Larry LaRue

Wilson alumni send a message by saving 50-year-old message board

The message board was purchased in 1964, when high school kids fundraised with hootenannies — and people still knew what a hootenanny was.

At Wilson High School, students had decided a year earlier they wanted a board to stand along Orchard Street and post things that needed to be said.

One of the early messages: “Use zip codes.”

“It cost $800 and was installed in ’64,” said William Wesolowski, who graduated in 1963. “It was 9-feet long, 6-foot-6 tall and 2-feet deep. It was artfully made in the shape of a ‘W’ and painted in the school colors — red, white and blue.

“It was beautiful.”

Forty-four years later, that sign was a ruin, and Wilson replaced it with a newfangled digital model. The old one was dumped behind a building on campus. Wesolowski and other alumni saw it there and were saddened.

“I thought it would be great if a bunch of us restored it,” Wesolowski said. “I went to the principal, Dan Besett, and after we talked he said, ‘If that’s what you want to do with it, I’ll find a way to get it to you.’”

That 2009 conversation began a four-year project that would see the old message board lifted, dragged and moved across Tacoma to where it was salvaged and repaired.

And every hand laid upon it belonged to a former Wilson student.

J & D Powder Coating sandblasted the sign when Wesolowski said he found Wilson alumnus Dave Allard willing to do the job.

The board then moved to Fat Daddy Custom and Collisions, a paint and auto body shop owned by brothers Christian and Jason Nall — both Wilson alumni.

“The first day I saw it, I didn’t recognize it,” said Christian Nall. “I asked my brother Jason, ‘What the hell is that thing?

“It was bare metal, pretty rusted out, pitted — it looked like cheese cloth in places — and it had eight bullet holes. My last year at Wilson was 1991, and the sign was in bad shape then.”

The Nalls put a prime coat on the sign, but ran out of time to devote to the project.

Wesolowski next enlisted Ed Menotti, Class of ‘59 — a welder who agreed to fix broken welds on the board.

From there, Wesolowski loaded the board in a trailer and drove to the Proctor District and Cooper’s Collision Corner, owned by Bob Cooper, Wilson Class of ’68.

“We lifted the board a couple of times, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m not picking this thing up again. We’ve got to put it on wheels,’” Cooper said. “It was a mess.

“I remember it sat on a big pole in front of the school. It meant a lot to me.”

Cooper had it painted in the original colors.

Wesolowski then found Mark Boggioni working at American Neon Inc. in Lakewood. Boggioni did not graduate from Wilson — but his wife, Dee, did.

Mark Boggioni completed the message board by handling the neon lighting.

Last summer, nearly four years after the board was saved from the junkyard, it made its refurbished debut at the 50th reunion of the Wilson Class of ’63.

That was great, Wesolowski said. But on Saturday night, there will be a completion of the circle.

That’s when the Class of ’64 — the group that saw the original installation of the message board — will hold its own 50th reunion at the Fircrest Golf Club. The restored board will roll in.

And Wesolowski may do something he’s been thinking about since 2009: He may give the board back to Principal Besett and Wilson High School.

“Ultimately, that’s where I wanted it to go,” Wesolowski said. “It can be rolled into school assemblies, basketball games. It will show the students today that no matter where they go or what they do after they graduate, they’ll always have school spirit.

“Doing this was my way of paying Wilson back for the best three years of my life. They taught me how to think,”

It’s a lovely sentiment. But Cooper, who admits he teared up upon seeing the finished sign, said Wesolowski may have an ulterior motive for returning it to their alma mater.

“He’s been storing it in his garage since 2009,” Cooper deadpanned. “I think he’d like his garage back.”