One of the best and most formative experiences of my life was belonging to the first class of students bused to Manual High School in 1974. It is a sentiment echoed by many of my fellow classmates from those years and it has heavily influenced the way we, as a group, understand the world and our relationships in it. It would not be an overstatement to say that the long-lasting effects of our unique experience were positive and enriching. We are proud to say we are Manual Thunderbolts.
In 1974, acting under the direction of the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge William Doyle issued an order that the Denver Public Schools (DPS) be desegregated. Manual was designated to receive new students from predominantly white neighborhoods. Determined to make integration a success at Manual, Colorado’s first African-American high school principal, James D. Ward, began recruiting teachers from George Washington High School. George Washington students living in Denver’s Crestmoor neighborhood were among those transitioning to Manual, and Ward was committed to ensuring the safety and success of all new students arriving as part of the desegregation order. Ward established a group of teachers, parents and students to help foster a welcoming atmosphere integral to a successful transition.
Dedicated to providing guidance, inclusion and opportunity to all students, Ward began his career at DPS as a teacher at Whittier Elementary School. He moved to Cole Junior High School, serving as assistant principal, then served as principal at Wyatt Elementary School before finally moving to Manual in 1966. At Manual, Ward again made history by appointing the first African-American coaches, Ed Calloway, Sr. (varsity basketball), Alex Burl (varsity football), Ira Brown (varsity tennis) and Lonnie Porter (assistant basketball), in a Colorado public high school.
A constant presence in the foyer, hallways, courtyard and lunchroom, Ward bantered with students as he encouraged them to move along between classes. Ward also attended sports events, music concerts, school plays and extracurricular activities that took place outside of normal school hours. Encouraging student collaboration, Ward led by example.
Mary Weber, a 1978 Manual graduate says, “I don’t know why desegregation worked so well at Manual. Maybe it was because, for a change, the white kids were bused into the black community. Maybe it was because it was a smaller school than most urban high schools. A lot of the credit goes to our warm and gregarious principal, ‘Big Jim’ Ward, who was everybody’s friend. He brought in some of the best teachers from other schools and met with black and white parents to reassure them that everything would be fine. He instilled a sense of pride in us that made us want to prove that our school could work. Jim Ward was a transformational figure. He was the right person to lead us through those tumultuous days.”
Walter Huff grew up down the street from Manual and graduated in 1978. He remembers the neighborhood anticipating the start of the school year and the influx of bused students. “Everyone thought there might be problems, but there weren’t any. That was mostly due to Mr. Ward meeting with families and students to let them know how things would work.” Huff remembers Ward with fondness, saying, “Mr. Ward gave lots of love but he was very disciplined. He was very interested in our education and if you acted like you weren’t at school to learn, he let you know that wasn’t okay.” Huff attributes the cooperative atmosphere at Manual to Ward. “He had the skill set to ensure people from all areas got along. He was almost like a matchmaker in that way.” These days, Huff volunteers time at Manual serving as a mentor to students. He is also active in the Friends of Manual Alumni Group. “Some of the best times of my life were at Manual,” says Huff.
As a sophomore, Mark “Paco” Slosky remembers attending the State Basketball Championship finals in 1976. Manual faced off against Cherry Creek High School at Denver’s McNichols Arena. The Manual High School Thunderbolts had been ranked second all yearlong, trailing top-ranked Cherry Creek. The game pitted one of the wealthiest suburban high schools in the state against one of the smallest inner-city schools. Both teams were undefeated heading into the game.
Slosky had missed his ride and arrived just before the tipoff. Searching desperately for a place to sit, he realized his only option might be to sit on the side of the opposing Cherry Creek team. As he recalls, “I was sure I wouldn’t find a seat on the Manual side and I was getting panicked. I heard a booming voice yelling, ‘Paco Slosky, get over here!’ It was Mr. Ward. I had never had a conversation with him and had no idea that he even knew who I was. I sat next to him to watch one of the best back-and-forth games in Colorado history. Manual won the game and the state championship. Mr. Ward grabbed me and hugged me for what seemed like an eternity. When I looked up at him, he had tears of joy streaming down his face. At that moment, I knew I was a Thunderbolt for life.”
Ward recruited Dr. Joyce Marie Davis, the first African-American vocal music director and instructor in a Colorado senior high school. Davis was the vocal music director at Manual from 1970 until her retirement in 1992. She led the concert choir and select choir (Bolt Vibration) in performances throughout the state, including the governor’s inauguration and a performance that aired on Channel 7, KMGH television.
Davis’s daughter Ervia Davis recalls, “Mama and Mr. Ward had a relationship based upon extreme admiration and respect. He made sure she always knew he had her back and she had what she needed.”
Davis introduced her students to music of all genres. “Racial differences made no difference to my mother,” says Davis. “Her attitude was, kids are kids and students are students. Music can engage everyone equally.”
Dick Jordan, another teacher recruited by Ward, taught history and guided a school river trip each May. Joking with each year’s class, he speculated that in the year 2000, if all of his students gave him one dollar, he’d be a rich man. Several of Jordan’s former students organized to make that dream come true. Hundreds of students met Jordan downtown at a pre-arranged gathering to greet him, ring in the new millennium, and reminisce about their Manual experience.
Jarrell McCracken taught at Manual during those years and was committed to the ideals of inclusion and opportunity established by Ward. Fondly remembered by students and fellow teachers, the Jerry McCracken Scholarship Fund was created after his death.
Denver mayor Michael Hancock, a 1987 Manual graduate, recalls Ward serving at the school as a volunteer after his retirement. He says, “Mr. Ward was very present and very respected. The Manual he built was a diverse, open and inclusive place.” Hancock also remembers his time at Manual as an extremely positive experience. “There aren’t many schools that created such opportunities for lasting friendships among students that, otherwise, would probably never have met. Students at Manual came from neighborhoods all over Denver.”
Other notable Manual alumni include the first African-American mayor of Denver, Wellington Webb; the first African-American mayor of Seattle, Norman Rice; boxer, poet and activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales; writer Ted Conover; and National Public Radio correspondent Scott Horsley. Manual also honed the talents of first-rate basketball and baseball athletes, including Micheal Ray Richardson, Billy Lewis, Daniel Banuelos/Cortez and LaVon Williams.
Manual experienced some difficult years after busing ended and Jim Ward retired. However, the McAuliffe Manual middle school program, now in its first year at Smiley, will likely revive memories of Jim Ward’s legacy when it moves to the Manual building next year.
For more information, visit www.friendsofmanual.org.