'Fight On': Phoenix's First High School Creates Legacy Through Alumni Network

By Katherine Fritcke
Published: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 - 7:28am
Updated: Wednesday, December 30, 2015 - 7:30am
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(Photo by Katherine Fritcke - KJZZ)
This is the former Phoenix Union High School Auditorium. The PUHS Museum is located in the basement of the building today.

In 1895, more than a dozen years before Arizona became a state, the first high school was built in Phoenix. For many years Phoenix Union High School was the oldest secondary school west of the Mississippi.

Jerry Oliver is from the PUHS Class of 1965 and the current president of the the Phoenix Union High School Alumni Association. He said, until 1939, it was the only high school in Phoenix.

“Phoenix Union High School history is Phoenix history, for a lot of years,” Oliver said. “What was happening at Phoenix Union was what was happening in and around the city, as the city grew.”

Gen Kriner, from the class of 1953, said she remembers PUHS as an impressive institution.

“One time, I thought, one of the premier schools,” Kriner said. “But then, of course, when Phoenix started growing and we built more high schools, it was still the grandmother of all the high schools … and I think it still is.”

Phoenix Union had a large enrollment. At one point, more than 6,000 students were attending the school located at what is today 7th and Van Buren Streets.

“As an example in my class, the year we graduated in ‘65, there were more than 1,000 kids that graduated in the senior class,” Oliver said.

However, as Phoenix grew, so did the school district. After 87 years, Phoenix Union closed in 1982, but the students who went to the school wanted to make sure it wasn’t forgotten.

The school motto was “Fight On.” The Phoenix Union High School Alumni Association was created in 1985.

Kriner said the association has approximately 2,500 members that it corresponds with. At one point, that number was more than 4,000.

The alumni association has opened a museum in the basement of the school's former auditorium, which currently houses the University of Arizona medical school’s Phoenix campus. They also created the Phoenix Union Alumni Association Scholarship Foundation.

“Our scholarship is mainly to encourage the young children at the grammar school level, coming into high school,” she said.

Every year, more than 75 eighth graders feeding into the Phoenix Union High School District receive the $200 scholarship. That’s about $15,000 a year.

Harriet Zeaman, from the class of 1955, said the money can come in handy. She remembers having to pay for all of her essential school needs.

“We bought our own books; my parents couldn’t afford it,” Zeaman said. “So, if I didn't work, you know ... I can remember buying my own P.E. clothes.”

Thank you notes from scholarship recipients are posted on the alumni group’s website.

One student wrote, “Thank you so much for the Alumni Association award! I greatly appreciate it. I will be able to buy a yearbook every year now- memories are very important.”

Alumni president Jerry Oliver said because of the generosity of Phoenix Union Alumni, they will be able to support students for many years.

“We have enough money with the Arizona Community Foundation that those scholarships will go on into perpetuity long after we’re all gone,” Oliver said.

As they celebrate the 120th anniversary of their beloved school’s opening, Harriet Zeaman thought for a moment before reflecting on the institution’s staying power.  

“Well, wasn’t that one of the reasons we organized? Was to to let people know that Phoenix Union was here,” Zeaman said. “And to Fight On.”

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