Growing cities need more schools. Public schools ensure democratic well-being, help secure strong economic futures, and ensure ongoing commitment to community and empowerment. Omaha North High School was built for no less worthy of a purpose. Founded in 1924, today the school is located at 4410 North 36th Street.
I graduated from North in 1993. Today, I see how the friends I met, the things I learned and the place I’ve gone because of North ripple throughout my life, and I’m grateful I went there. However, it hasn’t always been that way. Following is a history of North, and some of my experience there.
Why North Was Needed
Omaha High School became Central High around 1900. At that point, the Omaha School District began discussing building more schools to meet their growing needs. Grade schools that served kindergarteners through eighth grade students around the city had been sending their advanced graduates to Central since the 1860s. Schools in the Near North Side sent their students there, including Lake School, Long, Webster and Franklin.
In the 1910s, the Board of Education began talking seriously about creating a high school in the north part of Omaha. After the beginning of the century, they’d opened several new grade schools serving kindergarten through eighth grades in the community. They included Miller Park, Minne Lusa, Belvedere, Druid Hill and Monmouth Park. These schools were in addition to the older schools in the community, including Lothrop, Howard Kennedy, Florence, Central Park, Saratoga and Sherman.
At the same time, the North Omaha Activities Association and other organizations were agitating the school board for more educational opportunities for North Omaha’s students. With the opening of Omaha University in Kountze Place in 1908, North Omaha’s parents wanted the avenue needed to send their kids to college. North High School would be the way!
Finding True North
Click on individual pics to enlarge them and read the captions.
Despite being in agreement over the need for North, the school district haggled over the location, size and urgency of building the school for almost a decade. By 1917, the necessity of building North was mentioned every time people got anxious to build a new Commerce High School, which eventually became Tech High.
Starting a year earlier, the potential high school became a political football that was tossed between a Democratic party candidate for county treasurer named Otto Bauman and a Republican named Bill Ure. With Bauman calling for immediate construction of the school, Bauman lobbied the community to fight against building a closer school for North O. One reason he cited was the likelihood of the school making students lazy, because it was too close of a walk for students compared to Central High.
In May 1917, the Omaha school board bought a block to build North High in the Saratoga neighborhood between N 24th and N 26th from Meredith to Fowler Streets. A bond was supposed to be floated in 1918, and plans to build the school were to come together soon after. During this era, there was also talk of building a South Side High School, separate from South High, as well as a Florence High and a Benson High. By 1918, each of these schools existed within grade schools. They were in addition to Central High and Commercial High, which was originally located within Central and later moved to a repurposed building on Leavenworth before becoming Technical High.
At the same time, there was talk of establishing a junior high school at the new North High when it was finished. This step was seen as alleviating the crowded conditions at Miller Park, Monmouth Park, Saratoga and Sherman, which would lose their seventh and eighth grades.
Later in 1917, a bond was floated by the school district to cover the construction of North High at North 24th and Fowler; a Commercial Technical High at North 22nd and Chicago; a junior high at North 24th and Corby, and other buildings that would benefit North Omaha. It apparently didn’t pass, because the planned schools weren’t built.
Fits and Starts
In 1919, the school district bought another tract of three blocks. It was made of land between North 31st and North 33rd along Ames Avenue. Late that year, another bond was put up to a vote, emphasizing the urgency of building a new North High. It passed, earmarking $5,000,000 for building and renovating new buildings.
In June 1920, a group of parents from the Saratoga neighborhood “stormed” the bi-weekly school board meeting to complain the funds for North High were being diverted and promises made to voters were being ignored. The next year, district superintendent Beveridge talked about combining a North High with a North Junior High School until additional funds were available to build a separate building. However, no plans were made. Almost a year later, in May 1921, the district board first talked about re-purposing the land at North 24th and Meredith for use as a play field for school children, while remarking that students from a North High located at North 31st and Ames would be able to use these facilities.
