The Pride of the Dons
Maurilio E. Vigil
“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” This quote from Aristotle is certainly appropriate in describing the history of West Las Vegas High School (WLVHS). Some of the most unique things about our city are its schools and one of our most unique schools is West. The thing that comes to mind when one thinks of WLVHS is PRIDE. According to Webster’s dictionary pride is defined as having dignity and self-respect. Pride is largely a product of ones environment and experience. It begins with the individual and extends to his/her family, school, community, state and nation.
The unique history of WLVHS, more specifically the circumstances of its creation and development, and the people (private citizens, school administrators, teachers, support staff and students) associated with it, combined to build a unique school. From its inception, administrators, teachers and students at West, embraced their Hispanic culture and used it as a foundation for building cultural, community, school and individual pride.
The background history of West was shaped by the fact that the Town of Las Vegas (West Las Vegas) and the City of Las Vegas (East Las Vegas) were two distinct municipalities divided by the Gallinas River. By any economic standard, the population of the Town was regarded as poor. However, thanks largely to our own parents and the outlook encouraged by school officials, we did not regard ourselves as such.
For many years, students in the town attended parochial schools or a public school system that served students up to the eighth grade. After graduation from the eighth grade in the Town schools, students were obliged to cross the
Gallinas River to the east side to attend Las Vegas High School or the private Immaculate Conception (IC) high school. For a time, some students were also able to attend Highlands High School, a teacher training institution sponsored by Highlands University, but in 1946 it was closed down. It was the closure of Highlands High School and the realization that many Town school eighth grade graduates were dropping out, rather than transferring to high schools on the east side, that prompted Superintendent Phillip Ludi to propose that the town schools explore the possibility of establishing their own high school. Superintendent Phillip Ludi pursued the proposal, compiling data that suggested the student dropout rate was as high as 60 percent and presented it to state education officials. The state officials agreed to the proposal provided the school could secure the necessary funding to operate the school. The state education budget auditor met with the delegation and approved a startup budget of $28,000, 75 percent of which was for instruction and the remainder for overhead, equipment and supplies.
The initial subsidy enabled the Town schools board to purchase a massive building of adobe construction and nearly 40 acres of property on South Gonzales Street that had been the former campus of the Sacred Heart Training College (The predecessor of Regis College) owned and operated by the Christian Brothers. Thus, a historic building which has long served the higher educational needs of New Mexicans, became the sight of the new high school. The approval by the state initially limited the school to two grades, the 9th and 10th and only to male students.
With concurrence from the Board, Ludi set about the task of hiring a teaching staff. In a unique experiment, Ludi was able to secure permission for Christian brothers to teach in a non-parochial setting at the school. Brother Lewis, the first principal, also taught courses in English, Spanish and business math. Brothers Ambrose, Joseph and Bernard were hired to teach classes including English, geometry, biology, history, algebra, literature and citizenship. Brothers Bernard was also Athletic Director. Gilbert “Gillie” Lopez, who began a 34 year association with the school, became the school’s first multi-sport coach and P.E. instructor. The choice was a good one, because Coach Lopez not only infused the teams with his own fiercely competitive spirit, but he also proved to be quite resourceful in securing the needed equipment and uniforms to outfit the teams. John J. Romero was hired as the school’s first music instructor and band director.
On September 2, 1947, the “Town High School” (THS) as it was called, opened its doors, welcoming some 67 male students to the 9th and 10th grades. As predicted by Ludi, 16 of the 17 boys who had graduated from the 8th grade in the Town schools the previous spring enrolled in the 9th grade at THS. The other one moved to California. A pleasant surprise to administrators was that THS even attracted some Hispanos from East Las Vegas and from outside of Las Vegas such as the Villanueva Valley.
