Happy Anniversary, Lamar
80 years of high school memories
September 1937. A new Houston high school was opening its doors to just over 1,300 students in newly developed River Oaks. The school’s Texas limestone building, with its sleek, Art Deco design created by John Staub and Kenneth Franzheim, was a modern-looking spectacle capping the end of River Oaks Boulevard opposite the country club.
Mirabeau B. Lamar High School, named for the president of the Republic of Texas, was Houston’s newest and most exciting high school.
Eight decades later, Lamar still stands as a landmark on Westheimer, although much has changed. The student population has grown by 150 percent since that first day. And since then, countless luminaries – among them a Nobel Prize winner, the first African-American prima ballerina, a governor, congressmen, actors and business leaders – have graduated from Lamar. In total, 40,000 graduates. The International Baccalaureate program, almost 40 years old, is the largest in the state. There’s a championship football team, award-winning robotics program and debate teams, an acclaimed JROTC and countless clubs. And in the fall of this year, the 80th graduating class will start their high school careers there.
Which makes the commencement of a new era for Lamar quite timely. On March 30, 80 graduates from 80 classes raised shovels to break ground for a new Lamar. The original Art Deco building will remain, but a new building will spring up behind it. Instead of limestone, the building will be glass and steel, with a swimming pool and giant parking garage. After that building goes up, the others that were built in the ’80s will go down, leaving ground space for five new sports fields, including areas for football, baseball, track, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and golf.
Grace Picton Wise and Alice Picton Craig are two sisters who were among the first to walk the halls at Lamar. “My father was an attorney, and we moved out to River Oaks when they opened it up,” Grace says. “We went to River Oaks Elementary, which had just opened, so we had our own school. And then, of course, we went to Lanier [for middle school], and then to San Jacinto for a year and a half of high school until Lamar opened.
“It’s being at the end of River Oaks Boulevard made it especially pretty,” Grace remembers. “We had a good time because we had clubs and we had social parties. There were a lot of dances, and of course the football games were all fun. I was one of the cheerleaders.”
Grace also was the president of the student body. “I think Tom Hardy, captain of our football team, was president of our class,” she says.
Grace’s younger sister Alice, who attended Lamar at the same time, says, “It was very much a neighborhood school, and we often walked home. All our neighbors were our classmates. We worked hard, we had wonderful teachers and tried to please them.”
Unlike today, there were no uniforms at Lamar. “We wore usually cotton dresses in hot weather and maybe wool skirts and sweaters in the cold weather. Never pants because they weren’t in fashion then.
“We cheered on all of the sports teams, and everybody attended all of the events, which were held on campus. There were informal dances there in the gym. And we had little social clubs, like girls’ clubs, and we would have parties and try to do something nice for the community. The one I was in was the Chums,” Alice says.
“My older sister was a year ahead, and my younger sister was a year behind me. I just thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Vicki Venn Lange attended Lamar many years later, graduating in 1969. For Vicki, the school is family – her mother-in-law Carolyn Montgomery Lange graduated in 1944, and her son Joe Lange in 2006. “John [Vicki’s husband] went to Lee,” Vicki says. “We were rivals!”
In 2004 and 2005, Vicki served as PTO president. “They asked me to do it, and I feel such a tie to that school. I was so thrilled that one of my children would be there.
“I think there is such an incredible mix of kids and teachers at Lamar. You learn so much from each other. When Joe was there, he said, ‘This is the real world.’ He was right, because there are kids who drive their own cars there and kids who get up at 5 in the morning to ride the bus. You learn to get along with everyone, and it’s a great mix.”
Vicki remembers her parents requesting Lamar, although her Tanglewood neighborhood was zoned to Lee. “It was interesting,” she says. “All the girls chose Lamar, and all the guys chose Lee.
“Then, like today, there were all the gazillion different clubs,” Vicki says. “Everybody joined everything – future teachers, future nurses. All outlets for creativity and volunteering. I was a member of the Choralettes, a singing group that was around for 30 or 40 years. It was all girls, and every year we went on some fabulous trip; my year we went to Hawaii. And every year we performed at Jones Hall to raise money for those trips.
“I also was a member of the social club Mirabeau. You would apply, and they chose members by drawing names out of a hat. There were probably seven different women’s social clubs, and we did things like took turkeys to people during Thanksgiving and also had a party.”
Vicki says she also has fond memories of lunching under the trees facing Westheimer. Although lunching under them is no longer allowed, “Those trees are still there,” she says.
