THE CREATION OF SAINT JEFF
Or: My Bid for Immortality
Anyone who draws, writes, paints, or makes anything for public display is likely to harbor guiltily a secret ambition—the hope that something he/she does will last forever, like Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington or Picasso’s Guernica. I never nursed any such ambition—I just drew for the funny of it— but if anything I’ve ever done achieves immortality, it’s probably going to be my visualization of the school mascot for Jefferson High School in Edgewater, Colorado.
For the fond sake of auld lang syne and anyone else who might be listening, a little history of the Edgewater schools is doubtless in order at this juncture. And so—:
The first school in what came to be known as the little town of Edgewater at the western edge of Denver may have been a one-room log building built in 1871 or 1872 (or somewhat later) “in the hollow” at roughly Pierce and West 19th Avenue, not far, as it happens, from the present location of Jefferson High School. The school in the hollow had no name; it was just School District No. 21. Occupying only ½ square mile, School District No. 21 was the smallest school district in Jefferson County.
District records cited by Celora Jean Jones in her excellent and indispensable history of the city, Edgewater Colorado: A Centennial Celebration, indicate that teachers were being paid as early as 1874. (But, oddly, it wasn’t until 1876 that L.T. Sims was paid $20 to build a 12x14-foot school house. So what were the teachers and their students meeting in until then? That log building.) It is said that three students graduated in 1899 but no diplomas were issued.
In 1901, the year Edgewater was incorporated, a schoolhouse was built at 24th and Eaton—a two-room red brick building with a bell in a belfry to summon the young scholars of the neighborhood. Each room housed four grades; the first teachers were two sisters with the last name Hansen; one of them, or perhaps a third Hansen sister, Emma, had taught at the school “in the hollow.”
In 1907, the red brick building was enlarged to four classrooms with the entrance facing Eaton Street, creating the configuration all of us alumni remember. That year, the Edgewater Mothers Circle was organized, becoming, eventually, the PTA.
An upper story was added to the building in 1912—two more classrooms and an assembly hall. Presumably, it was at this time that the memorable spiral fire escape “slide” was added to the rear of the building. Some of us who lived in the vicinity used to play on the slide when the building was closed. We had to pull ourselves up the slide itself: there was no ladder, and the only access was through the building, which, when closed, wasn’t available to us.
We eventually stopped when the odor became too pronounced: some of the kids who played on the slide apparently also pissed down it from the top for the dubious pleasure of seeing urine cascading down the spiral. This delinquency raises a provocative question: what did the pisser do to get down after he’d sprinkled the surface of the slide?
In 1924 the second floor assembly hall was divided into two classrooms when a new building was built on a rise a half-block south of the original structure. The new building, which would eventually morph into Edgewater High School, cost $13,000 and provided two classrooms and an assembly hall in the basement. In 1937, with the WPA addition of a gymnasium/auditorium, school office and more classrooms around the gym, the building stood as the EHS of exalted memory.
Edgewater’s public schools then consisted of two buildings: the elementary grades in the old red brick structure at the corner of 24th and Eaton, and the “new” high school just south of the original building.
In 1949, construction began on a grade school building at the corner of 24th and Depew (effectively obliterating a packed dirt baseball diamond that, one previous summer, was the venue for free movies that were projected from a cranky old 8mm machine onto a sheet strung up between two poles; we sat on the slightly raised ground behind home plate or on one of the two or three bleachers—benches —and tried to make out what the actors were saying on-screen—the sound came from the projector speaker alone and wasn’t too clear).
The EHS Class of 1955 (my class) moved from the old original red brick building to the new building when we entered eighth grade. We weren’t officially “in high school” in those days until we hit the ninth grade, but we were in the high school edifice. We were the last eighth graders to get into the building. After that, the new elementary school kept everyone through the eighth grade.
