By Reggie Ellis
woodlake – Too many graduates, families, athletes and teachers have emerged from the halls of Woodlake High School to tell the whole story of its more than 100 years of existence. But no family has had more involvement with the high school throughout most of its history than the Ainleys.
Ralph Ainley bought land in Elderwood to grow oranges on but most of the property would be used for raising cattle in 1905. Just south of Elderwood and a few years later, Gilbert F. Stevenson’s Woodlake Townsite Company plotted out the town on a 13,000-acre footprint in 1912. Two years later, Stevenson had paid for electric lights, water systems, sewers, two grammar schools, a church, a commercial building and access to both passenger and freight rail. The only thing that was missing was a high school. So Stevenson set aside 10 acres of land and agreed to grade the streets and lay sidewalks for the formation of a high school.
Throughout 1914, the community held a series of meetings, the result of which was a petition endorsed by more than 90 percent of voters inthe township, according to the book “A History of Woodlake Union High School – The Woodlake 11 Class of 1924,” by John Elliott. Before the end of the year, the high school district was formed and five trustees were selected from 14 candidates. They were: D.C. Cole, Albert Ragle, Philip W. Davis, J.G. Howard and W.V. Brown. On Sept. 23, 1914 the first classes were held in the second story of the “Brick Block” building at the southwest corner of Valencia and Naranjo boulevards. By 1916, the enrollment had doubled to 65.
After serving in World War I, Ralph fell in love with a girl and brought his wife Jessie to the ranch. Ainley said it was a difficult transition for this mother who was the daughter of a doctor and a “city girl” from Berkeley who used to electricity. Lifelong Woodlake resident Frank Ainley remembers his mother as a “true lady” but who wasn’t afraid of hard work.
“She washed all of the clothes by hand and rinsed them all by hand,” Frank said.
Woodlake Union High School was dedicated on Jan. 13, 2017. The brochure described the Mission-style building “as modern and as well equipped as any institution for learning in this part of California.” It had eight classrooms, a spacious auditorium, library “with space for a moving picture machine” and had a fully equipped shop, was lighted by electricity and had its own water supply.
In 1936, Ralph Ainley was elected to the Board of Trustees. Ralph’s brother, Charles, started teaching Spanish, history and was the track coach at WHS from 1944-1954. Charles spoke fluent Spanish after he and his wife Vera spent a semester as missionaries in Mexico. According to an article in the Fall 2011 issues of the WHS Foundation newsletter, their five children were all graduates of WHS: Bill,1945; Chuck, 1946; Robert, 1948; Bette, 1953; Ben, 1956, and his wife Margie Metcalf, 1956. Robert, more commonly known as Bobby, had the distinction of catching the game winning touchdown pass from Johnny Cassity with less than a minute left against Shafter in the 1947 Valley Championship, the first for WHS.
Ralph and Charles’ sister, Ann Hope, married Fred Vanderhoof. They purchased property in Elderwood and raised world-renown purebred Polled Hereford cattle, at one time the largest breeder in the west. Their son, Robert (Bob) attended WHS but graduated elsewhere, married Margaret Mills (1944) and had his veterinary practice at the ranch for many years. Their children, John (1968), Cathy (1969) and Fred (1973) attended Woodlake Schools and graduated from WHS. John and his wife Mary returned to Woodlake; their daughter, Victoria graduated from WHS in 2004.
Anne Hope’s daughter Elizabeth married Leonard Hansen, and settled in Woodlake. Their grandchildren Liz Rose and Luke are both WHS grads in 1990 and 1992 respectively. Cynthia Brickey (1965) whose family resides in Fresno; Betsi (Helgesen (1968) whose husband, Eric came to WHS with Teacher Corps in 1969. Their daughters, Kristen (1992), Katie (1995), are Woodlake grads, but a move to Reedley placed their two sons at Immanuel High School. David (1971) married Janice Walters (1971) and now resides in the Reedley area; where their four children attended schools.
Ralph served on the board until his youngest child graduated from the high school in 1956. Frank said his father was a great man who was highly respected in the community, but it wasn’t easy having your father be on the school board in a small town.
“All of the Ainley’s were good at academics except me,” Frank said. “I was the ornery one.”
As a junior in 1950, Frank recalled dating a senior who invited him to senior ditch day. Not that interested in school at the time, Frank agreed as long as the left in time for him to get back for baseball practice. At the dinner table that night, his father began asking questions about his day in class and eventually called out his son for ditching.
“He gave me a ton of extra work to do, things like digging post holes and fixing fences on the ranch,” Ainley said.