Even after money was approved, politician Bill Ure continued fighting against the building. This season, he campaigned on the basis that Florence deserved its own building and the North High would detract from that happening. Bauman again stuck up for the school, calling it a necessary expenditure and more. Bauman was credited for being “a young man with plenty of pep.” He kept winning the competition of whether or not North should be built.
In November 1921, the board approved contracts to build North High at the North 31st and Ames site, which had been a baseball field before then. At the same meeting, a new six-room Minne Lusa School was approved, and the new Commercial High building changed names and was to be called “Omaha Technical High School” instead.
In early 1922, the Omaha-based architecture firm of John Latenser and Sons was selected to design the school, which was originally supposed to cost $750,000 to build. Latenser, Jr. designed the now-infamous E-shaped building to be packed with science labs, shop classrooms and more, including a swimming pool and auditorium. In his original 1922 plans for the North 31st and Ames site, the track and field would’ve laid south of the building off the gymnasium. The newspaper called it a “cosmopolitan plan.” After a short bidding war, construction got underway.
However, soon afterwards, construction stopped.
An Underground Stream
In November 1922, construction ran into a serious snag. While conducting preliminary tests on the site at North 31st and Ames to determine what was needed to begin construction, the construction crew found a creek flowing below the surface of the site. After surveying the site further, Latenser proposed changing the types of building anchors being used, and the construction costs were increased by $50,000 on top of the $750,000 already designated. Originally reported at 50 feet below the surface, it turned out to be a mere 14 feet below. This eliminated the possibility of using the site, since the depth of the buildings’ footings and the basement of the building required much deeper land.
Within a month, the district moved to buy land from North 36th to North 37th, from Ames to Boyd Street. The site was 10 acres. After buying several houses outright, the district had to launch condemnation proceedings against the remainder since the land wasn’t empty and the owners wouldn’t sell. By March, construction was underway again, this time unimpeded by underground water or otherwise. The district decided against using the swimming pool designed by Latenser, since it was cost prohibitive. However, they built the grand gym and otherwise maintained they fulfilled the promise to the North Omaha community.
In May 1923, the vice principal of Central High, E.E. McMillan, was named the first principal of North High. In June, the district awarded a contract to move 10,000 square yards of dirt from the North High construction site to the Saratoga School site at North 25th and Meredith, were a giant ravine would be filled in.
For the next year, McMillan dedicated half his time to finding the right equipment to stock the state-of-the-art high school, including its labs and shops and regular classrooms. He hired teachers, assigned students to the building and otherwise managed the entire operation. Meanwhile, construction continued, led by Peter Kiewit and Sons.
In November 1923, the school district asked the Omaha and Council Bluffs Street Railway Company to extend the Florence line along North 30th Street westward towards the school in order to better serve the forthcoming students. When the proposal was rejected by the company, the old United City Improvement Clubs association rallied for attention.
Launching North High School
Omaha North High School opened on September 2nd, 1924. Just over 400 high school students and more than 325 junior high students came to school on the first day. The junior high was open at North until 1929, when they were fully transferred out of the school. The building was built for 1,500 students, and when it opened the district believed they were building for the future. Time proved them correct.
With powerful football performances in the first 5 years, the North High mascot was the Vikings, also called the Norsemen and the Polar.
More than 1,700 North graduates fought in World War II. By the late 1940s, the building was expanded to accomodate the post-war booming population of North O. A music wing, cafeteria, gymnasium and more classrooms were added. In the 1950s, the basketball team at North won several consecutive championships. This led the school to rent the University of Omaha gymnasium to accomodate the massive crowds that came to watch the team play.
By the 1960s, overcrowding happened every year, and at it’s highest population ever, more than 2,400 students enrolled at the school. In 1968, North became the first school in Omaha to have security guards. They were officially called “community aids,” and the district intentionally hired African American and white guards.
The district desegregation plan in 1976 and the elimination of ninth grade in the early 80s led to numbers dropping in the school. To help build interest in attending North, it was named a magnet school in the 1980s. New courses and intensified opportunities were created to focus on math, science and technology, and after several years, in 1993 the school completed a $20 million renovation. With a new total of 12 acres, the school now included the Viking Center, a major library and new physical education and athletics facility.
