SIOUX CITY | Every so often, to keep a hand in it, I do a column on an old Central High grad. The last one, George Koval, earned his diploma in 1929 and went on to serve Russia as a spy who infiltrated the U.S. military complex as we developed the first atomic bond.
President Vladimir Putin posthumously presented Koval the Hero of Russia medal five years ago, prompting me to write.
Today, I feature George Olson. He's an artist who infiltrated (OK, he had permission) the Central High auditorium and restored a 1972 mural to its original glory. Olson and his classmates will see the mural Saturday as Central High's last class celebrates its 40th class reunion with a tour of the fabled "Castle on the Hill" at 13th and Jackson streets.
Central High, one of Iowa's largest high schools for eight decades, educated the bulk of Sioux City's high schoolers from 1892 to 1972. In addition to the infamous Koval, students like Esther and Pauline Friedman, also known as syndicated columnists Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, learned reading, writing and arithmetic here.
So did U.S. Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bud Day and 400-meter hurdler Morgan Taylor, gold medalist in the 1924 Olympic Games.
Olson scans the Little Maroons' Hall of Fame display and notes how humbling it is to come from this storied school, one that closed and stood empty for years following the opening of North and West high schools in the fall of 1972.
"I have a lot of fond memories of Central High," says Olson, 58. "The last senior assembly was certainly one of them."
On that day, likely the last day of school for Olson and 584 classmates, seniors gathered in the auditorium and looked at the mural painted on the stage's back wall. Olson worked with fellow senior Randy Deuhr, now of Rapid City, S.D., and a host of others in creating the work, called "Thanks for the Memories." It showed Central High from the south entrance.
Olson also played Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" on guitar during the assembly.
The mural stood as Central High, largely unused, waited for a suitor. For 30 years, Olson, the plumbing shop superintendent for Interstate Mechanical in Sioux City, drove past and wondered what might become of the building and his artwork.
"I went to a Sioux City Rockestra concert here a few years ago and could see behind the curtain the mural was still there," Olson says. "I didn't realize what kind of shape it was in."
He got a close look in March when classmate Bill Knoepfler connected Olson with Shirley McLeod, gift shop manager for the Castle on the Hill Association, a group that has helps oversee the building and manages the auditorium. McLeod wanted to see the mural brought back to its former glory.
"I was asked if I'd be interested and absolutely I was interested," Olson says. "I'm pretty nostalgic."
Time took a toll on the work. The auditorium had gone for years without heating or cooling, elements that helped chip away the paint. Vandals snuck in and spray painted the base a few times.
Olson, a studio arts major at the University of Minnesota, left a part of his artistic persona behind in his profession. Oh, he still played guitar and dabbled in leather crafts. But, painting? Hadn't painted in years.
"This opportunity was like a light shining from above," he says.
Olson snapped photos and reproduced the original to scale, working with artist acrylic paint. The only major change involved a light at the south entrance. It didn't appear in the 1972 version. It's there now.
"That light says it all," says Olson, explaining how Central now bursts with activity as 75 apartment units fill once bustling classrooms. "It shows there is life here."
The Class of 1972 tours the school at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. Members will get to see their new, old mural at the back of the stage.
As artists go, Olson isn't the most famous among Central High alums. That's likely 1894 grad Jay N. "Ding" Darling, the Sioux City Journal and Des Moines Register legend who won two Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartoons.
"Thanks for the Memories" won't win a Pulitzer. It will win hearts.
"We love it," McLeod says. "I sneak up to the auditorium each week to look at it."
"It will be here forever," the artist says with a nod. "And that makes me feel special."