In the bustling hallways of Center Grove High School, a portal to the past has opened up for busy students and teachers.

Black and white photographs show championship football teams, award-winning marching bands and the 1932 county champion basketball team. Collections of poetry, fiction and other creative writing are captured in the school’s Young Authors books from the early ’80s.

A yellowed diploma issued in 1894 sits next to a photograph of former principal Mel Vandermeer.

A treasure trove of old photographs, yearbooks, graduation programs and other memorabilia from Center Grove’s 133-year history has been displayed in a main corridor of the high school. Center Grove alumni, working with an archive system that had been started years ago, are reaching out to the community to ensure that important pieces of history are preserved.

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The hope is that by bringing the school district’s history into the forefront, current and future students will have a better understanding of their Trojan history and heritage, said Jack Russell, a 1974 Center Grove graduate.

“The idea is to put things in front of the kids that they can relate to, but also recognize that the things they’re involved in have a history going back years,” he said. “It’s important to get that when you have a large school like this.”

The archive was established by John Frank, a former history teacher at the high school who has since retired. Frank gathered as much pertinent historical artifacts of the school as he could find, filing each piece away in a spare closet in the history hallway, organized by years and decades.

In recent years, Frank and alumni members have focused on letting people know that the archive exists and they want to keep collecting these items, Russell said.

“People are always donating stuff that people find as they’re cleaning out their homes. It’s anything from baccalaureate and commencement programs, key sports things like winning state, dresses donated from that time frame,” he said. “People realize they’ve had this stuff in their closet forever — why not donate it to the school?”

The historical archive has become particularly vital as Center Grove has grown tremendously throughout the past 20 years, Russell said.

“Back when we went to school, everybody knew everyone else. Everybody was involved in things, and you were very connected. Now, if you’re not part of a club, a sport, a choir or something like that, it’s hard for them to feel like they’re connected,” he said.

Alumni members worked with school administrators to find an ideal place to display the items. They were offered a 20-feet-by-8-feet glass showcase just past the main entrance in the high school.

A smaller display also is set up near the gymnasium in the Hall of Champions.

“We’ve started filling those up to display these items for the kids, families and visitors to the school. It’s kind of fun to know the history,” said Jeff Beck, a 1967 Center Grove graduate who helped organize the archive.

The alumni group wants to ensure that items are rotated on a regular basis, to keep capturing people’s attention, Beck said. They have visions for setting up a rotating display of student style over the years, featuring letter jackets, prom dresses and other iconic clothing.

“We have a lot of families that are four, six, even eight generations of Center Grove graduates. Working with those families to get items to show all of the years is good for the kids to see,” Russell said.

Throughout the process, the organizers of the archive had help. Experts from the Johnson County Museum of History demonstrated how to handle, catalog and organize the items.

Center Grove schools and the Johnson County Community Foundation provided grants totaling $3,000 to help organizers learn how to properly store historical items, as well as purchase supplies such as acid-free folders.

The archive is a passion project for the alumni, said Russell, who also is president of the school board. To ensure they’re as accurate as possible when cataloging everything, they need to deeply research the photographs and other items that might not readily have a date attached to them.

Using landmarks, fashion of the time and even the models of different cars, they can figure out what year a photograph was taken, at least approximately, Russell said.

“We get lots of photos and things donated. People just have these pictures, and we need to try and figure out what year it was from,” he said.

The archive effort is just part of an expanded effort to mobilize alumni. The existing alumni association changed its name to Center Grove Alumni and Friends, to include not only those who have graduated, but spouses, family members and people in the community who are active with the school.

“We had a recognition because, think of all of the parents who brought kids through here. They were very involved, but then once the kids graduate, they’re disconnected,” Russell said. “We should include those people too.”

Meetings have been conducted during the past few months with alumni ranging from 50-plus years ago to recent graduates to talk about the vision for the organization. A database of names is being set up, an email newsletter proposed and year-round engagement planned.

They’d like to have a weekend-long event planned around the school’s homecoming football game.

“(Alumni participation) hasn’t been a year-round situation, and for the past couple of years, that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Russell said. “It can’t just be a once-a-year thing.”

Organizers of the archive want to spread the word that they’re still collecting historical items from over the years. They are not taking trophies right now, as they don’t want the display to be sports-dominant, Beck said.

Rather, they want a well-rounded grouping representing academics, student life and band. One area that is lacking in the collection is mementos featuring choirs, the Debtones show choir and other performing arts groups. Of particular need are pieces related to the early years of the Debtones, after choral director Judith Meeks founded the group in 1963.

“The message we’re trying to get out there is donate this stuff to us. Even if you don’t think we want it, if it’s Center Grove connected, we want to see it,” Russell said.

At a glance

Center Grove archive

What: A collection of memorabilia, photographs and other items from the Center Grove schools’ 133-year history.

Where: Parts of the collection are on display in a glass showcase at Center Grove High School.

How to contribute: Organizers what to collect as many items relating to the school district’s history as possible, including photos of each graduating class, photographs of each school building past and present, and items related to academics, the performing arts and student life. They also want a limited number of sports-related mementos, though they are not taking trophies.

Questions: Contact Jack Russell at or Jeff Beck at if you have items that you wish to donate to the archive.

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.