By all accounts, the first school year went well, as the new school began to develop its own unique identity. From the start, the school’s administrators, teachers and students cultivated the Hispanic culture as the central characteristic theme of the school. The school team’s nickname became the “Dons,” a Spanish title (de origin noble), used before a man’s Christian name as a form of respect, reverence, and authority. Coach Gillie Lopez had liked the name used by the San Diego Dons, a team that participated in the National AAU tournaments. The team was coached by former Highlands basketball star, Dan Miranda. So when Lopez first organized the town school’s team he chose the name “DONS” both because it was a Spanish term and its short for letter spelling helped keep uniform costs down. Team outfitters charged teams for each letter placed on the uniforms. The brothers, the staff and community quickly endorsed the name. The school’s colors “green and gold” were more the result of chance than design, as the ever-resourceful Coach Lopez was able to “purchase” the old green and gold uniforms previously worn by the now defunct Highland High School. Lopez got the uniforms from highlands Coach Stu Clark for the token sum of $l.00, then had the letters DONS sewed on. No matter, many of the boys probably anticipated wearing green and gold anyway.
The end of the first year (1947-48) was met with some dismay, however, as those young men who completed the 10th grade were now forced to transfer to an east side school to finish their high school education. The good news, however, was that the school would now be co-ed. And so, In the Fall term of 1948, THS welcomed its first young women to its campus. Among them were several coeds who transferred back after having begun their high school education on the east side. And so, for the second year (1948-49) the school took on the frantic and bustling character of a typical high school. Coach Lopez, assisted by Jimmy Wilkins, Timmie Solano, and Manager, Frank Juarez, began the process of building a sports program with only Freshmen and Sophomores. Lopez acquired the football equipment from Father Vito CdeBaca of Our Lady of Sorrows School, which had recently dropped its football program. The 1948 Football team won only two games, both against the St. Michael’s B team, but played against some tough competition that included four year high schools such as holy trinity of Colorado, the Santa Fe Indians, Santa Rosa and I.C. Colts. Ernie Gonzales scored a ninety-yard touchdown against the St. Mikes team. In basketball, Gillie Lopez’ Dons posted a 9 win 9 loss record despite playing four year squads such as St. Michaels, Santa Fe Demon, Santa Fe Indians and McCurdy Bobcats. The Dons even fielded their first ever track team.
The co-ed nature of the school now made it possible to expand extra-curricular activities. THS’ first cheerleaders were Celine Maese (Captain), Cirilia Herrera, Rebecca Mares, Virginia Gonzales and Rose Roybal who developed some 75 yells and led an enthusiastic pep squad in supporting the Dons. A co-ed glee club, led by Mrs. Eloisa Meyer, was organized. Mr. John Romero organized the First ATown High Band, at which included 30 members and drew some students from the 7th & 8th grade. Virginia Tafoya became the first drum majorette. The band sported green uniforms with a gold trim, a distinctive cape, hats with plumes to match, along with white trousers.
A highlight of the second year was the selection of a new name for the school newspaper. Previously known as the Town High News, Principal Brother Lewis organized a contest to select a new name for the paper. A silver dollar prize was offered to the winner whose suggestion was picked. After considering such names as “Green and Gold Echoes,” and “Dons and Doñas News,” a faculty committee chose the name submitted by Roman Duran “The Caballero.” In the Spring editorial the staff of “The Caballero,” wrote about the new name: The Caballero is the most appropriate name for this school’s official paper. Webster defines “Caballero” as a knight, a cavalier, and a gentleman. The word is a salutation to a Don, a nobleman of distinction, and an estated squire.
With the “Dons” or “Sirs” representing the Town High School in the field of sports, it is befitting that THE CABALLERO be the voice of the school. While the term is as much English as patio and hacienda, it is Spanish in origin, and characteristic of the Spanish ancestry of the Town High pupils.
To greet a person with the word “Caballero” is to herald him with important news, and at the same time, honor his rank and prestige. The title show, at once, a high regard for his talent, a trust in his kindness and a genuine respect for his good character. A Caballero is the model, the ideal which the students of Town High School try to reproduce. They emulate his higher education, his gallantry, his personal integrity and his constant aspiration to the higher standards of living. The third school year saw further development of the school’s academic and extracurricular activities and some transition in staff. More Brothers joined the teaching staff and the band had progressed well enough that the brothers along with the band director John Romero, decided that adoption of the a school fight school was in order. Mr. Romero chose a musical score that was very basic and that the young band members could play well. He then organized a contest among the band students to write the lyrics for the song. The only guidelines were that the lyrics should mention the “Dons” name and school colors, that the lyrics fit with the music and that they represent the pride of the students in their new school. As an incentive, al five-dollar prize was offered to the winner. Several contestants’ submitted lyrics and those of a young 7th grader, Vidal Gallegos, were selected. In later years Vidal lamented that, though he never received the five-dollar prize, he was gratified that the song had become so popular and endured for over 50 years. Indeed, those words have been forever etched in the minds of the thousands of students who attended West.