After graduating with the class of 1951, Frank spent a year at the University of Spokane before returning home to attend College of the Sequoias. It was there that he met his future wife, Barbara Brewer of Three Rivers. He remembers the oldest of five children feeding, bathing and tucking in her younger siblings before they could go out on any dates. “She was a mother long before she had children of her own.” They were married in 1954.
In the late 1960s, Frank was looking for a way to reconnect with his alma mater. He asked then Superintendent Bud Loverin if the school needed any help coaching football. Loverin explained that he needed a teaching credential and talked Frank into finishing his degree at Fresno State. Loverin put in a call to Bulldogs track coach Jack Wilcox who agreed to take Frank and guide him through the process. Two years and two summers later, Frank called Loverin to take the teaching job, but was informed he needed to do his student teaching.
“It was a new thing so Fresno State didn’t offer it,” Frank said. “And everyone had already filled their sports for the semester.”
In the fall of 1969, Frank drove down to Thousands Oaks to stand with 200 other teachers seeking a position. He got a spot and was asked to teach two hours of physical education. Even at the age of 36, an odd age to begin teaching in that era, the cowboy struggled to reign in his class. Ainley said the class of misfits were showing up late, goofing off in class and not showing up at all. “I eventually was honest with them. I told them that I was new, I didn’t know what I was doing but that they needed the class more than I needed the job,” he said. “I started running it like a boot camp, but in a fun competitive way, and by the end of the course they were lining up at attention, on time, every day. The Lord gave me a heart for kids and put it to good use.”
In 1970, Frank’s first job at Woodlake High School was team teaching a social science class. He also became the defensive coordinator for the late, great Tigers head coach Leo Robinson from 1970-1997. Over the course of nearly three decades, the duo led the Tigers football team to Valley titles in 1972, 1982, 1989 and three straight from 1985-1987.
“I really respected Leo. He let me do my thing and I ran the defense and he ran the offense,” he said. “He always backed me up on things.”
After two hours of pushing the kids hard, Frank remembers spending hours after practice just talking with young men about life.
“The great thing about Woodlake High School is that all the kids are respectful,” he said. “They might come in late, not pay attention or disrupt the class but they were never intentionally disrespectful.”
Frank went on to coach baseball from 1976-1980, 12 years of freshman basketball and one year of softball. After Robinson’s retirement in 2002, Ainley served as the high school’s athletic director until his own retirement in 2006 at the age of 72.
“I retired because the technology was catching up to me,” he said. “But I did learn how to text so I can keep in touch with my grandchildren.”
While Frank was teaching and coaching, Barbara worked in the Health Center and helped out in the front office. Together, they got to see all four of their children graduate from Woodlake High School – Tim, 1973; Annette, 1974; Frank Jr., 1977; and Craig, 1980. Barbara retired in 1992 and passed away in 2014. Frank said having a job that allowed him to spend so much time with his family and to build relationships with other families in town was something special. He said he never had a student that he couldn’t find a way to connect with.
“Some teachers would send students to the office at the first sign of problems, but I never saw anything I couldn’t handle in the classroom,” Frank said. “I’d let them get it off their chest, talk with them and always leave that meeting with something positive. I wanted every student to feel they were important, and important to me.”
One of the biggest changes in the school came in 1969 when Superintendent Loverin instituted modular scheduling, where students could create their own schedule based on class offerings at certain times of the day. Similar to a college campus, students were often seen hanging out during class and teachers often couldn’t track students down in a timely manner. Ainley said many teachers “had trouble with the change” but the schedule did have positive academic results. During modular scheduling from 1969-1977, WHS earned the designation as a Model School. Both Ainley and fellow educator Sally Pace remember visitors from all over the country, sometimes as many as 50 people, touring classrooms to observe the scheduling.
“Bud was a great man and never afraid to try something new and different,” Ainley said. “He was always looking for a way to make our school better.”
The School Board upended modular scheduling in 1977 and went back to the standard, 7-day period. From 1996 to 2004 and again from 2006 to 2010, WHS used a trimester system before settling on the six period scheduling it has today.
Ainley was also the school’s activity director from 1976-2000. He remembers helping to organize the first Career Day and a former tradition where students would hold an open house for the community that they organized to share the project that they clubs and organizations were working on.
“School spirit is the most important thing at a high school,” Ainley said. “If we have great spirit in the beginning of the year than I knew we’d have a great year.”
In 1987, Ainley helped organize an homage to Woodlake High School’s first graduating class by getting six of the nine graduates on campus. “One of them was a yell leader and got the Tiger chant going at the assembly with our pep squad. That was something really neat for the kids to see.”
Next June, Woodlake High School will graduate its 100th class of students. And Frank Ainley will be there to celebrate the bond they share. “Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger.”