In 1955, our senior year, it all started coming apart. The next year, EHS was to be consolidated with Mountair High School, just up the hill from Edgewater at 15th and Chase. The new consolidated high school would be called Jefferson High School.
The principal of Mountair was Niel Willett, and he would become the principal of JHS. John Sommer, who was principal of EHS, would become principal of the new elementary school that had only recently opened at the corner of 24th and Depew (still there).
There was only one fly swimming in the ointment: Mountair and EHS were arch rivals in sports and other endeavors. How could they be welded together in a new unified entity?
In an effort to get the two schools to cast aside their bitter rivalry and join together in Jefferson High School, all-school elections were held at both schools in the spring of 1955 to pick the school song, colors and mascot. The rollicking and spirited “When the Saints Go Marching In” was the overwhelming winner for school song, which led, inexorably, to the mascot being a saint, Saint Jeff.
As I recall, Mister Willett had been principal of a high school in Colorado Springs before coming to Mountair, and in Colorado Springs, he’d spotted a student cartoonist and recruited him to devise the Indian chief mascot for the school. With that happy experience behind him, he sought an encore for JHS. Because I was editor of the EHS school newspaper, The Lariat, and drew cartoons for it, he was aware of my inclinations to comic art, and he asked me to try to come up with an image for Saint Jeff. So I did, creating the little red-headed kid in a patched robe with his hallo askew and a black eye that you can see in the accompanying cloth patch.
Next to the patch is a visual aid dubbed “Pre-natal Certificate,” a title that I added to the original 1955 sketches on the page. The Certificate records several images I concocted as candidates for Saint Jeff, including one (“D”) who is clearly an adolescent. I was glad when they picked “B,” which, as my penciled note at the bottom reveals, was one of my favorites. But now that I look at the array, I wonder if the decision would have gone to another candidate if I’d made one of the others smile as broadly as “B.”
I don’t know who made the final decision. Maybe just Mister Willett. When I wrote about the creation of Saint Jeff several years ago, another thing that I couldn’t remember was how Saint Jeff had acquired his black eye.
The black eye is unquestionably the crucial visual element. Without the black eye, Saint Jeff would be simply a cute little kid. Too precious by far—too goody-goody, even “saintly.” The patch on his sleeve helped, too, but the black eye made him human, one of us, and it gave him a scrappy mischievous aura and made him a feisty emblem for athletic and other contests. Without the black eye, I don’t think anyone could imagine Saint Jeff on the gridiron.
The big grin helped: it shows that he’s not a hoodlum. He doesn’t go around looking for a fight. But he doesn’t back down if the odd scrimmage is forced upon him. Still, he’d probably rather hear a good joke (or pull some irreverent prank) than put up his dukes.
Having done my duty for the new Jefferson High School, I graduated in June from EHS with the rest of the class in 1955, the last EHS graduating class.
The erstwhile Mountair High became Belmont Junior High until 1979, when it was closed, sending junior high students across town to Wheat Ridge Junior High on 38th Avenue. For the first couple of years until the new high school was built at 23rd and Pierce, Jefferson High students attended classes in the old Eaton Street EHS building, augmented by a few corrugated metal buildings (“Tin City”) erected on the basketball court on the north. The tin buildings continued to house seventh grade for several years. The new Jefferson High building on Pierce opened in 1958; the first class to graduate from this new building was the Class of 1959.
Later, after being vacated by the high school, the Eaton Street high school building was transformed into housing for the elderly; the original two-story structure was torn down and a six-story high-rise with 84 units was built in its place. Completed April 10, 1981 at a cost of $2.7 million, the building retained the antique gym/auditorium addition of 1937. Dunno when the red brick elementary school was torn down.
Meanwhile, I had gone off to college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I soon became the campus cartoonist, beginning with the last two issues of the campus humor magazine, The Flatiron, which was banned forever after the second issue containing my contributions (the cover of which appears near here). But that’s another story for another time.