North focus became science, engineering and technology in the 2000s, and students worked with architects at RDG to design the Haddix Center, a new four-story, 32,092-square-foot addition. Dedicated in 2010, the building includes classrooms for science, media technology and engineering. North became the first school in Nebraska to be LEED certified.
In 2014, Principal Gene Haynes announced a proposal to build a stadium for North High’s soccer, track and soccer teams. As the only high school in Omaha without it’s own stadium, Haynes said the $12,000,000 stadium would have 6,000-seats and would be privately financed, and built in the neighborhood around the school.
Challenges at North
For more than 25 years, North had a notorious reputation as a problem-ridden den of hurt. However, the challenges facing North are more than in the school climate. Instead, they are the combination of a school pride, community culture and social change. In this section, I’m going to mix together athletic, academic and climate challenges facing North, including some of the steps taken to overcome them and the successes that have come from them.
The challenge of student learning is first and foremost in any school. How, whether and why students learn affects every facet of education at North, and luckily, good things have been happening there for a long time. The Nebraska Department of Education and the United States Department of Education have both awarded North for innovation in several areas. Technology has been integrated throughout the school since the late 1980s, and today it’s usage is pervasive in all curriculum areas.
A variety of North athletic teams have been state champions throughout the years. Girls swimming won state in 1997, and girls basketball won state in 1998. The boys’ cross country team won state in 1964, and the boys tennis team won five years in a row from 1962 to 1966. The wrestling team won the winter state championships in 1951, 1985, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1999, and 2014. The boys track and field team won the spring state championship in 2006.
In 1956, a student at North was dragged behind the bushes by a group of his peers and his Elvis-style sideburns were shaved off of him.
In the late 1960s, a group of parents organized to protest the Omaha School District’s apparent apathy towards North. The challenges in the school’s condition – including overcrowding, poor quality supplies and textbooks, and more – were boiling over when more than 150 students were suspended for walking out in April 1969. Parents stood by their students’ side and advocated the district pay attention. However, instead of working with the parents the district instituted changes on their own and shored up Principal Harold Reeves’ indifference to the parent group. Superintendent Dr. Owen Knutzen was adamant that he would not meet with the group, and showed no forgiveness to the students. The next school year, North did take steps towards ensuring more student voice in school governance, and more credit for students who stepped up to take action and improve the school.
In sports, North has been spectacular throughout its history. For instance, the North Vikings football team has been a formidable opponent to any challenger for several decades. The team has won state championships throughout the entire history of the school, starting in 1929, and again in 1948, 1956, 1961, and 1967. For the first time ever, North then won back-to-back state football championships in 2013 and 2014.
In March 1968, following the appearance of racist presidential candidate George Wallace in Omaha, there were riots in the Near North Side neighborhood. In the week following, there were large scale disruptions at North that included groups walking out, loud arguments and other challenges. According to the Omaha World-Herald, they were largely along racial lines. Many students didn’t attend schools throughout the week, while the TV, radio stations and newspaper were openly blamed for spreading paranoia and “overplaying events.” According to both white and African American students talking with the newspaper, there was no fighting in the school; however, as many as 1,300 of the 2,200 students didn’t attend school daily for a week. Other lies spread including the wounding of the principal and mass beatings of students by either race.
The challenge of ensuring a safe learning environment eluded North in the early 1970s. In February 1971, two students were mugged on the second floor of the school, apparently by non-students who snuck into the building. More than a decade later in 1982, two girls attacked a peer in the hallway, cutting her head and arm with a knife. The attacker was arrested. In February 1972, two major violent incidents happened within a week. In the first event, principal Harry Reeves was stabbed outside the school. Reeves, who was reportedly trying to break up a group of students who’d gathered outside a school dance, was in favor of referring his attacker to the city’s juvenile court instead of pressing charges. In a second unrelated incident the next week, a student shot another student with a .22 handgun. On a Monday morning, there was a confrontation in the hallway. Apparently the two students had been in a knife fight the previous Friday, and this was a continuance. While both walked away from Friday, that Monday morning one showed up with a gun and shot the other in the neck. That student recuperated, and the shooter was arrested with multiple charges.
