Although there were more than a dozen secondary schools in Northern New Castle County in the 1960s, if you said you went to “High School,” everyone knew you were talking about Wilmington High School. The Red Devils became a victim of forced busing -- half empty as suburban families rejected busing en masse -- and was replaced by Cab Calloway School of the Arts and The Charter School of Wilmington. Its last class graduated in 1999.
Although there were more than a dozen secondary schools in Northern New Castle County in the 1960s, if you said you went to “High School,” everyone knew where you meant, said Don Marshall, a 1964 Wilmington High School graduate.
For a long time, the school “was absolutely reflective of the city itself,” said 1986 graduate Wiley Blevins Jr., the author of “Dear Old High: The Story of Wilmington High School.”
Established in 1872, Wilmington High moved from Delaware Avenue to a new building at DuPont Road and Lancaster Avenue in 1960.
1955 graduate Virginia (Mitchell) Ciarlo, of Brandywine Hundred, said there “was a time when school was the place to be.”
“We respected our classmates and our teachers,” she said. “Everyone supported our teams and was there at the games – especially the big Thanksgiving Game between P.S. (duPont High School) and ourselves.”
1965 graduate Joe Hamill, of Middletown, felt the same way.
“Maybe we were naïve, but I felt there was this camaraderie,” he said. “It just seemed like ‘Leave it to Beaver.’”
Indeed, “High School” athletes were readily recognized in the neighborhoods.
“You walked down the street and police would stop and talk to you about a picture in the paper about the last game,” said Bear resident Art Madric, a 1966 graduate, who played football and ran track for Wilmington.
For alumni like Madric, Hamill, Blevins and Ciarlo, it is hard to imagine that their alma mater ceased to exist in 1999. But the effects of a busing order aimed at achieving racial balances between city and suburban schools in 1978 would prove to be Wilmington High’s undoing as students formerly assigned to the school were bused out to the suburbs while suburban students resisted assignment to Wilmington High.
Perhaps no one has felt the loss as much as Elsmere resident Dr. Pete Grandell, who graduated from Wilmington in 1938 and returned in 1948 to teach Spanish and serve as a guidance counselor for a half-century. To Grandell, Wilmington High was like family.
For instance, it was the night before Grandell’s prom and the guidance counselor, Miss Connelly, asked him who his date was. He explained that he wasn’t going because he couldn’t get a tuxedo at Sisifo’s for two bucks.
“So, she took me after school, got me a tuxedo, got me flowers for the date, got me the date, OK?” he said. “And the next day she came to my house, picked me up and took me to the girl’s house and the prom. Now, that’s sharing and caring.”
Such behavior was a matter of loyalty, said Jim Emory, of Newark, another 1965 graduate, whose mother and daughter also went to Wilmington.
“I think we were a more social group than we are today. I can’t ever remember a problem in school,” he said.
1967 graduates Paula (Gilbert) Manolakos and Lorraine Haggerty agreed.
“We didn’t care who we went to school with,” Haggerty said. “It didn’t matter what color you were.”
In 1964, the 1,069-student high school was 77 percent white and 22 percent black, according to the Delaware Department of Public Instruction. By 1973, the school grew to 1,967 and was 24 percent white and 71 percent black.
Alumni recalled some racial conflicts during early desegregation as blacks and Hispanics came to the school. But by the 1960s things had stabilized, Grandell said.
Wilmington High had become predominantly black by the early 1970s, because of white flight from city schools. However, school spirit remained, alumni recalled.
The Red Devils football team, led by players Ben Williams and Warren Avery and coach Alex Sansosti, won the first official state football championship in 1971. Later that same school year, the basketball team beat Dover to win the 1972 state championship led by players Nate Evans and Floyd Evans and coach Tim Autry. Bill Berry and Sidney Roy, coached by Greg McNeill, beat Howard for the basketball title in 1974, and in 1978 – with busing looming –Myron Jones and coach Gene Thompson led Wilmington to another basketball title.
That year, a U.S. District Court order consolidated Wilmington and 10 suburban school districts into one super-district to achieve racial balances in schools through metropolitan dispersion and busing. The order led to a pupil reassignment plan that eliminated Wilmington’s arch-rival, P.S. duPont and two other area high schools that year, and, many felt, caused Wilmington High’s own closure two decades later.
Dennis Brady, Jim Kelley, Donna Mensinger and Jeff Nichols were all Conrad High students who found themselves at Wilmington High their senior year in 1978-79 when Conrad closed.
Brady said there was a lot of rage amongst former Conradians for what they felt was the closure of a fabulous school for nothing.
“None of us crossed the line,” he said. “We had to have co-presidents. Everything had to do with color. In my mind, it never accomplished anything. In the end, it was sad to see that happen.”
