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Famous and infamous collected in LAUSD alumni book

Mike Szymanski | January 18, 2016

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A photo compilation of the famous from Fairfax High alone.

If you’re at Crenshaw High School, wouldn’t you want to know that baseball legend Darryl Strawberry graduated from there? How about that “Star Wars” composer John Williams went to North Hollywood High, or that Leonardo DiCaprio dropped out of his junior year at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies so he could pursue acting?

For the first time, LAUSD has a collection of famous alumni, which was presented to the school board last week by a team of volunteers.

The collection of famous names shows a history of Los Angeles. Director Quentin Tarantino developed his love for movies while attending Narbonne High and later got a job at a video store. Iconic director Frank Capra got interested in the theater while at Manual Arts High. In his junior year, tennis great Pancho Gonzalez left Jefferson High to go pro. Business leaders like Kirk Kerkorian (Riis High), Michael Ovitz (Birmingham), “father of the Internet” Vint Cerf (Van Nuys High) and video game producer Mike Morhaime (Granada Hills) were inspired at their schools for their future professions.

Some great bands were created among high school friends who went to school together, groups such as Los Lobos (Garfield High), Toto (Grant High), The Platters (Jefferson High), The Whispers (Jordan), Black-Eyed Peas (Palisades), The Doors (University High), The Turtles (Westchester) and Guns & Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers (Fairfax High).

“We had great fun in compiling this,” said Bob Collins, a retired LAUSD chief instructional officer, who worked with his wife Sandy Collins, a retired Columbus Middle School principal, and Grant Francis, who taught at Venice High School for 33 years. “This was a labor of love by everyone involved.”

They spent at least 1,000 hours of research and writing mini-profiles of alum from the 51 LAUSD high schools. They were helped by librarians, principals, students, district staff, school alumni associations, genealogical sites and hall of fame organizations.

They had an initial list of more than 10,000 names, but narrowed the field to 1,226 distinguished names. “Just because you played pro football didn’t get you on the list; you had to have a definable impact on the community, nation or state,” Bob Collins said. “We had thousands who are movie stars, but you had to have some significance.” And so, they found dozens of Academy Award, Emmy and Grammy winners, as well as scores of medal-winning Olympians and Hall-of-Fame athletes.

Even though they just finished their 359-page spiral-bound “Alumni History and Hall of Fame Project,” they know it’s not complete. “We already have people coming up to us saying, ‘You don’t have so-and-so,’” said Collins. “We know there will be a second edition we hope to complete by September.”

Francis suggested to the school board that “you bring back a paid archivist who worked part time at the district.”

Superintendent Michelle King recalled that her predecessor Ramon Cortines gave his thumbs-up to the project and the Collinses “did some incredible work to highlight the great folks who have come through LA Unified and have gone on to contribute significantly in the state and country.”

One of the interesting sidelights the research team discovered is the number of teachers who have inspired and trained famous people. Collins mentioned a teacher in the 1930s who taught iconic photographers, and anothre at Manual Arts High who taught Jackson Pollock and other notable artists. A Chatsworth High drama teacher helped launch the careers of two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey as well as Val Kilmer, Stephanie Kramer and Mare Winningham. Director J.J. Abrams recently talked about his teacher at Palisades being an inspiration for a new character in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“We hope to add teachers as well to this list, and show how they had a powerful influence on their students,” Collins said.

Some people on the list went had won notoriety for reasons beyond their fame.

Actress Sharon Tate who was murdered by the Charles Manson Family went to Hollywood High. Ritchie Vallens, who died in a plane crash, went to San Fernando High. Oliver Goodall, one of the Tuskegee Airmen who was arrested for protesting the U.S. Army’s segregationist practices, went to Washington High. Music impressario Phil Spector went to Fairfax High and later was convicted of murdering an actress. Journalist Daniel Pearl was beheaded by al-Qaeda while investigating a story and Donald Sterling, who went to Roosevelt High, made racist comments and lost the ownership of the Los Angeles Clippers because of it.

Collins plans to focus on the positive role models, such as Rosemary LaPlanche from Marshall High, who won Miss America in 1941 the same year she gradated, or Grammy-winning conductor Michael Thomas who discovered his love of music at Walter Reed Middle School before graduating from North Hollywood High. There’s Don Perry who went to Venice High and set a world record for climbing a vertical rope in 2.8 seconds, and the Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick, who went to Verdugo Hills High.

The district is now trying to determine what to do with the information and how to make the list available to the public.

Collins said he hopes that this will spark a continuing oral history project or create documentaries that could air on KLCS, the district PBS station. He also said the project could incorporate English, journalism or history students to continue the work.


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