History of The W. T. Woodson High School
When The W. T. Woodson High School opened its doors to students for the first time in the fall of 1962, it was not only the largest school in Fairfax County, but it was also the largest in the state of Virginia. The Woodson campus consists of a seventy-nine-acre tract of land that was an operating dairy farm until the school was built. The size of the site was, and remains, the largest school campus in Fairfax County. Two farm buildings remain: the white house known as "Woodson House" and the one-time dairy barn still used by the county maintenance department.
The original cost of building W. T. Woodson was $3,300,000, a bargain by today’s standards. A unique feature of the new high school was a full planetarium of both the northern and southern hemispheres. Students from elementary and middle schools continue to visit the Woodson planetarium as part of their science curriculum. A vocational wing housed a program drawing students from all over the county for classes in auto mechanics, cosmetology, carpentry, veterinary science, and electricity. The vocational programs were gradually phased out over the years and students interested in such classes now attend Chantilly Academy, a professional technical center located at Chantilly High School. The original athletic facilities included two softball fields, a practice field, two baseball fields, a hockey field, a 5,000-seat stadium, and ten tennis courts. The stadium now seats 15,000.
The budget for the new school did not include money for stadium lighting. The entire community joined in a fund-raising plan called "The Light Brigade." Local businesses contributed so generously that for at least fifteen years Woodson school activities did not solicit funds from the Fairfax business establishment. Patrick J. Cunningham, the first Director of Athletics at WTW, led this massive fund-generating campaign. Within a year, the stadium was lighted. The stadium is now named the Patrick J. Cunningham Stadium. In 1962, the main gymnasium was considered huge, with a capacity of 1,400. In addition to the main gym, there was an auxiliary gym, then called "The Girl's Gym," and a "corrective exercise gym." During the 1998-99 school year, the gymnasium was named in honor of Paul "Red" Jenkins, a health and physical education teacher who coached basketball at WTW for thirty-five years. The auditorium, the largest in Northern Virginia at that time, had a capacity for 1,200. The auditorium is now called Bedinger Auditorium for long-time drama teacher Joan Bedinger. The W. T. Woodson High School originally opened its doors to 1,800 Cavaliers. By the 1965-66 school year, enrollment reached 3,300, including 150 minority students brought to Woodson as a result of the integration of schools.
The W. T. Woodson High School was named for Mr. Wilbert Tucker Woodson, superintendent of Fairfax County Schools from 1929 to 1961. Naming the school after Mr. Woodson broke a school board rule which prohibited the naming of a school for a living person. The board made an exception for Mr. Woodson, and, when he was told the new school was to be named after him, Mr. Woodson replied, "I appreciate the honor very much, but I think you made a mistake. I still think the old policy was good." Until just a few months before his death in 1983, Mr. Woodson was a frequent and honored guest at Woodson activities and he continued to make his influence felt in the school that so proudly bears his name. Making sure the proper name, "The W. T. Woodson High School," was used took a major effort. Any faculty member referring to the school name without including the "The" was assessed a twenty-five cent fine which went to "The Light Brigade."
The first principal of Woodson High School was Mr. Emory Chesley. Mr. Chesley handpicked the faculty for Woodson, luring away from other Fairfax County schools some of their most talented teachers. He sought diversity, ability, and strength of character. Not only did Mr. Chesley recruit Fairfax County teachers, he also hired teachers who had been teaching at places such as Duke University, the University of South Carolina, and Johns Hopkins University, in addition to a number of retiring military officers. With his dedicated Cavalier staff and enthusiastic students, Mr. Chesley established a school tradition of academic excellence, competitive spirit, and school pride that still exists today.
After just one year, Woodson grew by 1,000 students, and, in 1964, Mr. Chesley proudly held the first commencement exercises for Woodson students in the stadium. In 1965, Mr. Chesley left Woodson, and the assistant principal for instruction, Mr. Robert Phipps, assumed the role of principal. He held this position until his promotion to Assistant Superintendent of Schools in 1968. At that time, Woodson’s third principal, Mr. William P. Ladson, took command. Mr. Phipps returned to the principal’s position at Woodson in 1972 and remained there until his retirement in 1981.
