Peary High lives on in hearts of alumni
by Candace James, Staff Writer, The Gazette Newspapers
March 25, 1998
Adm. Robert Edwin Peary trusted his best sled dogs, his most loyal supporters
and his keenest instincts to explore the Arctic and achieve his goal of
reaching the North Pole.
But it was a group of school children at Aspen Hill Elementary School almost
40 years ago who helped the admiral achieve his second-most consuming
interest being remembered by the world.
The year was 1960 and a new high school in Aspen Hill was being referred to
as Aspen Hill High School, causing confusion with its nearby elementary
cousin, where some of the sixth-grade children happened to be studying
To the children, the fact that the new high school was located on Arctic
Avenue made the idea of naming it after the admiral an obvious choice. They
lobbied the school board and got permission from the Peary family to use the
That same elementary school class later got the honor of being Peary's first
Robert E. Peary High School was closed in 1984 but, though it is gone,
threads of the school's traditions have continued.
The closing of Peary High embittered and saddened the Aspen Hill community.
But the Hebrew Academy of Greater Washington promises to open a private
school in the building and to refurbish it for reopening in 1999.
And in conjunction with the academy, alumni are on the move to preserve some
of the most treasured artifacts which remain tucked away at the school, on
the grounds or at other sites around the county.
Ask Peary graduates about their memories of school or of the symbols and
traditions, and it takes them back to a different time.
Watching the world, Polaris, the North Star, is silent.
Present in the beginning,
It will be here til time is no more.
It has seen life, love, death, and hate.
It masks the past, and conceals the things to come.
And is eternally sworn to guide us --
to the death of Time."
-- Michelle Barlow, 1976 yearbook
"I'd say our biggest memory and tradition was King, the dog," said Neal
Pizzano, a member of the class of 1976, reflecting on his time at Peary.
"Even today if someone was to mention the Huskies, it still brings back the
whole Peary thing."
Self-proclaimed "Pearyites" say there was a whole string of live Huskies
the school commissioned for school events, and all of them were named King.
Peary had named his favorite lead sled dog Nalegaksoah, or "king of the
team," according to lore.
Special treatment for the canines continued even after their deaths. King II
was cremated and his ashes lie in an urn placed in the bell tower when it
was built on the school grounds. King III, who died in 1975, is buried in
the school courtyard.
But the love of Peary's mission didn't end there. The school newspaper, the
literary magazine and the yearbook took romantic names plucked straight from
Peary's expedition to the Pole -- the Midnight Sun, the Aurora and the
Fellow alumnus Bob Lau gave new life to the name Midnight Sun when he
initiated a Web site in August 1996 in an effort to bring together
scattered former classmates and teachers. With only 13 e-mail addresses
when they started, they now have a total of 1,399 classmates and staff
from Peary who are now in touch with each other.
Pizzano emphasized that the Web site and nascent alumni association is not
an effort to live in the past but to make new friends who have a common bond
and move forward with some great memories.
"I think it's greatly important," Pizzano said of the Web site. "Now that
the school is closed there are no ongoing events to bring us together. This
is the brainchild that allowed us to do that. It's that 'find a way or make
Many high schools have been named for famous people, but few go so far as
to take the namesake's motto for their own -- "I will find a way or make
The Latin version of that motto -- "Inveniam viam aut faciam" -- circles
one of the dearest treasures of the school, the five-foot-square school
seal that still has a place in the floor near the front lobby of the
The seal contains an intricate scene of Peary in a sledge drawn by his
sled dogs with the sun rising above the snow as they traverse the globe.
The seal was presented by the third graduating class as a gift to the
Elliot Chabot, former president of the Aspen Hill Civic Association and
a member of the Peary class of 1973, said that efforts are being made in
coordination with the Hebrew Academy to preserve the seal and perhaps the
"We'll try and do that certainly," said Stanley Siegel, the development
director at the Hebrew Academy. "We'll assess what we can do."
Two other artifacts important to alumni are the anchors dedicated to the
school in 1963 by that year's senior class. The anchors are said to
symbolize the admiral's iron will and determination. One life-size
anchor, painted white, that once stood on the front lawn was brought to
the school from a sister ship of the original U.S.S. Robert E. Peary.
The site of many class officer photos, the anchors are gone and are now
located at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring.
But what has been called by students the "most treasured" monument on the
school's campus that remains is the stone bell tower just in front of the
A three-sided structure, which of course points north, is a model of a
60-foot lighthouse that Peary erected in Cape York, Greenland, so that he
and his team could easily find their way back from the North Pole.
Chabot said the bell that used to be in the tower was from one of the U.S.S.
Robert E. Peary ships that was scrapped. When the school closed down, the
bell was sent back to the Navy.
On the sides of the tower were memorial plaques, which have since been
taken off and given to individual families, that were dedicated in memory
of all Peary students who have died in war.
"May this memorial bell tower ring out the joys and the sorrows, remind
us of those whose memories touch our lives, be an enduring monument to
those 'who link us to the past and future.'"
-- the bell tower's mission
At Pizzano's 20-year high school reunion in July 1996, he said the class
decided to do something a little different. For a part of the event, they
held a memorial service for friends and classmates who had passed away.
Displaying two school flags, organizers had an alumna dressed in full
Scottish dress play "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes.
"It blew everyone away," Pizzano said with a sentimental twinkle in his eye.
The simple service reflected so much of Peary, as the high school was one
of a few with its own bagpipe band. The plaid in their uniforms was worn
in honor of Rear Adm. Donald Baxter MacMillan, Peary's assistant on the
North Pole expedition.
Special permission to wear the plaid was secured by students from the
MacMillan Clan of Scotland and from Donald Baxter MacMillan.
Preserving the traditions at Peary is the new mission of the school's
Chabot said the sight of such tangible reminders as the bell tower bring
back "memories of youth" and foster a hope that by keeping parts of Peary
intact, Peary isn't completely gone.
"It is in part a symbol of permanence," Chabot said of the bell tower and
other monuments to the school. "The need for a public high school in Aspen
Hill hasn't gone away. One day, we're hoping to get our high school back."
But perhaps the person who said it best was teacher Ed Burlas who taught at
Peary from the time it opened until the day it closed. He contacted Pizzano
by e-mail with this insightful message which still brings a tear to
"I guess you could never keep the spirit of Peary and joy of being a
Pearyite down for long even though the school doors are closed (for now at
least). I am sure for many of the Peary folks your venture is a light
toward the past and a beacon for the future.
"As teacher, coach, and athletic director our school and the people
who grew up there represent a major part of my life and a time when
values were actions we lived, not just words to read.
"Thanks for keeping the bell ringing."
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