I had never seen Saint Jeff in his native habitat until the fall of 1958, JHS’s first September in the new building. I did my student teaching in Arvada, just a few miles north of Denver, and one day, I came to JHS to pick up a fellow student teacher. As I walked into the building, I was astonished to see a giant mosaic of Saint Jeff on the wall in the lobby facing the entrance. There he was in all his red-headed, black-eyed glory.
I dropped into the school office, and there, on the wall, was a framed rendition of Saint Jeff, my original drawings. More amazement.
Soon after I moved back to Denver in 2007, I took my camera to JHS to record the numerous manifestations of the character I’d created more than 50 years before, and I’m posting some of them hereabouts—beginning with two more images of Saint Jeff, both drawn in the last couple years, just for fun.
Also posted is a newspaper article about Jefferson High and Saint Jeff. Judging from internal evidence, the article was written in early 1959. It’s quite emphatic about the positive role Saint Jeff played in the life of the school, and I’m happy to know that. But the writer, Betty Jean Lee, makes a couple of mistakes. First, she says I was assisted in devising Saint Jeff by Mister Willett and his wife and my art teacher. Dunno about Mrs. Willett, whom I don’t remember ever meeting, but I know I had no art teacher: Edgewater High School’s faculty was pretty well restricted to the basic stuff—reading, writing, arithmetic, science, study hall. And basketball.
She also says Jefferson High School is located in “an unincorporated area.” Not true: Edgewater’s boundaries, while somewhat irregular, include that part of Pierce Street where Jefferson High School is located.
“I GAVE HIM THE BLACK EYE,” Bernie said.
We were standing at the refreshment stand in Edgewater’s American Legion hall getting refreshed during the August 2012 Edgewater High School reunion luncheon. The guy next to me asked me, “You drew Saint Jeff?”
It was more statement than question, but I answered anyhow:
“Yes, I did.”
“And I gave him the black eye,” said Bernie, standing on the other side of me. “And the patch on his gown.”
I don’t remember the moment of this historic occurrence, but I knew immediately that Bernie Jueschke was right.
Our friendship had been founded in drawings and persisted through high school. He was editor of the Mustang, the yearbook (the last EHS yearbook ever), and I’d drawn cartoons for it. So Bernie quite naturally assumed an editorial posture when witnessing a drawing of mine.
That relationship had roots in the year he sat in the desk ahead of mine in Miss Hetland’s world history class. In the idle moments at the end of the class period before the bell rang, dispersing us into the hallways in search of our next class, we’d play the Doodle Game. Bernie’d turn around in his desk chair and make a doodle on a piece of paper on my desk; I’d turn the shapeless doodle into a picture of something while he watched.
It had started with letters of the alphabet. At home, I had a booklet that showed how to turn each letter into a comical portrait.
One time before the Doodle Game became ritualized, I’d shown Bernie how to make a funny face out of the letter A. Then B. And so on. When we’d run through the alphabet, Bernie started putting down just a doodle, a squiggle without meaningful shape. And I’d make it into a picture of something.
That was the beginning of our friendship. And in my mind’s eye, Bernie is often turned sideways in his chair, looking back over my desktop at one of my drawings as I drew. He was undoubtedly doing just that when I was making some preliminary sketches of Saint Jeff.
“Give him a black eye,” he said.
And we laughed about it because our class, a sometimes somewhat disreputable lot, had probably given EHS a black eye, so we’d be perpetuating the tradition at Jefferson High School.
“And put a patch on his shirt,” Bernie said.
So I did.
And so, as of August 2012, the mystery of how Saint Jeff got a black eye was solved. Bernie gave Saint Jeff the black eye. We’d been partners before. Occasionally, we stood on stage before school assemblies and did a comedy routine cribbed from “Bob and Ray.” We called it “The Bob and Bernie Show.” Saint Jeff was our last co-production at EHS.
It is also my bid for immortality. As of 2015, the thing is only 60 years into eternity, but I have hopes.