EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — They weren’t sure what sort of crowd to expect on a dreary holiday weekend.
But by the time school officials swung open the doors of East Providence High School at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, there was already a line of people waiting to get in. By noon at least 1,000 people had signed in on yellow legal pads, noting their name and the year they graduated, stretching from 1952, when the school was finished, to 2020, when it was ready to be knocked down.
For hours on Saturday, the hallways were jammed with recent grads who had babies on their hips and alumni who used canes and walkers for one last trip around East Providence High School before its date with the wrecking ball.
“There’s a strong Townie pride here in East Providence,” superintendent Kathryn Crowley said. “We got a lot of requests, phone calls, emails. ‘Are we going to get a chance to view the school for the last time?’ They want to see it. They wanted to see their old lockers, their old classrooms. So we decided to do it.”
The high school in East Providence will be replaced next school year by a gleaming new building just behind the current site on Pawtucket Avenue. The project has a $189.5 million price tag, and when it opens it will be the crown jewel of Townie Nation.
That’s what the old East Providence High School was in its day. A then-state-of-the-art auditorium, a beautiful swimming pool, wide hallways and big classrooms to accommodate a town that was quickly becoming a city in the post-war years. Bob Rodericks, a 1972 graduate who became a truant officer and is now a city councilman, remembers it like it was the TV show “Happy Days.”
“Everyone loves high school,” Rodericks said, then added, seeming to remember something about his days as a truant officer: “Or most everyone.”
Cynthia Black remembered walking through cornfields from her childhood home to get to the brand-new high school in the 1960s. A McDonalds now sits in the area where she grew up. Strip malls now surround the school she went to. Soon the school will be gone too.
“It’s sad,” Black said. “It’s just getting older. They could have done a little bit better about maintaining it. But that’s the way with everything. Not just this thing. They don’t appreciate some of the older stuff until it’s ready to go.”
It surely is ready to go now, school officials say. One room had holes in the wall. They’ve painted and cleaned but years of patching did little to address the more fundamental problems. There’s one science lab. The classrooms have one power outlet each, which in the age of computers is simply not enough. The pool was condemned and demolished years ago.
The whole building will follow in the summer, after this school year finishes in June. It would have cost just as much to try to rehab the building as it does to build a much better new one, school officials say.
“We all have fond memories,” said Joel Monteiro, a 1989 graduate and chair of the school committee. “We have to embrace change and growth.”
But before that, one last look for East Providence grads. Because current students will still be there for the next few weeks — demolition is expected to begin days after the final bell — alumni couldn’t take mementos. Instead they found their old lockers and tried old combinations, to no avail. They swapped stories about sneaking up on the roof, with a glint in their eyes that suggested they were willing to try it again today if it weren’t for the current students serving as hall monitors. They tried to place their memories of teachers in the homerooms where they belonged. In hallways as noisy and crowded as they’d be between classes, they stopped one another when they recognized a face from their childhood.
“Izzy!” one woman cried as she passed Isadore Ramos, who graduated in 1956. “I can’t believe it’s going to be knocked down. Ohh!”
Ramos had spent much of his personal and professional life in the East Providence school system. After graduation, he became a school administrator, rising to assistant superintendent. He would eventually serve on the school committee and as mayor. The gym is named for him. He is looking ahead nonetheless.
“I grew up in this place,” Ramos said. “But now we have to grow.”
Ramos is one of the best-known Townies in East Providence. But what is a Townie? Eagles and lions and bears are easy to define, but a Townie emblem is less straightforward. The actual mascot of a person in a red-and-white striped shirt doesn’t get used all that much. It’s more a sense of belonging, those who belong explained Saturday. You can wear your Townie pride on your sleeve, literally, and lots of people do.
“These Townies,” Lori Fernandes, a La Salle Academy grad, as she walked around with her Townie husband, Richard Fernandes. “He’s got the sweatshirts.”
Richard Fernandes nodded. He graduated in the class of 1986. As he stood at the intersection of two hallways Saturday, he pointed out exactly where he was when he learned about the Challenger explosion.
“Everyone was quiet,” Fernandes recalled.
Those hallways felt smaller now than they did when he was a student, but he remembered the room nearby where he sometimes had detention with a Mrs. Sullivan in Room 119. That wouldn’t be a good predictor of his future: He is now a police captain in Providence.
The first time Connie Barber was ever in the school was probably to get her polio vaccine in the cafeteria. She was awed by its vastness and its newness. Then she became a student, and then a teacher of social studies from 1971 until 2001.
Saturday was the last time Barber will ever be in the school. She walked with a few fellow former teachers around a school decked with Plexiglass and hand sanitizer stations.
“I loved it here, but you see the new building, it’s so big, it’s so open, it’s so bright,” Barber said. “Hopefully the next generation will have the same experience I did when I first walked in.”
Even among the crowds in red regalia Saturday, Albert Soares stood out. Six-foot-eight when standing up fully without his cane, Soares was a basketball player. East Providence played Central High School for the state championship in 1969.
They lost to Central, Soares said, wincing. They were missing one of their key players to injury. Otherwise they would have won, Soares said. The sting still carries.
“We had the better team,” Soares said.
He still towered over the hallway a half-century later, high enough to spot a shorter man walking by briskly.
“That’s Junior Butler,” Soares said as the man popped into a classroom. “Probably the best athlete that ever came out of here.”
Butler, for his part, demurred as he looked at the whiteboard in an old classroom. “Best ever” is debatable, he said. But yes, he played sports. He wore his letterman’s jacket around these hallways in his day and he loved it. High school is an important part of life. And the thing about life is that it goes on.
“I’m sorry to see this building go,” he said. “But we move forward.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.