Judges, teachers, decorated veterans, actors and singers, an Olympian and a Heisman Trophy winner are among its alumni. After opening in 1923, the last graduates were in 1984. Omaha Technical High School, also called Tech High, was located at North 30th and Cuming Streets. This is a short history of the school.
Before Tech High
Before 1920, there was one high school in Omaha. Almost all the other schools across the city offered eighth grade education, and that’s what most students ended school with.
In 1914, the Omaha school district established a unique facility among the 50 schools that were open then. The Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys was located at North 30th and Brown Streets in the Miller Park neighborhood. As a school for boys who “had no interest in school at all,” the challenge was to teach them lifelong learning skills in engaging ways.
Installing a printing press, machining tools and drafting equipment, the students received a career and technical education that schools are striving to provide for learners today. However, after packing the building full, in a decade the Fort Street School was closed and the students were sent to a new school. The year was 1923.
Stenography and typewriting. Imagine going to a school where those are seen as primary subjects, and the rest of the classes are built around them. That was the vision of the Omaha school district when they opened the original Commercial High School. Opened before 1900, the school offered classes in carpentry, printing, auto mechanics, mechanical drawing, the gas engine, electricity and more. Commercial High was on the cutting edge when it opened because they had the district’s first committed Domestic Science teacher. Originally operating in several buildings downtown, a school was eventually built at South 17th and Leavenworth Streets. However, in 1923 it closed and students were sent to a new school.
After it was closed, in 1923 the building that housed Commercial High was re-opened as Washington School. It was demolished in 1926.
Welcome to the New School
The Omaha Board of Education was excited to solicit bids to build a grand new Commercial High School between Cuming and Burt, from North 30th to North 33rd Street. The architect, Jack Wyman, created the designs over three years starting in 1917. However, the initial designs for the Technical and Commercial High School weren’t accepted by the Board. Instead, it was redesigned and renamed to reflect its more specific mission as Technical High School.
The school was built on a creek that ran from today’s Gifford Park to Cuming Street, then south along Cuming to the river. Located at an east-turning junction, the school site was originally a dump for neighbors’ trash. The school’s construction came after the dump’s abatement by the city. Omaha Technical High School opened on 3219 Cuming Street on October 15, 1923, with nearly 2,400 pupils. It was a five-winged building with a huge football field large athletic field that covered on three city blocks.
The Most Modern School
When it opened in 1923, Tech High was named the largest and most advanced high school west of Chicago.
The school board intended to combine the knowledge taught at Commercial High School with the skills taught at the Fort Street School, and then pack the building with excited learners who were driven to become successful students. To do that, they packed the building with the latest learning tools, including an entire floor of dedicated home economics classrooms, extensive wood and metal shops, and highly advanced science classrooms that were unparalleled in the district and across the entire Midwest. There was also a well-equipped greenhouse and two large gymnasiums. There was also a deck with a canopy on the roof of the building that housed an outdoor exercise area.
Tech High also had the only swimming pool in any Omaha public school for decades.
When it was built, there were 124 rooms in the school. By 1940 enrollment had reached 3,684 students, with more than 200 teachers. Developed with high academic standards the school was a forerunner to today’s vocational education in high schools by offering students that largely choose not to continue on to college the opportunity to learn a trade or profession.
There was a high school radio station at Tech in the 1920s, whose call letters were KFOX. When it went on air in 1926, KFOX had one of the most state-of-the-art radio studios in Omaha.
Originally called the Quadrant, the Tech High yearbook was later called Liongate and the Reflector.
There were hidden tunnels and staircases throughout the building, a grand marble lobby and even an underground stream.
Throughout the years, many popular performers appeared in the school’s renowned auditorium. In 1928, John Philip Sousa’s marching band performed, and in 1926, The Metropolitan Opera Company of New York played there. A famous period actress Cornelia Ottis Skinner made her first high school appearance there in 1930, with other actors including Helen Hayes and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. performing there, too.
Tech Junior High
During the 1950s, the Omaha school district moved all seventh and eighth grade classes out of elementary schools to create the city’s junior high system. Starting in 1953, Technical Junior High School was located in a portion of Tech High School.
From the start, Tech Junior High was treated as a predominantly Black school. They worked especially hard to ensure that Tech Junior High be for Black students, sending nearby white students to other schools even when it cost a lot of money. In a 1968 Ebony magazine article, Ernie Chambers, then a community activist and not yet a senator, reported that the school was habitually underfunded because it was segregated. He noted statistics from the district around racial breakdown, and directly stated that racism caused massive disparities between Tech Junior High and Horace Mann Junior High (another Black school), and other junior highs in Omaha, all of which were kept predominately for white students.
With 551 black students and 48 white students, the last class at Tech Junior High was 91% African American. It closed after the 1971-72 school year.
In 1973, the United States Department of Education took Omaha Public Schools to court over its segregationist practices, and the former Tech Junior High was cited extensively as an example.
Leaving Many Marks on History
Throughout its history, the school graduated more than approximately 25,000 students. Its most important graduates included military officers including Captain Alfonza W. Davis, a Tuskegee Airman; and Brigadier General Kenneth Walker, US Army Air Corps, posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor in World War II, and pioneer in military aviation. Several politicians graduated from Tech, including Roman Hruska, former US Senator; Johnny Rosenblatt, former Omaha mayor; James Dworak, former Omaha mayor; and Sen. Ernie Chambers, the longest-serving ever member of the Nebraska State Legislature.
