewells.

Instead, isolation, quarantines, online classes and self-distancing. Diplomas will be presented to one graduate at a time, with only close family and photographers looking on in an otherwise empty gymnasium.

A virtual graduation ceremony will be created by combining all these individual photos together. Plus, a parade of vehicles carrying the individual graduates will pass through town, to the cheers of Cordova onlookers

Life and history are filled with contradictions, and sometimes disappointing and unexpected lessons.

It will be a long-remembered graduation, partly for the wrong reasons.

Congratulations and best wishes to the class of 2020, from a member of the class of 1962.

And here’s hoping the class of 2021 will start the next centennial in more normal fashion.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.