It came from dust, and unto dust it shall return.
The Bel Air High School building rose from the earth sixty years ago and it will be demolished sometime this October. The wreckage has already begun as a glorious new replacement building stands by, ready to welcome students at the start of the new school year. Hallelujah!
As the parent of a Bel Air graduate and a past president of the BAHS PTSA, I know firsthand how the community struggled to cope with the impact of a failing building. And I was one of the many people who fought to have the old building replaced. So I wasn’t planning to shed any tears when the old walls came tumbling down.
But on eve of destruction, I wondered about what happened inside that building over the years. From its state-of-the-art beginnings in 1950, through (and way past) obsolescence, the Bel Air building witnessed the coming of age of thousands of Harford teenagers and was the center of work life for hundreds of people in Harford County Public Schools. Friendships made, loves lost, dreams fulfilled and shattered, and the sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, sometimes plodding course of daily life. The Bel Air High School building saw it all.
Sure, it’s the people who are the heart and soul of a school, but isn’t the building like the eyes and ears? Maybe that’s why I couldn’t resist taking one last look, before it disappeared forever.
Armed with my cell phone camera and permission to poke around, I wandered through the old school a few weeks ago as boxes were packed, junk was junked and the reality of the move set in. And since the walls can’t talk, I also invited some members of the Bel Air High School community, past and present, to share a few thoughts.
Bel Air High School has a living history lesson in the person of Capt’n Jim McMahan. Now a Harford County Councilman, McMahan boasts that his Class of ’56 was the first to go through all six years in the Bel Air High building, back when it housed grades 7 through 12. Capt’n Jim’s connection spans the entire life of the building and it’s a family affair. His mom, Selena P. McMahan taught biology in Room 103 when the building first opened. McMahan’s former wife, Mary Ann is currently a school nurse. As Capt’n Jim likes to say: “…a Mrs. McMahan opened the old school and a Mrs. McMahan closed the old school this spring and will open the new school this fall.”
Here’s how Capt’n Jim remembered reacting when he arrived at Bel Air as a student in 1950:
To a 7th grader leaving the old Bel Air Graded School and arriving at the brand new Bel Air Jr- Sr High School, it was almost mind boggling.
From a world of one room for everything, now we had to scurry up and down stairways for different classes. We had hall lockers… and after Phys Ed you had to undress “buck naked” and run through a gang shower from hot water to cold. Talk about culture shock (and they always ran out of towels just as I emerged).
But everything was so big. The cafeteria where Mrs. Robinson put forth her home made cherry pies every day for 20 cents a slice seemed as large as a football field.
Capt’n Jim continues…
Not many people knew that Bel Air High School was built with an observation tower to the South. It’s still there too. We always said it was to spot the troops coming up from Edgewood Arsenal, now the Edgewood area of APG. Don’t know what we would have done if we had seen them but it was a good story. Back then all the Army Brats from Edgewood came to Bel Air ON AN Army bus.
NOTES FROM THE PRINCIPAL’S DESK
Bill Ekey was the principal of Bel Air High School from 1990 to 1996. He has lots of fond memories of the school, including these two stories that pull back the curtain on the life of a school principal:
When I was principal, one spring day we heard a rumor that a large group of students was going to skip school and spend the day at Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. We tried to find them in the morning at the local McDonalds before they left, but we missed them.
One of my assistant principals, Dave Volrath (now the Executive Director of Secondary Education), was especially upset with the students. He asked if he could take a teacher with him and go to the park to find out who was there. I said yes and Dave took social studies teacher Joe Voskuhl (now the principal of BAHS) to New Jersey.
Dave and Joe first found the students’ cars parked together. They copied the license numbers. Then they explained their mission to the park administrator who invited them into the park for free. Joe and Dave found a bench in the middle of the park and sat quietly. As BAHS students came down the asphalt walk where Dave and Joe were sitting, they would stop, point, and turn around. My assistant principal and teacher came back with a long list of names of the students at the park.
The next day we faced several angry parents who were unhappy that we sent two school employees after their children. Go figure.
This next photo is a view of the main office from the outside, looking in.
