“Look, that’s a picture of me,” said one, pointing to the wall.

“He’s our sheriff now,” said another, gesturing to a spot further on.

A third drew attention to another area. “There’s our three Olympians,” he said.

Longtime Stafford County residents and Stafford High School graduates Togie Payne, Billy Shelton, and Chip Long pored over the two-story graphic timeline installed over the winter holiday in a stairwell at Stafford High School.

“What an incredible gift to the community this is,” said Jane Conner, Stafford historian and author of three books about the county, who was also there. “What I love are the yearbooks across the top—they really demonstrate what was important at the time.”

Spanning 90 years of SHS history from when the school first opened in 1926 to the 2016 graduation of the first class in the newest school building, the timeline is the result of four years of work that started before the old building was torn down.

“A lot of people were upset we were tearing it down,” said Jennifer Spindle, who works in the Stafford County Public Schools’ facility planning, design and construction department and served as history wall project manager. “We needed to do something to preserve it, to capture the history of the school.”

A committee was formed, made up of former SHS students along with current administrators and teachers, and included Payne, Shelton and Conner.

Eventually the group settled on making a history wall going back to the earliest days of SHS, and integrating additional state, national and international history to lend context.

As the group tried to imagine how the wall would look, Conner suggested visiting Stafford’s Rowser Building, now a senior center but originally a training school for the county’s black students before schools were desegregated in 1961.

A history wall there titled “The Path to Freedom” documents the contributions of black students and educators to Stafford’s 350-year history.

“That wall is wonderful,” said Conner. “I thought it would be great for the SHS wall to look a little like that.”

The group agreed, and approached Linda Silk-Sviland and her company, Wink Ventures, which designed the Rowser wall, to design the SHS one.

“Linda has done an incredible job,” said Spindle. “She had a vision of the winds of history blowing through time, and it actually does look like that on the wall.”

The artwork was printed onto 26 panels of PVC material by Fredericksburg printing company Creative Color, and glued to the wall using a special application tape.

“It took seven of us about five days to put it up,” said Creative Color owner John Van Hoy. “That was after about 90 days of work in the shop, printing and making sure it all lined up and everything.”

Installed along two flights of stairs one on top of the other in the new school, the history wall on each flight is 52 feet long and about 15 feet tall, totaling about 2,500 square feet. The panels are designed to be washable and can be repaired or replaced if damaged.

“It’s amazing, the detail, everything,” said Van Hoy. A 1976 SHS graduate, he was especially interested in the timeframe when he was at the school.

“It was neat to see the yearbooks up there that I had, events I attended,” he said. “While I was there we moved to the new school, it was fun looking back and remembering all that.”

The first SHS, which opened in 1926, was in what is now called the Alvin York Bandy Complex and is now the administrative offices of Stafford County Public Schools, not far from Stafford Courthouse.

In 1952, SHS merged with Falmouth High School, which was just off U.S. 17 in what is now the Gari Melchers complex, which is home to the county’s Head Start and alternative education programs. Falmouth High School opened in 1931.

The new combined Stafford and Falmouth schools opened as SHS in the building on U.S. 1 that is now Drew Middle School.

In 1975, 23 years later, SHS moved to a new school building constructed at 33 Stafford Indians Lane. After 40 years, that building was torn down and replaced by the current SHS school building, which opened in September 2015.

As the committee members viewed the wall, one of their first questions was, “How did the kids react?”

“It got a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs,’ ” said Van Hoy, when his company was completing some finishing touches on the panels soon after school started up again in January.

Ciara Beverly, a sophomore at the school, said she loves looking at the wall. “It’s really cool. I’ve even seen people I know on it,” she said.

Beverly’s father, Dan, is the SHS world languages department chair. He is an SHS graduate and was a baseball star. His father, Ron Beverly, taught masonry at SHS.

Junior Haley Stocks said she especially likes looking at the newspaper clippings. “You can really see how the school progressed over time,” Stocks said.

Journalism teacher Sue Gill’s classroom overlooks the wall. “I’ve watched the kids and teachers walk up the stairs and pause to look at something,” Gill said. “Then they’ll keep walking and notice something else and stop again.”

“We’ve already had teachers bring their classes out here to really absorb this history,” said Andrew Bathke, assistant principal. “It was entirely part of our intention for teachers to be able to devote class time to this and utilize this great resource now available to them.”

Emily Jennings: 540/735-1975 ejennings@freelancestar.com

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