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Merced's third high school to be named 'El Capitan'

Half a century ago, a group of local students staged a sit-in.

They were protesting the loss of their campus name and were assured the next high school built here would bring the name back. They were kept waiting for five decades.

Now these 60-something students are going to get the El Capitan High School name back.

Merced Union High School District trustees Wednesday night unanimously named their new campus to be built at Bellevue Road and Farmland Avenue. The El Capitan name was one of four finalists for the school name -- and the top choice among 29 possibilities. A petition with 229 signatures supported the El Capitan name.

The other name finalists included Exchequer, Gateway and Sierra Vista.

Trustee Mike Carpenter said naming the $85 million North Merced campus El Capitan would be a historical nod to the old name, established back in 1959 when the original campus, now known as Merced High School, opened on West Olive Avenue. The school name was lost at the end of the 1962-63 school year.

"Personally I liked it (the name) a lot," Carpenter said. "My sense is this is recognition of the living history or legacy El Capitan has in the community. It's a strong, symbolic name."

Students staged sit-in

Joe Foster of Merced was president of the El Capitan sophomore class in 1960-61 and 1962-63 senior class president. He was a freshman when El Capitan High opened.

"I remember at the time the two schools (El Capitan and Merced) were combined that students had a little protest and staged a sit-in," Foster said. "We lost our name, mascot (Gauchos) and colors. We had a great run there, both academically and sports-wise. We were assured the next high school to be built would be named El Capitan and 50 years later we will see it return."

Trustee Sam Spangler said the community will really like the El Capitan name. "It's great and has a lot of history behind it," Spangler said. "Several hundred people recommended that name. I am happy with El Capitan."

Local historian Sara Lim, director of the Merced County Courthouse Museum, said officials broke ground on the current Merced High campus Sept. 18, 1958. A cornerstone was placed at El Capitan High on Sept. 3, 1959; the school opened a week later.

El Capitan was the ninth high school built in Merced County and was a virtual twin to Atwater High School, which opened about the same time.

Ultimately, El Capitan combined with Merced High School to become what was known as North Campus. The original Merced High School on G Street became East Campus and only housed ninth- and 10th-graders, Lim said.

Lim doubts whether many of today's Merced High students are aware of the historic significance of the cornerstone on their campus.

At Wednesday's board meeting at Livingston High School, El Capitan alumni presented their case for the name. Representing the alumni was local historian Mike Bik; John Garcia, 1961 senior class president; Don Green, 1962 senior class president, and Foster.

El Capitan Coach Sam Diele and Ruth John, Principal Fred Pfitzer's secretary, also attended the board meeting.

'An appropriate name'

Diele, 87, started at Merced High School in 1955 and came to El Capitan in 1960; he was assistant football coach and later head basketball coach, retiring in 1985. "It's a good idea and an appropriate name," Diele said. "The kids were just tremendous during that period and had lots of spirit."

Jerry Callister was El Capitan's first student body president and said the new school's naming is timely. He said the alumni are working on a 50th reunion sometime this year. "I think it's a great name," Callister said. "I was gone by then but I heard that everybody walked out of school because they were so upset when the school was renamed."

Carpenter said El Capitan is an identifiable symbol or landmark. He said proponents of all four names gave well-researched presentations.

Gateway name proponent Carole Steinhauer of Merced said her emphasis was on Gateway as a portal to life after high school and the expansion of personal horizons. Sierra Vista name proponent Rosalie Adams said the Sierra can be seen from here and so thought that was a good name for the new school.

Merced Irrigation District representative Mike Jensen said the Exchequer name suggestion focuses on the community's way of life, which is connected to agriculture and water. He thought it was invigorating that the community became so involved in the naming process.

Trustee Ida Johnson said she had been leaning toward the Gateway and Sierra Vista names until she became aware of the history behind El Capitan. "It will be a great name for a school," Johnson said. "I'm pleased we will put it back again."

Bik, the historian, said when El Capitan opened its doors, there were 660 students -- but no seniors. The school colors were powder blue and black and the Gaucho was the mascot.

The yearbook, titled El Dorado, was issued in 1960-62, and the first graduating class in 1961 had 160 graduates. The last El Capitan graduating class was the Class of 1962 with 193 graduates.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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