Many may remember "Hall Duty" from the early years when a group of boys, known as "The Cavalier Corps," maintained order in the halls. Chosen for their leadership ability and their reputation for high character, the boys wore blue Cavalier sweaters as they kept order in the hallways. Others may remember the lunch shifts beginning with a member of the Student Government ringing a chime to signal the students to stand to repeat in unison an ecumenical grace. Those days are long gone and a loud bell now signals the beginning of the four lunch shifts. Grace is no longer part of the Woodson day, but the 1998-99 school year brought the return of the Pledge of Allegiance, now said at the beginning of morning announcements.
The 1960’s saw a dramatic change in the student body at Woodson. As the population rose, so did the hemlines. Mini-skirts came into fashion, as did longer hair on the boys. This caused quite a stir in the school community as questions arose over just how short was "too short" and how long was "too long." The faculty had to deal with girls with shrinking skirts and boys with hair beyond collars. Parent and teacher groups met to make a decision about whether to allow boys to wear collarless shirts called "surfer shirts." The dress code mandated that boys wear shirts with collars that were tucked into trousers worn with a belt. Girls were required to wear dresses or skirts - no slacks.
A couple of big events occupied students during this early era. One athletic highlight of the 1960s was Woodson’s championship basketball team, which made it all the way to the state semi-finals in 1966. In addition, the community united with students and faculty groups in 1963-64 to oppose the building of the Tank Farm that now exists on Pickett Road.
An increasing interest in the world’s ecology in the 1970s brought the celebration of Earth Day to Woodson. Each April, for a number of years, students were released from class to view and participate in varied ecology-oriented activities. However, an Earth Day celebration was not to be the most memorable event of the decade. On April 1, 1973, at about 3:00p.m., a disastrous tornado struck the school and surrounding area. Fortunately, the incident occurred on a Sunday afternoon when there were no students in the building. The tornado caused such extensive damage that, for the remainder of the year, Cavaliers attended classes at Oakton High School. Oakton students attended morning classes and Woodson students used the building in the afternoon. Round-the-clock work crews completed repairs and The W. T. Woodson High School re-opened in the fall of 1973. Woodson, which sits in what is known as "Tornado Alley," was hit again by a twister on September 5, 1979. The building was spared by the Hurricane David-spawned storm, but the stadium was destroyed. Today, students are often reminded of Woodson's tornado history and take their twice-yearly tornado drills quite seriously. Similarly, in the early 70s, Woodson shared the building with Robinson Secondary School for about two weeks during winter. This was because of the “energy crisis.” Woodson students had the early shift, and Robinson students came in around noon to begin their school day.
The Bicentennial year in 1976 brought a sense of patriotism to the Woodson community. Throughout the year, various activities highlighted the national celebration. The 1970’s also brought a new championship team to Woodson’s roster, the nationally prominent W. T Woodson Latin Team under the sponsorship of Mrs. Maureen O’Donnell. Mrs. O’Donnell would bring further recognition to Woodson in 1980 when she was selected as Teacher of the Year for the state of Virginia and awarded an honorary doctorate from Yale University.
With Mr. Phipp’s retirement in 1981, Dr. James Wilson became principal. Dr. Wilson oversaw the renovation of the school which modernized the library and added the business wing. Under Dr. Wilson’s leadership, the school’s reputation for academic excellence grew, as students became increasingly competitive in many areas. Woodson welcomed the addition of GT and AP classes to its curriculum and Woodson’s academic profile intensified. The results were reflected in 1984 when Woodson’s "It’s Academic" team made it to the All-Met finals and the math and English teams each took first place in the Superintendent’s Academic Competition. In the early 1980's WTW actually ranked first in the county due to its number of National Merit Scholars and outstanding test scores. Outside of class, Woodson students adopted the "Preppie" look in fashion so popular in the 80’s.