And here’s what Bill recalls as the most memorable BAHS graduation. It happened in 1990 when Paul Skarzenski was principal:
Paul Skarzenski’s last graduation was in the spring of 1990. He had invited his family, Senator Paul Sarbanes, the superintendent, and many other local dignitaries. At that time, Bel Air’s graduation took place on the football field. (And those were the loveliest graduations, more memorable than the sterile ceremonies we have now. Rose Arches, sunset, light breezes, and a community sharing in the event.) If we had rain, graduation was moved inside to the gym and only those guests with tickets could be seated.
Graduation was scheduled to begin at 6:15 on a Friday evening, a Bel Air tradition. At 5:45, dark clouds appeared in the west. As I stood in the lobby, the clouds looked much as they looked on days when we would have summer downpours. At 5:50 I asked Paul if we should move graduation inside (as there was equipment to be moved and ticket takers to put in place). He said no. (I assumed that he had been at Bel Air for so many years that he knew that there would be no rain.) At 6:00, the clouds moved closer. I asked Paul if we should move graduation inside. He said no. At 6:10, a lightning bolt struck the football field (in front of the bleachers where all the parents and guests were seated). Torrential rain fell from the sky. The guests fled into the gym. The electricity went out. The school was dark.
Our bedraggled custodians moved the podium and flowers inside. We had no public address system, no sound system, no lights, no air conditioning. Paul gathered all of seniors in the auditorium. With a bullhorn, he gave them three choices. They could graduate the next night, they could graduate the following Friday, or they could graduate tonight with only their names called with a bullhorn in a dark gym.
The seniors shouted, “Tonight!”
We were able to get the seniors seated in the gym. Paul called their names. There were no speeches, no introductions, no remarks. The graduates received their diplomas. And graduation was finished. As the last seniors were leaving the school, the fire marshal came into the building. He was upset that we let all the people stay when the power was out. He threatened to arrest Paul. (He didn’t.)
Kelley Gunther is a rising junior at Bel Air, so her high school career will be evenly split between the old and the new. Here’s one thing Kelley said she will miss about the old building – not!
I will miss the hunt of finding a bathroom stall that would actually close… it became routine. And once you found one that would close, the dumb lock would break and you’d have to find a favorite stall all over again!
Here’s a look back from The Dagger’s own Aaron Cahall (Class of 2000):
I wanted a brick, or some odd memento, specifically from Room 131. I never quite got around to getting it.
That was the room in which Lorraine Svilar held court, the occasional English class, and most importantly the hours-long, after-school experience that is the school newspaper, The Bellarion.
“Experience,” she would probably say, is not a good word to employ in that sentence. It’s watery, not specific, not vibrant. But I don’t know how else to describe the seminal moment of everything I would become. I eventually became a professional journalist because of the long afternoons in that room, fighting the wax machine, fighting decades-old Macs, and fighting school administrators.
Trying to remember that cave of the prehistory of my life isn’t easy; the cliched, yellow edges of the memory are fraying just 10 years later. Two-thirds of the place was a fairly typical classroom, besides one picture of Murphy Brown. Toward the back of the room were the backs of two titanic cabinets which, with a lightboard to their right, marked the beginning of the Bellarion space and the end of most sanity.
On the other side was where the magic (mostly dark) happened. There was row of Macs predating the freshmen who will enter the new BAHS this fall. There was a wax machine: our evil, Victorian mad-scientist excuse for a scanner, on which carefully proportioned pictures were given a sticky backing and X-acto’ed to pages in a process guaranteed to make you wonder if that foreign language elective was still open.
There were also people, fellow students and Ms. Svilar, who formed the most important training I have had or ever will have in a profession I knew, from that time, I had to follow. It’s the training I keep thinking of, as I recall the room: it’s the one thing I’ll always have, but it’s not something I can stash in a box, and preserve. Saving a random shard of the experience, to me, would have been as good as saving the whole thing.
I still see Ms. Svilar occasionally; she left teaching but is doing well. Hopefully she got her Murphy Brown photo before departing. The cabinets are likely in a trash heap outside the school walls; the computers and lightboard, God willing, have long since been replaced. The wax machine is hopefully burning in a gooey hell.
The physical things are gone, or soon will be. I wish I had saved one.