Despite consolidation, Wilmington saw some good years in the 1980s, like when Tony Tucker led Wilmington to a win over Salesianum School in the 1983 boys’ basketball state championship. Erik Edwards and Wesley Reynolds led the Red Devils to a win over Sussex Central High School in 1988 for Wilmington’s record fifth state basketball state championship, which no one has surpassed to this day.
However, enrollment continued to dwindle in the early 1990s as parents opted to send their children to suburban public schools or move them into private ones if they could afford it. Meanwhile, students from neighborhoods formerly assigned to Wilmington High before the busing order – all those south of the Brandywine River – were bused to Newark, Christiana, Glasgow, Alexis I. duPont, Dickinson and McKean high schools.
People were scared of Wilmington High but it did not deserve its reputation, said Chris Jones, a 1993 graduate, who loved his time at “High School.”
“It definitely prepared me for life in the real world,” Jones said. “I wasn’t ever subjected to just one racial or ethnic group. I was always around different people – black, white, Spanish – everybody.”
The Red Clay Consolidated School tried to bolster enrollment with programs like Phoenix for gifted students and the banking program, but declining enrollment continued.
In 1996, the Red Clay Board of Education granted the first charter in the state to the Charter School of Wilmington, and by 1999 Charter and the magnet Cab Calloway School of the Arts replaced Wilmington High. With that, the last traditional high school in the city ceased to exist.
1995 graduate Tim Carter, 1996 graduate Chad Kendall and teacher Debbie Buccio said Charter made sure to keep its students separate from Wilmington High during the transition years.
“(Charter President) Ron Russo wanted it very separate,” Carter said. “And at Cab Calloway, you didn’t go to their hallway and vice versa.”
Kendall said he does not identify with the schools that replaced Wilmington High in any way.
“I haven’t been back at all and I really have no desire to,” he said. “I mean, they took away our high school, and I can’t honestly say that I would have been associated with it for life, for every event. But in years to come I would like to be able to bring my kids back and show them some of that tradition.”
Red Clay Board President Irwin J. Becnel Jr. said Red Clay’s troubles with Wilmington High came directly as a result of the 1978 order.
“Whenever you operate a school system under the guidance of any judge, you lose education,” said Becnel, who ran for the school board because he resented forced busing.
“We fought the field wars of the 1980s,” he said. “That’s why choice is so dang important to me, especially for high schools, because they were always the inflammatory issue in the 80s. Once we got out from under the deseg order and were able to implement choice then the high school thing just absolutely settled down.”
Except for Wilmington High.
Former Red Clay Board President William E. Manning said he was embarrassed the district had a school nobody wanted to attend. People did things like rent an apartment in Greenville so their children could attend A.I. instead of Wilmington, he said.
"We had big fights on the board about which children from the suburbs were going to be assigned to Wilmington High," he said. "It was demeaning to Wilmington. But the best thing you could do was say, 'You don't have to go there if you don't want.' It automatically changes the way people look at it.’”
Becnel says Wilmington High has not gone away. He prefers to view it as a campus that has “two special, high-performing, highly regarded programs.”
But Grandell said the phasing out of Wilmington High left Wilmington as perhaps the only major city in the United States that doesn’t have a traditional school.
About 50,000 men and women fulfilled the school motto, “Enter to Learn: Go forth to serve,” he said. Among the graduates are Grandell’s wife Kit Grandell (class of 1944) and their son, Pete Grandell Jr., who was the quarterback of the football team.
Hamill said the Charter School could have retained some of the identity of Wilmington High, such as keeping the Red Devils mascot and the school colors of cherry and white. Under Russo, Charter replaced the school colors with blue and white and implemented The Force as its mascot.
“Why not keep it? Why not keep the identity?” Hamill said. “I didn’t think Wilmington High School was going to disappear. And a lot of pride went with it.”
But, Ciarlo said, “nothing stays the same.”
“I guess that's called progress,” said Ciarlo, whose grandson graduated from Charter and did well.
Carter, who met his wife Carol at Wilmington, said one of the most vivid memories he has of his alma mater was participating in Wilmington’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“Wilmington High always brought on Santa Claus. That was the tradition in the Wilmington parade,” he said.
Buccio added that the 1999 parade was the saddest.
But, despite Wilmington High’s demise that year, alumni still hold onto their Red Devil spirit.
Jeanne (Kassees) Kimerer, a 1966 graduate, returned to Wilmington High when her stepdaughter, Brandy (Boyer) Pusey, graduated.
“It was so emotional for me,” Kimerer said. “I said, ‘This is my high school. This is where I graduated. I felt like I was home. All I can say is that it’s not right that the school does not exist anymore,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
1966 graduate Janie (Pierce) Hurlock said Wilmington High should be brought back.
“So many Delaware natives attended and graduated from Wilmington,” she said. “They are doctors, lawyers, and builders and for Wilmington High to no longer carry the name is a very sad thing.”