The end of the school year was again greeted with optimism as school officials were informed that the State Board had approved the fourth (senior) year of high school, which meant that those who started as freshmen in 1947 and had continued in school would comprise the first graduating class. Rosaline Lopez, Mary Ludi, Lucy Sedillo, and Sophie Salazar had, by this time, joined the teaching staff.
In all respects, the fourth school year reflected the great progress that had been made by students and staff and the maturation of the student body. The staff of “El Caballero” (the English pronoun had been replaced by the Spanish “El.”) had now grown to nineteen members. The Town High Band had grown to 44 members. The Dons athletic program, finally able to compete with all four high school grades, exhibited their ability and maturity as they competed for three state championships. The football team, led by Coach Gillie Lopez and assistants Timmie Solano and Bill Donaher went undefeated in ten games of the regular season. They were invited to play Los Alamos High, which had also completed an undefeated season, in a special Thanksgiving Day game. The Dons lost to the Hilltoppers. However, the Dons still competed for the “C” class conference championship but lost under the point system, then used to decide the champion. The basketball team also completed a successful season by winning the Las Vegas City Championship, capturing the district and regional titles and competing in the 8 team state tournament where they lost to Cobre. In baseball, the Dons completed the regular season undefeated then won the district and regional titles before losing to Mountainair in the state tournament. The track team also won second place in the district track meet with several Dons winning the district in individual events. Most remarkable, about the Dons, was their athletic versatility as virtually all the athletes were multi-sport participants.
The first Town High School graduating class received their diplomas on May 16, 1951, at Highlands University’s Ilfeld Auditorium, but four out of the twenty graduates were absent. Three young men had entered the military service. The joy of graduation and end of school was marred somewhat by the news that the five Christian brothers who remained at the school would not return to teach for the next school year. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in the Dixon case, forbade ecclesiastics from teaching in public schools while wearing their clerical attire. The Christian Brothers chose not to conform to the new requirement.
The issue would prove to be moot, several weeks later, when the State School Superintendent Tom Wiley announced that Town High School would be closed indefinitely. The surprising news shocked the community and was heartbreaking to the students and staff at the school. Not only was the school being closed just as it was beginning to blossom, but also students would have to humbly cross town again and join their recent rivals at I.C. or Las Vegas High.
The reason given for the closure of the school was simple enough, it was an economizing move to stretch education dollars at a time of austerity. New State School Superintendent Tom Wiley was committed to a statewide school consolidation movement that would ultimately reduce the number of school districts from nearly five hundred to less than a hundred. The call was for fewer, larger and more centrally controlled districts, Town High, being virtually an infant high school, was one of the first to go. Las Vegas, the state reasoned, needed only one public high school. Town school officials, superintendent Phillip Ludi and School Board Chairman Leo CdeBaca, who had overseen its expansion over the past few years, now led a group of citizens to Santa Fe, to protest the state action in a meeting with Governor Edwin Mechem. However, the protest was futile as the closure order was carried out.
And so, for the next three years, the once noisy halls of THS were silent as the students crossed town and contributed to the sudden newfound glory of I.C. High School where most of the students went. Quietly, however, Superintendent Ludi, Board Chairman CdeBaca and other town leaders continued to lobby the state board, with the help of Margaret Kennedy, Dean of Women at Highlands University and a member of the State Board of Education was a fervent supported of THS, in both its expansion and subsequent reopening. During the political campaign of 1954, local Democratic leaders secured a promise from Georgia Lusk, candidate for State School superintendent that, if elected, she would work to reopen the school. Lusk was indeed elected and she carried forth on her promise. Based on her recommendation, the State Board reopened the school effective with the 1955-1956 school year. In the Spring of 1954 West Las Vegas voters had approved a bond issue to build a new junior high school and with reinstatement of the high school, plans were now modified to use the new facility for the high school.
