The room sits quiet and dark under the iconic clock tower. A switch in the corner is flipped, and the lights flicker. They shine on history.
There are photos noting the '00 and '01 athletic teams. That’s 1900 and 1901. Follow the wall and watch the decades pass. There’s a picture of the girls basketball squad from 1914. They’re wearing dresses. Further down, a band uniform from the 1940s.
It’s only a room—small, somewhat cramped, with a low ceiling—tucked above the fourth floor at Denver East High School. Yet, in moments, this museum tells a story that nearly everyone else has trouble putting into words: History is palpable here, perhaps like no other high school in Colorado. And it pulls you in.
Denver East—known as Arapahoe School, Denver Eastside or East Denver through the years—has won 96 state championships in 16 sports. Yes, Cherry Creek has won more than 200 titles, but these Angels have athletic success dating to 1895. For perspective, the Colorado High School Activities Association wasn’t formed until 1921.
The school itself was founded in 1876, and has known three homes: 19th and Arapahoe (hence, Arapahoe School) until 1889; 20th and Stout (known as “Old East” to alumni) until the spring of 1925; and the current campus just off of Colfax Avenue near York Street.
The current building was part of Mayor Robert Speer’s City Beautiful program in the early-to-mid 1900s. It opened, along with the current campuses for Denver South and Denver West high schools, in the fall of 1925. South was placed at Washington Park, West at Sunken Gardens Park. East was built adjacent to City Park.
East’s clock tower, 162-feet high, can be seen for blocks around and is the lasting image visitors carry with them.
“A lot of people have fond memories of high school. Not too many people say, ‘Oh, boy, I love my building,’ ” Dick Nelson, a longtime English teacher at East and historian of Denver Public Schools, said recently. “It’s usually some program or some kids or some teachers that you remember. You don’t remember the building. But I think East kids remember the building.
“It kind of rises out of the ground,” Nelson said. “It’s amazing architecture, and made possible the fact that it was built before the depression.”
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The school’s old gym was state-of-the-art when it was built in 1925, and hosted the state wrestling tournament three times in the 1930s. East won its only wrestling championship one of those years, in 1937. But that old gym, which features seating above the floor, isn’t quite suited for today’s basketball games and so another one was built in 1982.
The baseball field butts up against 17th Avenue, and across the street the tennis teams have a grandfathered permit to use City Park’s courts. There’s a field turf facility across City Park Esplanade for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, and football, as well as a track outlining the field.
East’s location—smack in the middle of a major American city—makes it unique. An open campus policy during lunch sends many of its nearly 2,500 students flooding out to Colfax each weekday afternoon.
“There’s a real sense of pride, and (the students) feel pride of going on Colfax for lunch,” said Michelle Topf, an English teacher and girls tennis coach. “Even though they make fun of it, they’re very proud of being in the inner-city, they’re very proud of their neighborhood.”
Said Aspen Miles, East’s dean of students and a graduate of the school, “It’s so diverse. Our campus is a good picture of what the world’s going to be like when you get out there. You meet a little bit of everyone doing everything.”
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A staggering number of notable alumni have passed under the clock tower through windowed doors to attend class. Widely known Olympians, actors, professional athletes, governors, musicians, writers and professors are Angels. There’s even a First Lady (Mamie Eisenhower, Dwight’s wife), and an astronaut (Jack Swigert, of Apollo 13 fame).
Nearly every one of them participated in some form of school activity—athletic or otherwise. T.J. Miller, the comedian, co-star of Cloverfield, and lead in Fox's new series The Goodwin Games, played lacrosse. Swigert, a 1949 grad, played football.
These alums, and their feats, are never far from the minds of today’s students.
“Our halls are filled with it,” said Miles, one of those notable alumni, herself an Olympic-level runner whose state record in the 200-meter dash stood until Regis Jesuit’s Ana Holland broke it in April.
Heritage Hall, on the third floor, spotlights the best of East’s alumni. East’s clock tower room, home to the museum, sits above classrooms, up a short stairway. There’s also an athletic Hall of Fame outside of the school’s gym. It’s dedicated to Nelson for his tireless work in preserving the history of the school.
It all leads to an expectation of excellence at East—a tradition that, as Miles put it, rests on a “history of excellence that we’ve had for a hundred years.”
“It’s self-perpetuating,” said Susan McHugh, a coach with the school’s debate team. “So, kids that come to East, and families, they feel pride and they want to uphold the standards and they want to be a part of the history that’s always been a positive history.”
Said Miles, “It was a challenge: What am I going to do to make East proud, to add another chapter in East’s book?”
Yes, a lot of that tradition is athletic success. The boys soccer team owns the most recent title, capturing Class 5A in 2011, and the boys basketball squad was upset in the 5A final last spring. From 1931 to 1968, the school won 73 state championships.
But there’s also the Constitutional Scholars team which routinely wins, or at least earns a place at, the national competition in Washington D.C. Its speech and debate program is widely known. The woodshop course designed and built new shelves in the school library.
“When I was there,” Miles said, “it was about me being the best runner I could be and still understanding that the academic foundation they were giving me is what was going to take me in life. It wasn’t just, ‘You’re an athlete.’ I was one whole student that they were putting together to go out and make an impact in this world.”
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What makes East so special? Once it touches you, the history and tradition never seem to let you leave.
“There’s kind of the rich sense of, ‘Once you’re an Angel, you’re always an Angel,’ ” said Lisa Porter, the school’s athletic director who played soccer, basketball, volleyball and softball at East before graduating in 1993. “Once you get a job at East, whether it’s teaching or coaching, you don’t leave.”
Seven coaches or heads of activities have been at East for at least 10 years. There are stalwarts like boys basketball coach Rudy Carey, who graduated from the school in 1970. Or Andy Mendelsberg, who has been at the school for more than 20 years. He was a softball coach, dean and athletic director before becoming principal last year.
One major reason coaches stay put is because East has outstanding participation numbers. More than 100 girls came out for field hockey last year—105 for tennis. The East Theatre Company routinely has between 275 and 300 members. Everyone, it seems, is involved in something.
And through the years, many of those students have found their way to big things. It makes for a legendary alumni base.
“I was talking to a group of freshman last year: ‘Anybody know anyone famous from East High School?’ Not a hand went up,” said Nelson, the historian. “So I said, ‘Well, I’ll give you a hint on one. This was an African American actor, he had a tremendous movie called Hotel Rwanda.’ I said, 'Anybody know who that kid is?' ”
Nelson was speaking of Don Cheadle, who graduated from East in 1982.
“Not one hand went up,” Nelson said. “And then I realized, they don’t know Hotel Rwanda. So I go to another one: ‘This guy was an Apollo 13 astronaut.’ A kid’s hand shot up, and he goes, ‘Oh, I know that one!’ I said, ‘What’s his name?’ He said, ‘Kevin Bacon.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s the guy that played him in the movie.’ ”
It's something you won't find at many other schools, these stories of astronauts who roamed the halls, of actors, or athletes. All Angels.
"Other high schools that I’ve worked in, they’ve worked to get that (tradition), but East has it naturally," Porter said. "It’s just part of the culture, part of the fabric of East High School. It’s the rich community of pride and tradition in things we’ve all done. It happens as a school and as a community."
"And then," Porter said, after graduating, "we all come back."