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Fairfax High Alumni Bridge Generation Gap

Education: Class of '44 marshals students past and present for a 75th anniversary party to benefit the school.

May 21, 1999|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last time Hy Arnesty gave Fairfax High this kind of boost was in 1942--the day he galvanized the school by scampering up the 25-foot gymnasium rope in 5.3 seconds to set a new world interscholastic record. Arnesty was back Thursday, this time helping get the school's 75th birthday party off the ground.

For the first time in the school's long history, alumni have organized to help the Melrose Avenue campus, not only with Saturday's daylong anniversary celebration but with ambitious long-range improvements as well.

And to the surprise of all, the old-timers have stimulated the school's 2,300 current students, ending years of teenage apathy.

Saturday's events between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. include an arts festival, a food fair, an employment expo, parenting workshops, music and entertainment, and children's activities. An $18-per-person catered reception, followed by a special alumni "Hall of Fame" induction and more entertainment, will begin at 7 p.m.

Students have worked alongside alumni old enough to be their grandparents for more than a year to plan the celebration. Hundreds of teenagers plan to take part Saturday as tour guides and entertainers.

"I think this school has finally pulled itself up," said Arnesty, now a 76-year-old retired toy sales executive who lives a few blocks from the campus.

Recent years have been rough on Fairfax, whose student body between the 1930s and the 1970s included the likes of actors Mickey Rooney, Ricardo Montalban, Demi Moore and Timothy Hutton, musicians Herb Alpert and Jermaine Jackson, and record producer Phil Spector.

Fatal campus shootings in 1986 and 1993 that forced Fairfax to become one of the first schools in the nation to use hand-held metal detectors caused spirits and enrollment to sag.

But things started to change when members of the Class of '44 emerged from their 50th reunion with $2,500 left over and decided to donate it to the school.

"We could see the school had so many needs, more than one class could help with," recalled Jim O'Donnell, a retired aerospace engineer from Palos Verdes who had served as president of the class that graduated in the winter of 1944.

So O'Donnell and others revived a long-dormant alumni association and slowly began collecting the names and addresses of about 18,000 of Fairfax's estimated 50,000 graduates.

Principal Carol McNealy-Truscott, meantime, set out to forge new links between the school and the community. When a nonprofit theatrical group called the Greenway Arts Alliance offered to sponsor weekend antiques flea markets as a school fund-raiser in exchange for use of an unused campus building for plays, she said yes.

That arrangement raised $180,000 during its first 18 months for school scholarships, said Pierson Blaetz, an Arts Alliance director who is a co-chairman of Saturday's celebration.

Proceeds from Saturday's event will be used to buy new flooring and seating for Fairfax's 1924 auditorium, said Class of '44 member Gloria Drexler, 72, of Santa Monica.

Students who have spent several recent Saturdays scrubbing walls, cleaning the auditorium and planting flowers have organized themselves into permanent cleanup squads, said Courtney Horstman, the 17-year-old Fairfax student body president.

Classmate Oscar Ureno, 18, said working with Arnesty and other old-timers has taught him a valuable lesson.

"I'm joining the alumni association when I graduate next month," he said. "It's $100 to join for life. It's totally worth it."

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