Delegate Donna Stifler says she gets a lump in her throat just thinking about what she calls “magical” years at Bel Air. Her name was Donna Lindeman then (Class of 1983) and she had high praise for her art teacher, Mr. Kurt Bittle. She shared this story about art and athletes:
During my senior year, a bunch of us took on the biggest project of our career. We painted huge paintings of our choice that would be displayed throughout the school. I chose to do an oil painting of three BAHS football players tackling a Fallston High School receiver. The one being tackled wore the number of my boyfriend at the time who had just broken up with me! The main tackler was one of my best friends, Danny Fisher. That left the other two Bel Air players without numbers. I’ll never forget so many of the varsity football players lobbied me big time to put their numbers on the jerseys in my painting. For whatever reason, I chose my friends Richard Skarzenski and Aaron Thomas. That painting hung in the men’s weight room for the next 26 years!!! It was just this year that [Principal] Joe Voskuhl took it down for me to take home!
The following photos include some unique classrooms that will be familiar to some students, including the weight room (sans Donna’s picture):
Martha Dauphinais chairs the math department at Bel Air High School, where she has taught for 21 years:
My favorite memory is the practical joke [teacher] Mark Herzog and I played on [chemistry teacher] Ruth Billings when Bill Ekey was still principal. Ruth came back to school in the fall to find a nest in one of her storage cabinets. The custodians came and cleaned it out and told her that it might be a rat. Needless to say Ruth was just a little nervous.
A few weeks later when she carefully opened the cabinet again the nest had returned. It was again removed and Ruth got even more nervous. From one of my students by chance (he came into class and asked if I liked licorice because he did not and he didn’t know what to do with this licorice that he had) I got (in trade for 6 lollipops) a black licorice rat. It looked amazingly life-like. This was no doubt a sign that we should do something.
Herzog and I had planning [time] together when I showed him the rat. We enlisted one of our students – a drama guy named Tom – to star in the production. During one of Ruth’s chem. classes Tom looked over at the storage cabinet as though he had seen something. Ruth noticed and asked if anything was wrong. Tom replied that he thought he had seen something but was probably mistaken. At that point Ruth got on her stool and put her feet on the rungs off of the floor, but continued to teach.
After a while Tom shouted that he had just seen a rat. Immediately the girls (and many guys) jumped on chairs and started screaming and looking around.
Ruth said she was torn between running from the room and worrying about her students.
Tom then shouted “I’ve got it!” Held the licorice rat up by the tail and started whapping it on his desk. After several blows it broke in half and he calmly took it to the trash, threw it away and returned to his seat. Ruth said she looked at him and all she could say was “Who?” His response: “Dauphinais and Herzog” (We had arranged that should Tom get sent to the [Main] office we would take all the blame – the AP thought it was pretty funny- thank goodness) Ruth swore vengeance but Mark (who is in charge of Harford Glen now) and I are still waiting…. Tom said he had actually planned to do an “Ozzie Osborne” and bite the head off but in the moment beating it “to death” seemed a better idea.
Next up is Laura Crocker who has taught art in the building for 27 years and is now, as she says, the DepARTment Chairperson. She shares a cautionary tale involving the elevator, which is located at the end of the hallway in this photo:
When I was pregnant with my first child, I opted to use the elevator over the crowded stairs. One day while on the elevator I realized that my slip had climbed up over my very pregnant belly. Thinking that I was in the elevator alone, I hiked up my dress and began fishing around for my wayward slip. While my head was down, my arm halfway up my dress, and my dress up around my distended belly, I heard voices. In my mind I thought that it was cool that the school added music to the elevator. Shortly after that thought it dawned on me that the noise was not music by the sound of the gym class playing floor hockey. Apparently while I had been fishing for my lost slip, someone in the upper gym had called the elevator which caused the back elevator door to open. Not wishing to lose face, I shifted to the side of the elevator and kept my face forward in hopes that no one would know who I was. The moral of the story is to never check your slip in an elevator.
Chuck Bowden is currently an English and drama teacher at Bel Air who also graduated from the school in 1993. He gets a photo credit for the next two photos, including one showing a set piece from every show (over 50 of them) performed on the Bel Air stage for the last 20 years:
I remember being a freshman and feeling lost in the building…but having the nurturing teachers (and even upperclassmen) that would help you out and become friends.
It was extra special when I returned as a new teacher and was welcomed once again by those same teachers who were now my colleagues…and seeing my name on a mailbox in the same old Main Office that was familiar from my days as a student.
You can’t read Chuck’s name in this photo, but it’s there somewhere:
…being a part of such tradition and knowing that I have an opportunity to make a difference in the future classes of Bobcats is an exciting thing.
