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Reunion planned for old Mercersburg High School

January 19, 1999

Mercersburg reunionBy RICHARD F. BELISLE / Staff Writer, Waynesboro

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




MERCERSBURG, Pa. - It's never been done before - a reunion of all the students who went to the "old" Mercersburg High School, which was torn down in 1980 to make room for a new elementary school.

Over the years, individual classes held reunions, said Allan "Jack" Smith, 72, class of 1944.

The idea for a school-wide gathering was started by Nelson Gerhart about five years ago, but he died before it got well-organized. An active committee was formed last year with Jack Smith as president and Russell Straley, 75, class of 1942, as secretary.

The reunion is planned for Sept. 25 to coincide with the annual Mercersburg Town Fest.

So far, Straley said, the committee has come up with about 475 names of former students to put on the invitation list. The list of names from the last three classes is still being researched, he said.

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"There are probably about 600 people in all, Smith said. "The majority are still around here."

The names of students in classes going back to the mid- to late 1920s are on the active list of those to be invited, said Smith's wife, Louise, 70, class of 1945. "We don't have anyone from the first class," she said.

Students who attended the school but did not graduate will be invited to the reunion, as will teachers.

The brick high school on the corner of Park and West Seminary streets opened in 1922. The first class graduated the following year.

The school closed in 1954 when James Buchanan High School opened on a new campus north of town. Students in the junior, sophomore and freshman classes who started high school in the old building transferred to the new high school.

Mercersburg High School replaced a one-room school from which Louise Smith's mother, Cleone Zitzman, graduated in 1919.

Earlier classes in the old school were small, especially during the World War II years when many of the boys quit before graduation to join the service.

"You had to be 18 to join, but a lot of kids lied about their age," Jack Smith, a Navy veteran, said. "We had a boy on our ship who was only 16."

Straley said his graduating class had 32 members, Jack Smith's had 21 and his wife's had 19.

Straley, who grew up on a nearby farm, walked the mile-and-half to class every day. There was no bus service. Students from outlying areas often rode bikes to school and stayed overnight with fellow students in bad weather, Jack Smith said.All three remembered Merle Keim, who was principal during their years there.

Keim, who was well-liked by students, Louise Smith said, taught trigonometry, chemistry and physics and coached all sports.

"He was a very busy man," she said.

They also remembered favorite teachers like Mary Creigh McDowell, Lula Keller and Blanche Varden.

There were no year books or class trips back then.

"It was during the war," Louise Smith said. "There was gas rationing. Our senior class trip was seven miles away at a restaurant in Fort Loudon."

Mercersburg has a significant black community, and long before Brown vs. Board of Education ordered the end of segregation in the nation's public schools, the old high school was integrated.

"There were no problems," Louise Smith said. "We were all mixed in together. Everybody knew everybody else."

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