STORIES OF STANISLAUS
A Collection of Stories on the History and Achievements of Stanislaus County
Sol P. Elias
Modesto's First Graduation Class
The great interest manifested in the commencement exercises of the first graduation class of the Modesto High School caused old Rogers' Hall to be thronged to overflowing with spectators on Thursday night, May 27, 1886, when the seven young women and the three boys who constituted this class participated in the first function of this character ever held in Stanislaus county and set a precedent that thereafter became the annual custom of the town.
That the hall was so crowded was, indeed, a delicate tribute to the graduates, well known young folks of the community, who, after three years of study, had successfully passed the test of the finals. It was no less an appreciation of the zeal and the personality of Prof. R. S. Holway, who had guided the pupils almost through the entire course, though leaving at the previous Christmastide to accept a professorship at the University of California, a position which he has held continuously since. It was also an acknowledgment of the ardent and effective cooperation of Prof. J. F. Wayman, Mr. Holway's able successor, under whose auspices the first class was graduated.
It was in 1883 that Professor Holway organized the first high school class in Modesto. Forty pupils enrolled during the first year. During its succeeding career, many of the students, for various reasons, dropped out until only ten were present at the graduation to receive the diplomas. Mr. Holway was the sole teacher of this class and the principal of the entire school until his departure. He taught all the high school studies pursued. The classes were held in one of the small rooms in the upper story of the old two-story brick school on Fourteenth street. It was in this room, in the view of the then young schoolmaster and with the advantage of the personal association and of the inspiration of a charming character and a sympathetic mind, that the students of Modesto's first high school class worked for the goal.
The commencement was a novel feature for the little town that had emerged from small beginnings to a position of importance in affairs of the county. It marked a point in the evolution of Modesto's educational system from the school with the one teacher and fifteen pupils that had held forth in the small shack at Ripperdan in the early days of the town's infancy. In the march of progress the red brick school had been built, the ungraded school had given way to the graded one, and then came the separation of the grammar department from the primary, and now the high school with its ten graduates and its commencement. A new annual custom had been added to the life of the village. The importance of the event was not underestimated by the citizens.
With floral trimmings and deftly arranged lace the students had beautifully and tastefully decorated the stage of Rogers' Hall – the old community gathering place of pleasant memories. Over the proscenium in large letters were emblazoned the class motto: “Finis Coronat Opus.” “The End Crowns the Work.” At 8 o'clock the graduates marched on the stage and were seated. They were Belle McMullin, Aggie Lewis, Tillie Lewis, Ella Wood, Laura Garlinghouse, Stella Finley, Leah Elias, James G. Thompson, Sol P. Elias and John B. Zimdars. Applause greeted their appearance. The young women were dressed in white and the boys wore the ordinary sack suit.
While the audience was preparing to listen to the exercises, Prof. O. E. Zimdars, in his accustomed artistic manner, gave a piano solo. Sol. P. Elias began the program for the class with the reading of an essay on “The Tendency of Our Government” in which he deplored the socialistic tendencies of the time and made a fervent plea for the return to individualistic effort. He was followed by Tillie Lewis with a paper on “Something of Nature's Laws,” in which she traced the operation of the laws of nature. Laura Garlinghouse then feelingly read “The Execution of Montrose.” A breathing spell was here granted to the graduates while the audience was entertained by a quartet who prettily sang “Come, Rise With the Lark.”
The literary thread was resumed for the class when Stella Finley read a paper entitled “The Princess,” in which she displayed careful study and training in the art of poetic interpretation. Leah Elias followed with a recitation, “The Knight and the Lady.” Miss Laura Horn then attracted the musical ear by a selection on the zither. “The Class Chronicles,” which brought laughter from the members of the lower classes and which were a source of edification to the spectators, were read by Aggie Lewis. Miss Lewis detailed the class history of each of the graduates and made sundry predictions for all of them, many of which have been verified in their subsequent lives. Belle McMullin read an essay entitled “Finished,” in which she spoke entertainingly upon the preparation of the high school study with reference to its outlook on life. Miss Snowden followed with a vocal solo, “Rose of the Alps.”