For at least the last decade, Omaha North has offered more Advanced Placement science courses than any other high school in the region. North’s Academic Decathlon placed third in the state during the 2005-2006 season.
Challenging North High students not to achieve great things has often been an issue. For instance, a 1928 graduate named Don R. Boyd became a national leader in the United Methodist Church.
The late 1930 graduate Donald B. Walker was the longtime president of Archer Daniels Midland. The late Preston Love, a late 1930s graduate from North, became a nationally famous jazz musician played with some big bands and led others on his own. 1934 graduate Henry Roose became a longtime vice-president of the United States National Bank. Edward M. Strauss, Jr. was a 1936 graduate of North who became the president of ALCOA. 1938 graduate Lee R. Chesney was a Fullbright scholar who is a well-known artist.
The late 1940 graduate Neal Hefti was a jazz musician who scored pop TV shows and movies. Fred McLafferty is a chemist who graduated in 1940 known for his work in mass spectrometry, who is professor emeritus at the department of chemistry at Cornell University. Another 1940 graduate, William Strauss, was chairman for InterNorth, Inc. for almost 15 years. The late Harold Andersen, a 1941 graduate, rose from paperboy to become the longtime president of the Omaha World Herald. The late Gloria Rees Dunbar was a professional singer and TV hostess who graduated from North in 1944, and her peer, Bill Hunter, became a longtime vice-president of the Hormel Company.
Dewey Wade was a NCAA football player and coach, and a NFL player who graduated in 1950. 1958 graduate James Raschke was a professional wrestler. The late Charles R. Larson was a 1954 graduate who became a four-star Navy admiral. John A. Gale, a 1958 graduate, has been Nebraska’s secretary of state since 2000.
Dan Warthen was a 1960 graduate of North who was a MLB player and coach, and his peer Ted Stouffer was an attorney for 38 years. Dick Davis is a former NFL player who graduated in the mid-1960s. Charles McMinn graduated in 1962, and became a longtime physician at the Florence Clinic in North Omaha, and his peer Janice Gilmore, who became a longtime children’s book author. 1963 graduate Randy Boldt was a longtime leader in Nebraska’s insurance industry, and her peer Michael Mench was a longtime Army officer and FBI agent. Ron Sayers graduated in 1965 and became an NFL player. Longtime Hollywood actor Dick Christie graduated from North in 1966, and his peer Stanley Standifer, became a lifelong teacher with OPS. 1967 graduate Ronald Cooley was a musician with Mannheim Steamroller for 35 years. 1968 graduate Geneva Dourisseau became a longtime community volunteer and has been an executive with the Union Pacific Railroad since 1980. Carolyn Nelson-Becker, a 1969 graduate, is a national leader in women’s healthcare.
In 1971, a former North High student named Miguel Keith was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry and intrepidity in Vietnam while serving in the Marine Corps. 1974 graduate Brenda Smith rose through the ranks with the Omaha Police Department to become the first woman Deputy Chief of Police. 1975 graduate Monty Ross has become important in the film industry, while her fellow graduate Penny Sackett has become internationally known for her work in physics, astronomy and as the former chief scientist of Australia. Another of their peers, Ellen Weissinger was the University of Nebraska Chief Academic Officer for several years. 1976 graduate Mike McGee was a NBA player. The late Scott Bostwick was a 1979 graduate who coached the Northwest Missouri University Bearcats football team.
1991 graduate Rainbow Rowell is an author who has published several novels. Her classmate Houston Alexander is a well-respected mixed martial artist. Their other classmate, Paul Chan, is an artist, writer and publisher. 1995 graduate Quiana Smith is a singer and Broadway actor.