In the fall of 1955, “West Las Vegas High School” (WLVHS), as the school was now called, reopened its doors to a new group of students, eager to resume the building of WLVHS’ tradition. Some, but not all, of the freshmen who had transferred across town, returned as seniors and others in the lower grads also returned. These, and the 1955 eighth grade graduates from the Town schools, would be the nucleus of students who would restore the school’s record and lead it to even greater heights in the next half-century.
In many respects, it appeared that the growth of the school had not been interrupted, for many of the school’s teaching staff returned. The students reclaimed the school’s logo, colors fielded teams and band, and resumed publishing El Caballero, as if they had never stopped. In 1958, the first phase of construction of the planned new high school was completed with the opening of eight new classrooms and students began attending classes there. The “old building,” as the Sacred Heart College Facility came to be called, still housed many high school classes as well as the Jr. high School. In 1960, West Las Vegas opened the doors to its first gymnasium and was greatly welcomed by basketball players who had previously had to accommodate themselves to practice in the early mornings, noontime, evenings or whenever the Highlands University gym was available.
Meanwhile, planning for expansion of facilities continued. Litra Romero replaced his brother John as band director and he began the process of investing the WLV Band with its unique and distinctive sound and style. Romero readily embraced West’s Representation of Hispanic culture and sought to make the band a personification of that image. He introduced the Spanish pasodoble marcha style of music, which featured a fast 4/4 beat and lively bodily movements. He expanded the band’s repertoire of music to include Spanish and Mexican music. In addition to the standard fare of classics, the West band became adept at playing such Spanish marchas as Amparito Roca, La Virgen de la Macarena, Cumbanchera, and Adelita. In time, the band became known for what was referred to as “the West Sound.” In frequent trips to Mexico, “Litra” (as the popular teacher was called), would purchase Spanish and Mexican sheet music for his band to play. He would then have to modify the musical arrangements by adding saxophone and clarinet, which weren’t used in Spanish music. Like other instructors at West, Litra was always resourceful in acquiring instruments for his band members, often securing used and donated instruments. Of necessity, he became adept at repairing musical instruments, often using parts from several to construct one usable one.
Never quite satisfied with the traditional uniforms available from outfitters, he designed, in the mid 1970’s his own “Gaucho style” uniform for his band. Featuring the Bolero fashion short jacket and the then popular, bell-bottom pants, the green uniform was accentuated with gold braided trimming. The round, flat-brimmed gaucho hat was accented by short round tassels. The distinctive uniform, combined with the sound and musical repertoire, made the West Las Vegas band the most unique in the state and one that was easily recognized, and sought after for parades, concerts and other events. After Litra retired, the West band tradition was continued by some of his former students who returned to West as music instructors and band directors. Among them were Lee Norman Gonzales, Roy Gonzales, Kenneth Mares, and his very own son Donald Romero. In 1997 West Las Vegas High School celebrated its 50th anniversary and at least some of the founders (including Superintendent Phillip Ludi) and graduates from the first class of 1947 enrollees, returned to celebrate. The nearly 100 graduates of Class of 1997 demonstrated the continued vitality of West Las Vegas High. Since the reopening of the high school in 1955, hundreds of students have attended and graduated from West and shared in its unique Hispanic heritage.
Perhaps the most notable have been West Las Vegas’ athletic achievements. From the beginning with Coach Gillie Lopez’ football, basketball and baseball teams, the Dons have been known for their competitiveness. What they have often lacked in size and depth has been compensated by their aggressive and spirited style of play.
Over the years, the high school has moved to different facilities, but the campus remains on the same grounds of the Sacred Heart College where it started in 1947. In 1964 the high school was relocated to another building south of Moreno Street and a new gymnasium in honor of Gilbert “Gillie” Lopez was opened in 1975. Perhaps the best evidence of its future growth was assured in 1999 when the WLV Schools board broke ground for a completely new high school building. Built in three phases, students began attending classes in phase I after it was completed in the Spring of 200. However, the most compelling force that continues to drive the school is the spirit and legacy built by the community, administrators, teachers, support staff and the students who continue to reflect our Hispanic heritage and what has been called “The Pride of the Dons.”