Above: Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. AKA Cassandra Peterson.
A WHILE BACK I met a guy who mentioned a high school in Colorado Springs that he’d attended 30-some years ago — General William J. Palmer High. “Elvira’s school,” he said.
“Elvira. Mistress of the Dark. She went there, too.”
If you don’t know, Elvira was a busty vampire-like character who appeared on commercials and movies in the 1980s. Her real name — I had to look this up — was Cassandra Peterson, Colorado’s Palmer High, Class of 1969.
Some of us, and I’m one, take too much pride in our high school’s famous alumni. My same-school hero is high jumper Dick Fosbury, Medford (Oregon) High, Class of 1965. I attended that same school, which moved to a new location in 1967, 14 years after Fosbury. I could barely jump over a candy wrapper, but that didn’t matter. I reveled in my tenuous link to the originator of the “Fosbury Flop.”
My Colorado Springs friend, meanwhile, seemed just as happy to have shared a school with Elvira, who was never more than a C-list celebrity. High school connections are funny that way. While we admire our high school’s legitimate heroes, we’re equally pleased to have occupied the same campus as a quirky celebrity like Elvira or
Sir Mix-a-Lot (“I like big butts …”): Roosevelt High, Seattle.
Joey Chestnut (competitive eater): Vallejo High, California.
Weird Al Yankovic (pop music satirist), Lynwood High, California.
Payton Towns (most Q-tips eaten in one minute): Horizon High, Colorado.
My school had no such personalities, as far as I know. I just checked the Wikipedia entry and found nothing under “Notable alumni” but Fosbury, Bill Bowerman (co-founder of Nike) and some not-too-famous folks. I added Kevin Towers, a baseball executive who graduated in 1979, because he’s had a 19-year run as general manager of the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks, and because I want the class of ’79 — my class — to get some love.
I resisted adding another name to the alumni list because Frank Baize, murderer, failed to achieve big-time notoriety. Wikipedia’s High school alumni lists are full of killers like Ted Bundy (Woodrow Wilson High, Tacoma, Washington), which seems a little disturbing. I suspect that graduates of a high school are the ones posting most of the “Notable alumni” entries. Why brag about the kid who grew up to be a serial killer?
Because a high school’s miscreants make for great, if grim, conversation fodder. If you attended California’s Monrovia High, you could boast about Thomas J. Sargent, 2011 winnner of a Nobel Prize in economics, and watch everyone’s eyes glaze over. Or you could say, “Leslie Van Houten, class of ’67.”
“Homecoming princess. Manson family. Murderer. Went to my high school.”
Is the speaker proud of Leslie Van Houten? Nah. He or she just wants to get your attention. Face it, people who do or did really bad things are interesting. We don’t condone what they did, we feel awful for the victims and their families, but they intrigue us more than we’d like to admit.
On a 2013 episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” Howard Wolowitz was booked to lecture at his old high school. As a one-time astronaut, he saw himself as the school’s most famous student. “Except,” he said, “for the serial killer that ate all those prostitutes.”
Trolling through hundreds of “Notable alumni” entries on Wikipedia high school sites, I found many entries that played up the school’s bad grads (or dropouts). Here are a few:
Galileo High (San Francisco): O.J. Simpson, football player, acquitted of double murders, serving prison time for another crime.
Meridian High School (Idaho): Max Butler, online hacker arrested for the theft of over 2 million credit card numbers.
Westchester High (California): Patricia Krenwinkel, another Manson-family murderer.
Tyee Educational Complex (Seatac, Washington): Gary Ridgeway, known to have killed at least 49 prostitutes and runaways.
Chemawa Indian School (Salem, Oregon): Spade Cooley, Western Swing musician, convicted of beating and killing his second wife in 1961 while his 14-year-old daughter watched.
John Muir (Pasadena, California): Jackie Robinson’s high school alma mater is also the school that graduated Sirhan Sirhan (class of ’63), assassin of Robert Kennedy.
Westminster High (California): Randy Steven Kraft, the “Freeway Killer,” murdered at least 16 boys from 1972 to 1983.
Marshall (Los Angeles): Caryl Chessman, convicted on 17 counts of robbery, kidnapping, and rape, was executed in 1960.
If you have any high school alumni stories, good, bad, or quirky, let me know. I love pleasant stories, even if they’re of the “I-went-to-school-with-Brad-Pitt-and-he-was-SO-nice” variety, but I appreciate weird and not-so-pleasant tales as well.