It’s funny sometimes how things connect, like the Great Depression and the construction of a high school, P.J. Jacobs High School to be specific.
Stevens Point native and P.J. Jacobs High School graduate Terry Kawles noted similarities between the financial collapse in 2008 and the Crash of 1929 and became interested in President Roosevelt’s approach to getting the country out of the Great Depression, including the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) program.
“It reminded me of seeing a cornerstone somewhere at P.J.s that said ‘Built by the WPA,’” Kawles said.
With a couple of ensuing keystrokes on Google, Kawles found some basic information on the Wisconsin Historical Society website, not the least of which were the architect and builders of P.J. Jacobs. That led to a search of the firms – both of which are still in existence – a corresponding email to each and then a welcomed response.
Thus began the journey to tell the story of P.J. Jacobs High School, which today serves as one of two local junior highs.
The premier showing of “Opportunity: The P.J. Jacobs High School Story” will take place at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13, at Sentry’s Theater@1800, 1800 North Point Drive, Stevens Point. Tickets are $10 for general public, $5 for students (and seniors) with ID, and $25 for a family.
Kawles plans that the final version will be completed in HD broadcast quality and may be shown on local television and/or Wisconsin Public Television. There will also be Blu-ray or a DVD version of the movie with bonus material and other merchandise for sale such as autographed copies of the movie poster and architectural renderings for framing.
Proceeds from sales will go toward fundraising efforts for Fox Theater; Kawles serves on its advisory board.
All attendees will be able to have their picture taken on the red carpet, just like Hollywood, Kawles said.
“We’re going to do it the right way,” he said. “Everyone who has a ticket will be able to get their picture taken on the red carpet … It’s fun to go to a premier opening because there’s nothing ever like it … they will take a stroll down yesteryear, and I think it will make them smile. I think it will be a wonderful evening and I look forward to seeing (people) there.”
As a member of the last graduating class, Kawles remembers the majesty of P.J. Jacobs High School and the wonder of some of its features: murals, stained glass windows, tiled mosaics, the oak library, a pool and the list goes on. Many are still visible in the school today.
The architect and construction firms replied to Kawles, sent him pictures and allowed interviews. One connection led to another and soon he was interviewing a member of the original construction crew, alumni and others instrumental in making the high school a reality.
The film focuses on the historic significance of the building, which opened on June 1, 1938, and served as the local high school until 1972 when Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) opened.
The school was funded by a more than $200,000 grant from the New Deal’s Public Works Administration (PWA) and constructed as part of a WPA project.
“I really just out of interest started following up on what was it about, and things just started revealing themselves to me,” he said. “The fact that P.J. Jacobs got made at all was nail-biting, a ‘is it going to make it’ until the very end.
“It took tremendous foresight and perseverance on the city leaders to do it and incredible imagination,” he said. “They did some tremendous things ... they found a way to use the WPA and the PWA in order to facilitate getting the building built.
“How it came to be, the story of how it got there and what facilitated getting that building built is fascinating,” Kawles said.
The city, at the time, owned a quarry in town and much of the stone used to build P.J.s (and other structures like Iverson and Bukolt parks) came from the quarry, he said.
“I think it’s the best-built building in Stevens Point,” said Phil Idsvoog, who began teaching at P.J.’s high school in 1968, and along with students in 10th through 12th grades filled their arms up with books, loaded buses and drove to SPASH to restock the library there during the mid- school year transition in 1972.
“I loved the place,” he said. He later served as principal, including when the building – then a junior high school – got a nearly $4.8 million three-story addition to the north that matched the original building.
Like Kawles, Idsvoog remembers the uniqueness of the school.
“We had study halls in the (Stevens Point Parks and) Rec Center,” he said. “My first full year of teaching there in 1968, I had five sections of U.S. history and I remember teaching a section in the chemistry room, which I thought was quite unusual.”
Former Principal Dan Dobratz, who is serving as interim principal this school year, took a coaching job at the building in 1978, after the switch, and still today points out items that recall the high school days: an old faucet in a second floor office is an afterthought of the high school lunchroom; stained glass windows in a science office, near the gymnasium, in classrooms; oak built-ins in an English room that used to be a library.
Pat Pfiffner, nephew of artist E. John Pfiffner who painted the mural in the former entrance, recalled that the mural itself spoke to the time and the forward thinking of the community. The mural depicts people at work constructing a building while others are taking part in educational and athletic activities. Created in 1950, it features five African Americans working on the project.
Many items are addressed in the documentary, and in some cases, mysteries of the building revealed.
And what about that original rendering of the school hanging on the wall that shows the words “Whiting High School” above the front door? “You’ll have to come to the documentary to find out,” Kawles said.
The documentary is made possible in part through cooperation of Stevens Point Area Public School District including the Buildings and Grounds and maintenance personnel, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point history department, individual local history experts, P.J. Jacobs’ granddaughter Mary Ness, Anthony Maas of Maas Brothers (architect) and Eric Lawson of Potter Lawson (construction firm), Greg Wright at CREATE Portage County, Sentry and Sentry Theater, and The Worth Company and Ellis Construction, as well as other area businesses.