Amanda Kepke Fisher graduated from Lamar in 1988 and, just this year, calls herself both an alumna and a parent. Her daughter Elizabeth is a freshman. “I had gone to St. John’s for middle school and River Oaks Baptist for elementary,” Amanda says. “My parents knew I needed a different environment for high school. So I chose Lamar, and I loved it from the minute I started. What I was really excited about when I got there was the wonderful longtime choir director – Judy McEnany. Being so involved in the vocal performance at Lamar was one of the reasons I studied music in college at UT.” Amanda now runs AFA, a nonprofit connecting young people and music.
“I loved the diversity,” Amanda says. “I loved eating lunch on the front lawn like we used to be able to back in the ’80s. It felt very independent, and coming from a small school, I loved it being so large and diverse.”
Elizabeth will likely never eat lunch under the trees. Today, students eat in the courtyard outside or in the cafeteria.
“I always had wanted to go to Lamar because the swim program is the talk of every swim program I’ve been in,” she says. “If you’re serious about swimming, that’s where you want to go.”
About the academics, Elizabeth says, “Definitely the IB program is a lot more challenging than I guess when my mom was there. I love the classes. We’re not taking history, we’re taking human geography.”
“I think the IB program now is fabulous,” Amanda says. “It’s a true global education with real-life experiences. The kids are in charge and managing their time.”
So how does it feel to be a mom and not a student? “It smells the same; it really does! When I went up there last May, walking the halls trying to find the office, I saw the transoms over the doors that you would open to get air. I remember staring off into space and looking at them, and when I saw those same transoms, I got a little emotional. It was very nostalgic. I was excited to see the differences and excited to see what was the same.
“The great thing about Lamar is that you can be whoever you want to be, and I was excited to see that with Elizabeth, how she would invent herself.
“I will say that when I drop her off, I drive by my old parking space every morning. Elizabeth will attest that I’ll say way too much, ‘That was my parking space!’”
Katherine Heyne Tramonte and Jason Tramonte met at Lamar; he graduated in 1993 and she in 1994. They dated in high school, took a little break when they went to different colleges, and then married 17 years ago. Their daughter Isa is currently a Lamar freshman.
“Coach Martinez, the football coach” Jason says. “That’s what I remember most about Lamar. He was a very big influence on most of my life. He was not the nicest, but he had the best intentions, and that was to push us to be the best we could and to bring out the potential in us.”
Katherine says, “I went and found him during open house [for Isa] and snapped a picture with him!”
Jason says of Lamar, “I love its diversity. It’s a great school to grow up in. It’s protected and safe, but you learn a little street credit while you’re there. You just get a mix of a lot of different people and backgrounds, and that’s really what the world is about.”
Isa agrees: “I like how you get to interact with all kinds of new people.”
The powerhouse behind gathering 80 graduates for 80 years to celebrate the 2017 groundbreaking is Fran Callahan. Fran went from being a parent and president of the Lamar PTO in 1998 to founding the Lamar Alumni Association, one of only about five associations of its kind in the country.
“The bathrooms were in terrible shape,” Fran says of her time as PTO president. “I went to the then-principal and said, ‘Listen, we came out of the Catholic schools where they’re always raising money. Maybe we could raise some money and fix the bathrooms. When you’re in Catholic school, you can sell raffle tickets and all kinds of things, but what do you do when you’re in public school?’ He said, ‘You can have a bake sale or car wash.’ I started laughing and said, ‘No, no. We need money with commas and zeros.’ So we started the Alumni Association.
“We never got the bathrooms fixed because there was leftover bond money that did that,” Fran says. “But we’ve landscaped, remodeled the auditorium, bought the greenhouse, built a sports building, trimmed oak trees multiple times. And we’ve given $200,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors.
“When my first child was here, there were no computers in the school. One of my daughters took keyboarding on a piece of paper with a printout of a keyboard. The Alumni Association raised 100,000 for computers.” Today, the school gives every student their own laptop.
Of all the changes that have been and are yet to come, the high school’s motto, “Reach for the stars!” remains. Even still, what students hear every morning over the loudspeaker has changed. There are still daily announcements, along with a word of the day, recitation of the pledge of allegiance and a pledge to the Texas flag. And it’s all followed, every day, by a mantra: “At Lamar High School, we are on time, on task and on a mission. Have a great day!”
Editor's note: Ten years ago, Andy Blitzer wrote a 70th-anniversary story about Lamar. To see it and the photos we ran then, click here.
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