Charles E. "Chuck" Billak, who had been a biology teacher, WTW's first football coach, and an administrator, became principal in 1986. He led the school until his retirement in 1991.
Mr. Billak was followed by Dr. Gary Miller. Under his direction, Woodson saw the development of the Student Leadership class during the 1990s. In spring, 1991, Dr. Miller decided that student leadership needed to be more involved; he had noticed that the student life seemed to lack enthusiasm at Woodson High. Consequently, he came up with the idea of taking a group of students to Nags Head for an entire week during the summer to “learn leadership skills” and “plan activities that would involve ALL students” for the upcoming school year. He got a “loan”, two un-airconditioned school buses, and convinced about 15 faculty members to give up a week of their personal summer vacation to join the 50+ students for a week-long beach leadership retreat.
Afterwards, Dr. Miller was a familiar face in Leadership as he co-taught the class. The annual highlight of this group continued to be the summer retreat to set goals for the new school year.
The 1990s also saw some dedications and special recognitions of some of our outstanding staff such as the Red Jenkins gym, the Lee Knupp baseball, and the Joan Bedinger Auditorium. In addition, our English teacher, Gretchen Portwood, was named “FCPS Teacher of the Year,” and the following year Michael Ehrlich was second in line for the same honor. Also, Mel Ishii, the special ed department chair, was named the Spillane Leadership award.
Woodson also had an addition for special education students done in the 90’s. This addition/renovation was headed by Principal Barbara Lanzer, who not only graduated from WTW but also was a principal here.
Block Scheduling was implemented, so the 6 period day and 50 minute classes became obsolete.
One of the class gifts was “the rock” which still holds a prominent position in the front of the school.
This decade also brought air-conditioning to WTW and the addition of the "block schedule" with ninety-minute classes that meet every other day.
The W. T. Woodson High School began the new millennium with some changes. Robert Elliott replaced Dr. Miller as principal in 1999. In 1999-2000, the parents worked to raise funds for technology as part of a matching gift campaign funded by Texaco. The total technology effort included a state of the art video conferencing laboratory, as well as other technological innovations. The school’s recently-constructed broadcast center offers similar capabilities.
About this same time, a group of parents in the community learned that W. T. Woodson’s planned renovation was in jeopardy, despite antiquated classrooms and deplorable infrastructure. Within weeks, the concern became a movement named RENEW (Renovate to Educate the Next Era at Woodson). Over the next two years, hundreds of past, present and future Woodson parents packed school board and county supervisor meetings. They wrote letters and e-mails. They called and met with their representatives. They enlisted business allies. In the end, Woodson’s renovation was secured by people who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
In 2006, the first modular units (trailers), were lined up on Woodson’s front lawn, signaling the beginning of construction that would bring a new science wing, bright hallways with new lockers, a state-of-the-art HVAC system, and classrooms and labs with 21st-century technology and amenities.
Begun under Robert Elliott, the historical renovation was concluded under Mr. Jeff Yost, who was named principal of Woodson High School in 2007. On a crisp, sunny Saturday in November, 2009, Mr. Yost proudly presided at the Rededication ceremony amidst much fanfare and celebration. When Mr. Yost cut the red ribbon at the school’s main entrance, he ushered in a new era in a new building, whose post-modern tower would soon become the building’s focal point and hallmark.
Athletics, Arts and Music
Since its beginning, Woodson has had a strong tradition of student activities. In the 1980s, Woodson was ranked first and received the Washington Post Athletic All-Around (all sports) Award. Fall football games are still held on Friday nights and are well attended by students, parents, and community members. The highlight of each fall is Homecoming Week. Activities take place each day with evening activities such as a bonfire and Powder Puff game, and of course, the football game and the Homecoming dance. Many alumni members plan their visits home to coincide with Homecoming. Athletics continues to be a part of the "Woodson Way," and in both 2004 and 2005, the Girls Lacrosse team won state titles. The Boys Soccer team reached the state finals in 2005, where they captured the state title.