Jana Murrell, who graduated from North in 2000, became Miss Nebraska and later, Miss Earth United States. She was also a television reporter on KETV for a few years. 2001 graduate Ester Dean is a successful singer-songwriter. A 2007 graduate named Niles Paul is currently a NFL player.
The educators at North High have been highly notable, too. The first principal of the school, Edward E. McMillan, was honored with the renaming of the North Side Junior High School in 1957. Long-time principal and 50-year OPS veteran Dr. Gene Haynes is an icon of the school, constantly leading the school towards academic, social and athletic excellence since 2001. In October 2014, a portion of North 36th Street near North was renamed “Gene R. Haynes Street” in his honor.
The history of the school shows that North High produces influential, successful and important graduates who change the world.
North By My Life
I wanted to go to Central High. After finding a love of acting at McMillan and in community theatre, I decided I wanted to attend Omaha’s school with a reputation for good plays and musicals. Coming home one day, I shoved the completed papers into my mom’s hands for a signature and made sure they were submitted the next day. When we got a rejection letter saying I couldn’t go, I insisted to my mom that she call the district and find out why. Someone at Omaha Public Schools insisted that it was because of the district’s federally-ordered desegregation plan: North needed all the white kids it could wrangle to go there. In 1989, off I walked to school at North.
By this point in North Omaha’s history, the community was becoming ridden with gangs and drugs, especially between my house by North 24th and Fort and North at North 36th and Ames. Although I hated walking to and from school, there was little choice since the district didn’t bus white kids from my neighborhood to attend. Aside from the usual drudgery of school, the first day of high school indicated to me that trouble lay ahead: I remember watching as seniors jumped incoming freshmen, beating them up in the stairwells and other spaces that weren’t supervised by teachers. Although this practice was officially ended that year, it went on off-campus over the next several years. I live with those memories still today, more than two decades later.
Like many people, other myths and realities from high school still jangle through my imagination. There were good friends and healing spaces where I learned to overcome the poverty I grew up in and aspire to something more for myself. There were the mixed signals of teachers who supported me and those who apparently gave a rat’s ass about me personally, a girl who cared for me who I didn’t know how to be kind to, and others who didn’t knew I existed.
Back in my neighborhood, gangs and guns and drugs were becoming more predominant every month, until Crips and Bloods had everyone swearing allegiance or staying off the streets. I fell into the latter category, and watched my friends and other kids in the neighborhood fall into the former. Luckily, I was supported by the community groups and church and other adults in my life to graduate high school and go beyond, and that I did.
Debate club, JROTC, Latin Club and being a library aide didn’t make me cool, but I made good friends and was supported. I didn’t get to play football in high school because my family couldn’t pay the fees. When I ran for senior class president, I lost in sync with the Rodney King riots. Nobody asked me if I was going to college, so I barely made it there and through. I didn’t know what high school was for, other than getting through. However, I was blessed enough to get through and graduate on-time in 1993.
Although I firmly believe it was my community mentors who inspired this website and my history writing, maybe it was an argument with one of North’s history teachers that challenged me to learn more. Even though I barely got through their classes, I’m grateful to Mark Schulze and others I who tolerated me. Lori Shea was a great supporter of mine, and earned a lot of my gratitude. And of course, Brother Haynes made me feel relevant everyday, as he did so many other people.
Anyway, that was North in my life. Drop a line in the comments below and let me know what your experience was like.
By The Numbers
As of the 2015-16 school year, North’s student body included:
- 1,753 total students
- 56% male
- 44% female
- 63% students of color
- 103 full-time teachers
- 17:1 teacher to student ratio
- 65% economically disadvantaged
- 79% on-time graduation rate
- A History of Schools in North Omaha
- A History of Higher Education in North Omaha
- A History of North Omaha’s Tech High School
- Omaha North High School official website
- (1998) “Omaha North High School: A diamond anniversary history” by John Carter (Class of ’57), Omaha North High School Alumni Directory.
- Omaha North High School Foundation official website
- “School Is Spearheading Educational Technology,” by Susan Stellinjan for The New York Times. (January 31, 2001).