By Jim Tortolano
The decade had just begun to roar. The roads were dusty and trod by horses and Model A Fords. Movies were silent and the tallest building in town was a grain silo.
It was September 1921 and the rural village of Garden Grove finally got something it had lacked since its birth in 1874, two years before Custer’s Last Stand.
It was the debut of Garden Grove Union High School.
Fast forward one full century, and Garden Grove High is now almost 100 years old. The village has turned into a city of over 170,000 people, and the noisy flivvers are giving way to quiet Teslas and Bolts. Over all those years, GGHS has had a celebrated existence and now it’s time to celebrate.
For Principal Todd Nirk, all those decades have contributed to what he feels is unique about the home of the Argonauts on Stanford Avenue.
“I think that anything that is so successful and stands the test of time becomes somewhat legendary in nature,” he said, “and that’s what we have built at GGHS. We’ve been outstanding in the classroom, preparing students for post-secondary success. Our athletic programs have excelled in all sports and for as long as we’ve been open, as far as I can tell.
“And we have a school climate that is second to none,” he added. “Our kids are amazing and take pride in their school which generates that positive culture year after year. When you put all those things together, it’s not surprising that we’ve become the place where families want their kids to be.”
But before September 1921, if you lived in Garden Grove, your only choices for high school were in Santa Ana or Anaheim. The then-Garden Grove Elementary School District only went to eighth grade.
The impetus for finally changing that came when the state legislature passed a law that allowed high school districts to absorb neighboring school systems without high schools. When Tustin and Santa Ana started to make their moves, local pride was outraged and the GGUHSD was rapidly organized.
First in temporary quarters in 1921 and later moved to its present location in 1923, Garden Grove High was only the sixth secondary school in Orange County. The school colors were originally blue-and-white and the team nickname was “Chili Peppers,” reflecting the dominant local crop of the time.
All that is being remembered at the school. Some sports teams will be wearing blue uniforms with “Chili Peppers” across the front, and a campus-wide event is set for Sept. 15.
But recalling the school’s heritage is not just a one-shot thing. Incoming freshmen are taught the school’s “Alma Mater” and the journalism program focuses a page on GGHS history, recalling events such as the effects of the 1933 earthquake, the legend of “Lizzie the Ghost,” and the heroics of 1999 graduate Michael Monsoor, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless act during the Global War on Terror.
And, each June, the school honors former grads stretching back five generations with ties all the way back to the era of Model A’s and silent movies.
Does all of this matter to the teenagers who attend GGHS?
“I do think it’s special,” said Jasmine Peraza, 17, student body president. “I feel like we do have a lot of new traditions and old traditions and the traditions that we still keep now. So it’s really special to see alumni come back and talk about the same events we still do today.”