I spent 20 years in the old building (some as a student …”coach”/sponsor — student teacher… and faculty) — I will miss it. It is exciting to look forward to at least 20 more years in the New Bel Air High School…
A look back at the old Bel Air High wouldn’t be complete without a word from Phyllis Hemmes. She has been the school’s athletic director since 1983, but she first arrived as a teacher forty, yes forty years ago. Back then, the school was so crowded that the Girls’ Locker Room was used as a classroom:
I started in Sept. 1969 as a Physical Education – Health Teacher – 3200 students 250 teachers in the 1 building – I taught Health to all girls in the girls locker room – started class after everyone was dressed and went to class and finished when they came back in to change.
I helped coach Field Hockey and was JV basketball and Varsity Softball coach and Gymnastics coach – no pay for coaching at that time – Fall of 1970 we moved the 9th grade and part of the 10th to the middle school and part of the 10th -11th and 12th grades stayed in the old building
What I’ll miss and everyone else was having 3 gyms to use – When I started we only had the upper gym and the back gym and the new gym was added in 1985 – also the faculty rooms where you could meet everyone at sometime during the day – now with faculty rooms on every floor we probably won’t see a lot of people except at faculty meetings.
In 40 years many things have occurred in that building – many renovations – many new technologies – many teachers coming in and leaving – many students and teachers that have made a difference State championships in sports, the kids getting academic, art, athletic scholarships Graduations in the football stadium – the year it rained and had to be moved in doors – what a mess – but it got done – Mr. Rose and the Auto Shop, a lot of teachers got their cars fixed and the students got a hands on education – the down sizing – opening Fallston- CMW – Patterson Mill. Can’t think of another school that has given birth to 3 other schools in 40 years – the teachers and administrators that got their start here and have moved on to be Principals, supervisors at other schools A lot of things are “What happened at the Old Bel Air stay at the Old Bel Air” Now we can start making some new memories.
Kathy Cochran is a former PTSA member and all around active parent at Bel Air High School. She was one of many parents who knew how to deal with the unexpected and still get the job done, as evidenced by this story about the time she tried to sneak donuts into the school to surprise her daughter Beth:
I was planning on sneaking in a side door with two big boxes of Krispy Kremes to leave in the Chorus Room where Beth spent much of her day. Little did I know that it was a random drug dog search day. There were a few police cars parked in the circle; there was also one car with an officer inside parked in the upper lot right where I had to pass by. Well, there’s a cop and you are carrying two boxes of donuts. What would you do?
I stopped and asked him what was going on, offered him a donut, which he took, and proceeded to sneak in the side entrance. Beth loved the surprise treat.
Bob and Debbie Cassilly look forward to seeing their fifth child graduate from Bel Air High School next year, after having graduated from the school themselves in 1976. Deb says she and Bob didn’t know each other back then, which she attributes to the size of their class, about 700 students compared to fewer than 400 per class today. Deb has been a PTSA member and an active parent at the school for many years. Bob had served as a Bel Air Town Commissioner and was a Harford County Councilman representing Bel Air until he left to serve in various capacities in Iraq. Bob has since been assigned to a third tour of duty. I asked Bob to share some thoughts about the behind the scenes wrangling when the new Bel High building was being planned.
Bob sent this message from Iraq:
I will share that the original plan called for the removal of the school from the Town of Bel Air. Jackie Haas and I worked long and hard to change that planned course of events. We did the same for the plans to remove the Board of Ed from the Town. Now I’m working hard to redevelop Iraq. Oh my how times have changed. I feel as though my time working in Bel Air was a lifetime and a world away.
There was a lot of pressure to either create a connecting road through the middle of campus that would connect route 924 to the other side of town, but Bel Air High was in the way. Also, that land is quite valuable in the middle of town. Proposals to increase the height restrictions in-town were being brought forward at the same time. So, it seems that there were powers at work to get rid of Bel Air High and re-develop the land. Just look at us now!!!
It’s probably fitting to end with a word from Joe Voskuhl. Joe was a teacher and then an assistant principal at Bel Air High from 1986 to 1997. He left and came back to the school as principal in 2003 and he will open the new building later this month. He said the old building seemed “intimate” compared to the new building – funny, considering how Capt’n Jim and Chuck Bowden thought it was enormous at one time.
No dewy-eyed sentimentalist, Joe answered my question about the past by looking toward the future: “Time to make new history.”