Music has also had a strong tradition at WTW. During the 1960’s, the music department presented a mammoth production each February known as the "Extravaganza." This tradition has been succeeded by the equally elaborate and popular "Dessert on Broadway." The Cavalier Band, always an impressive organization, has won top honors in national competitions. The orchestra performs at many school events and is renowned for its talented musicians. The spring musical, originally called the "Senior Play," has always been a major part of student life at Woodson, and has been moved to the fall to accommodate the various spring trips taken by the music department. The choral group traveled to Vienna and Paris and students actually performed at Notre Dame. In 2011, The Chamber Ensemble performed in the White House’s East Wing, after receiving an invitation to play at the President’s residence.
In addition to the many good and contributing citizens that Woodson has produced, some graduates have gone on to incredible accomplishments. In sports: Andy Heck, a pro-football player, formerly with the Redskins and now the offensive line coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars; Tommy Amaker, an All-American basketball player at Duke who is now head coach at Harvard University; Michael Weiss, U. S. skating and Olympic champion; and Steve Marino, professional golfer.
Woodson alumni have also made significant cultural contributions. Lynn Herring has played Lucy Coe on television's soap opera "General Hospital" for many years and in New York City, David Chase works on Broadway as a musical director. Marissa Lippert was named “Best Nutritionist” by New York Citysearch for the last five years and authored The Cheater’s Diet. Loryn Brantz is an Emmy Award winner for her work on Sesame Street and is an author and illustrator of books for children.
In the legal realm, Tommy Perelli served as an assistant to Janet Reno, the Attorney General, at the Justice Department, then was selected as associate Attorney General for the Obama administration, serving until his retirement in 2012. Lee Millette, as judge of the Circuit Court of Prince William County, presided over the capital murder trial of the Beltway Sniper. Millette now serves as a justice on the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Other members of the Woodson community have made contributions in the field of science. Cady Coleman, astronaut, returned to Woodson to share with students a video of her July 1999 space shuttle mission. Many WTW graduates probably remember Mrs. Ruth Opp, chemistry teacher. At the age of 87, Mrs. Opp returned to Woodson for an emotional reunion with Cady, one of her students from the 1970s. Mrs. Opp's words of wisdom for the current student body were to "Think positively, and you can do anything."
Year after year, Woodson is featured in the top 100 list of U. S. public schools in Newsweek and U. S. News & World Report. Woodson ranks annually among the top in Fairfax County in the highest numbers of National Merit Scholars.
Woodson's vision continues to look toward academic excellence. Woodson is now home to a center for students who are deaf or hard-of-hearing and a center for students with emotional and learning disabilities. The building is one of the most used in Fairfax County, as it houses both Adult Education and Night School.
There is more diversity in the student population, now over 2,100. Prom is still held before graduation, but now only a couple weeks before. Graduation itself is no longer held in the stadium, but in the field house at Robinson Secondary School, and there is the "Cavalier Cruise," an all-night graduation celebration at a local recreation center. The campus has a wing for the Woodson Comprehensive Ed Service Site (CEDSS) which serves students with emotional disabilities.
Students continue to earn remarkable honors in all endeavors, winning over 177 District titles, 65 Regional titles, and 30 state titles in all areas of athletic competition. Academic awards have included grand prizes at the county Science Fair, and numerous scholarships. The Cavalier (yearbook), The Cavalcade (newspaper) and the P.A.G.E. Literary Magazine annual take top awards in state and national publications competitions. In 2011, teacher Sam Gee’s “It’s Academic” team won the “It’s Academic” title, again.
But for all of these changes, there are still some things that remain the same. The W. T. Woodson High School continues to be a spectacular school known for its great scholars, musicians, and athletes. Alumni who return to the Woodson campus often remark that things "look the same," as staff members and students continue to follow the outstanding tradition of the "Woodson Way."
April 13, 2013
Cynthia Alexander, Heather Morgan, Paula Spencer, Andrew Springer, and Katie Batchelder Radda