The class orator was James G. Thompson. His subject was “The Power of Wealth.” With an easy presence he delivered his address. It showed close study. Its presentation was excellent and denoted careful training in public speaking. Ella Wood followed with an essay on “Aim in Life,” in which she advised the desirability of the selection of a life's object and an adherence to it. John B. Zimdars finished the class program with an essay on the “Growth of Society,” in which, in well-chosen language, he poetically traced the evolution of the social fabric from the earliest dawn of antiquity. Mrs. Ella Hoag, closed the program with a song, “Ernani, Fly With Me.”
C. C. Stratton, D. D., made the address to the class, the subject of the discourse being “Books and Reading.” It was replete with valuable information on the topic and on the art of reading literature. Hon. C. C. Wright, president of the board of trustees, presented the diplomas to the graduates. In his talk he gave a resume of the work of the schools, detailed their growth from their inception, spoke of the pride of the town in the first graduating class, and as he presented each graduate with the diploma spoke a few words of kindly advice to the recipient. There was a delicate personal touch in the remarks of Mr. Wright, for the members of the class were his neighbors' children and he had seen them grow from infancy to maturity with the advancement of the town. A trustee for many years, the schools of Modesto were Mr. Wright's most solicitous care.
A pioneer in educational work in this community, the city of Modesto may well revere the name and the memory of Mr. Wright for the painstaking and conscientious labor that in his life he bestowed upon its educational system in the early days and for the earnest cooperation that he gave to the teachers.
After presentation of the diplomas, the stage was thronged with the friends of the graduates and with the citizens generally who showered the young people who had just presented a rich program of literary merit to the appreciative audience with congratulations and good wishes. It was a wonderful scene that was enacted on the stage of old Rogers' Hall that night. It was not so much a tribute to the individual effort of the participants as it was the manifestation of enthusiastic pride in the achievement of Modesto's school system and in its first product – the Class of 1886.
With the curtain fall on the first commencement exercise in Modesto, the pioneer class passed into history of the village. Its career has justified the prophecy of the class chronicler. Most of the young women became school teachers and many of them married. The boys passed into the active life of the community. Tillie Lewis, Aggie Lewis, Stella Finley, Belle McMullin and Laura Garlinghouse soon joined the teaching force of the county. Belle McMullin became Mrs. George F. Wood and resides with her husband in Ceres. Laura Garlinghouse married George Springsteen, Leah Elias became the wife of Louis Harris, and Ella Wood changed her name to Mrs. Ella Hancock. The latter all reside in Modesto. The children of Mrs. Wood, Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Springsteen have attended the public schools of Modesto and have graduated from universities. The son of Mrs. Harris served with the American army in France. Stella Finley became the wife of W. H. Frazine. Her recent death was the first to occur among the members of the pioneer class.
After his graduation, John B. Zimdars entered the office of W. E. Turner, Esq., studied law under the able instruction of this brilliant lawyer of Modesto's first years, and was admitted to practice. For a time he filled the position of deputy county clerk. He is married and is now practicing law in San Francisco.
Sol. P. Elias entered mercantile pursuits, afterwards becoming a student at Stanford University, and graduating from the law department of that institution. He practiced the profession for several years in San Francisco. Upon the death of his father, a member of the firm of D. & G. D. Plato, in 1905, he returned to Modesto to assume direction of this pioneer firm, and has been its manager for many years. He was a member of the Board of Freeholders that framed Modesto's Commission Charter and was largely responsible for the creation of that document. His articles on the early history of Stanislaus county have been features in the local press. He was appointed and subsequently elected Mayor of Modesto in 1922.
James G. Thompson became a student at the University of California, graduating from its medical department and entering the practice in his home town of Oakdale. He subsequently removed to Oakland, where he now is esteemed as one of its leading physicians.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Elias, Sol P., Stories of Stanislaus – A Collection of Stories on the History & Achievements of Stanislaus County. Modesto, CA. 1924.
© 2012 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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