The school also graduated many of the 20th century’s most important Nebraska athletes, including Bob Gibson, Baseball Hall of Famer for the St. Louis Cardinals; Louis Hartz, former American political scientist; Jim Houston, national rodeo champion; Johnny Rodgers, former college football superstar and Heisman Trophy winner; Bob Boozer, a college and professional basketball player and Olympic Gold Medalist in 1960; Jack Urban, former professional baseball player (Kansas City Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals); Les Webster, college and professional football player for the Cincinnati Bengals; Lucille Wilson, 3x United States women’s track team in the Olympics; Phil Wise, college and professional football player; and Ron Boone, a professional basketball player.
Actor John Beasley also graduated from Tech.
Carl Palmquist was a longtime principal at Tech who had many admirers and detractors. He worked at Tech during the 1950s and 60s. His efforts in leading the school through racial tension and advocating for students who’d been kicked out of other schools are still admired. However, he was criticized during his tenure for racist practices and discriminating against some student populations.
In 2016, longtime coach John B. Morse was inducted into the Omaha Public School Athletic Hall of Fame. According to Morse, the Trojan baseball team’s only only state championship happened in 1966.
The last Metro Champion football game was played between Tech High and Creighton Prep in 1971. That year, coach Richard “Dick” Christie coached the team. Throughout the entire season, the team never kicked an extra point or a field goal until the last 9 seconds of the game to beat Creighton Prep 9 to 6.
- L. R. Rusmisel
- Dr. Dwight E. Porter
- Dr. Carl Hansen (1945 to 1947)
- Carl Linn (1947)
- Lloyd W. Ashby (1947 to 1950)
- Carl Palmquist (1950 to 1971)
- Dr. Odra Bradley (1971-1984)
White supremacy enacted through racism ensured Omaha Technical High School would be closed; for Omaha Public Schools it was simply a waiting game to decide when.
Housing equality became a primary issue in the late 1950s for the civil rights movement and redlining and forms other discrimination had to end. White people in North Omaha generally didn’t want to live near African Americans. So, from Cuming northward to Ames and from 40th east, North Omaha emptied out of white families rapidly in part of a nationwide trend called “white flight.” Race restrictive covenants that were signed by a lot of middle class homeowners became illegal to enforce, and white people didn’t want to live by African Americans.
Becoming a de facto segregated “black school,” Tech also became Omaha Public Schools’ center for mentally handicapped students. The pressures drove school performance down, further pushing away students.
By the mid-1960s, Tech’s student population was down to 800 students. As part of its desegregation plan, the district implemented a magnet school program in the 1970s that brought students back. In 1972, the Omaha school board approved an extensive renovation of the school. It featured new science labs, a radio/television center, painting and more in the classrooms and halls, along with new light fixtures and new classroom furniture. In 1972-73, the student population was 94.5% African American. By 1974 the population was back up to 1,500 students.
However, even with all the money and promotion, it wasn’t enough to sustain a mixed race student population and white students left Tech en masse again. By 1983, the student population hovered around 700, with African American students making up at least 60% of the student body. The district didn’t want to maintain a successful school for Black students, and Tech High was closed. After graduating thousands of students over 60 years, the school was permanently closed in 1984.
Soon after it closed, the building was repurposed with architects refurbishing and restoring much of Tech High in the early 1990s. The original lobby features polished marble and ornate moldings. During renovations, Omaha Public Schools converted the football field into a parking lot and moved the main entrance to the building to the east side, with a three story atrium greeting guests. Architects used the high ceilings in the two original gymnasiums to create two floors of office space, while leaving the original auditorium and other features largely intact.
Working over a decade, alumni continue restoring the building’s 2,200-seat auditorium. A group called the Tech High Auditorium Restoration Committee is coordinating donations and work. The original lobby, which has been preserved, is an elegant structure of polished marble and ornate moldings. The main entrance to the building is now on the east side. Stone steps to a former second story entrance were removed and a new first floor entrance was built for easier access. A three story atrium is featured inside the east entry. Architects used the high ceilings in the two original gymnasiums to create two floors of office space in this area.
New Schools in the Old Tech
Today there are three parts of the former Tech High. At the east end is the Teacher and Administrative Center area, or TAC. In the central part of the building is the auditorium which hosts a variety of public events now. On the west end is the Career Center, where more than 700 high school students learn technical and career skills.
In 1996, the Skinner Magnet Center, named for Tech graduate and the first African American school leader in Omaha Eugene Skinner, opened in the former Tech High. Focusing on performing arts, technology and math, it hosts a small cadre of students from across the district in a small section of the building. In the late 1990s, the Omaha Public Schools Career Center opened at Tech High. Offering a variety of skilled and technical sciences courses, it is a modern version of the original purpose of the building. Courses include automotive technology; automotive collision repair and refinishing; construction; electrical systems technology; construction; electrical systems technology; motor sports repair; welding; professional services; commercial design; culinary skills; digital video production; photography; health science; emergency medical technician; and health occupations. There are also innovation partnerships at the Career Center that have resulted in the University of Nebraska Medical Center High School and the Zoo Academy, in partnership with the Henry Doorly Zoo.
The future of Tech High continues to reveal itself, and with the leadership of the Omaha school district’s board and staff, the building should live long into the future.
You Might Like…
- FREE! Download a sample chapter of North Omaha History Volume 3 about the history of Omaha Technical High School here!
- A History of the Fort Street Special School for Incorrigible Boys
- A History of Schools in North Omaha
- A History of Cuming Street In North Omaha
- Omaha Technical High School webpage on classcreator.com
- “History of the Skinner Magnet Center” by Omaha Public Schools
- Omaha Public Schools Career Center official website
- “Technical High School” by the Gifford Park Neighborhood Association
- “Omaha principal to reach 50 year mark” by KETV about the illustrious Gene Haynes, who coached and taught at Tech. When I was at North he used to say, “Hit the bricks Brotha Sasse!” every time I walked by him. I thought that was unique until the Internet told me he said that to everybody, and always remembered our names.