Callaghan: Plaque dedicated to Stadium’s war dead again in its proper spot

May 25, 2014 

It was kind of discouraging that just as we were solving one plaque-related mystery, a second emerged.

It was just after the start of the school year in 2006, and Stadium High School had just celebrated its 100th anniversary by reopening after a two-year renovation. I was standing near the steps to the courtyard with then-Principal Jon Kellett, waiting for the arrival of something that had been missing for 92 years.

That something was a plaque once situated near a stairway into Tacoma Stadium when it opened in 1910. It was a typical commemorative marker with dates of construction, the names of the school board members, the architect, engineer and contractor.

“Erected MCMX By Public Subscription,” it read, noting that what is now known as Stadium Bowl was built with money raised from the public.

I was there as an intermediary in the resolution of a mystery that began in 1914. Sometime after the school board banned intercity football games — and with most towns having just one school that meant a ban on all games — the marker went missing. Speculation at the time was that an angry fan took the plaque in protest because it listed the men who had just cancelled the games in reaction to rowdiness and a near-riot when Aberdeen’s team and fans visited.

And that was it until I received a packet in the mail in July 2006. Inside was a photo of the bronze plaque on top of a copy of a recent News Tribune. What followed was a weekslong cloak-and-dagger story complete with cryptic communication via phone calls, classified ads, code words and pledges of confidentiality.

Finally, a staffer for then-Attorney General Rob McKenna called and said she’d received a call from someone who used the code phrase “White CD.” The caller asked if McKenna would agree to collect the plaque at a Tacoma house and return it to the school, no questions asked.

McKenna was game. But just before he arrived, Kellett and I noticed the lighter square of sandstone on a column beside the front steps. You can see it in Russ Carmack’s photo of Kellett and McKenna carrying the long-missing marker into the school that morning. Clearly something had been removed.

Yet another mystery was disheartening, but not enough to take away from the return of the Tacoma Stadium plaque. I always meant to circle back and try to find out what happened to what I remembered as a commemoration of students killed in the Great War.

I didn’t, beyond finding a photo in the Tacoma Public Library image collection of the dedication, dated May 28, 1926. The Girls Club had placed the plaque along with trees in the parking strip in front of the school as part of a Memorial Day commemoration.

Earlier this spring during a visit to the school, I was surprised but happy to see that the WWI plaque had returned. Was it the original plaque, found and remounted, or a replica? Who had taken on the task of getting it replaced and when?

Current Principal Kevin Ikeda said he wasn’t sure, that it had been there when he took the top job. Likewise, Sam Bell, the district’s chief operations officer, and Pete Wall, the head of planning and construction during the Stadium project who has since retired.

Kellett himself solved the mystery. Now the principal at Life Christian Academy, Kellett said he was troubled that yet another commemorative marker was missing, and he decided to have it replaced.

Old photographs were used to allow a memorial company to create a duplicate. It was reinstalled without ceremony that same year.

“We were all a little embarrassed that it was gone,” he said Wednesday. “We knew we had to get that thing replaced because it was special.”

The trees are long gone, victims of one of any number of renovations of the 108-year-old castle. But the marker placed originally 88 years ago this weekend is back where it belongs.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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