History » 1960's

1960's

The 60's began deceptively peacefully. The sense of well-being in the communities served by Mark Keppel High School could well have been the calm before the storm. Scott Mangrum ('69) thinks that the watershed might have been the year 1967-68: "It seems to me that in my freshman year (1965-66) Keppel still reflected 50's values. Miss Arzt still enforced hemlines. Boys could not wear their hair over their ears. There was even a strict dress code for teachers.

"Every school morning at 7:45 sharp, all students and staff-no matter what they were doing at the time, inside the building or outdoors-were required to face the flagpole at attention while the American flag was raised. School discipline was tightly regulated on a merit/demerit system. The physical education classes were highly regimented, and conformity was the virtue of the day."

Suddenly, as though someone had merely flipped a wall switch, everything changed. The 1967-68 year began with a radical relaxation of the dress code. Miniskirts began appearing. Girls were wearing pants to school unchallenged. Boys began sporting the Beatle-esque mop-top hair style. And the changes were not merely cosmetic. The counter culture had made its way onto the Keppel campus. In classes, in the lunch court, and on the athletic fields there was talk of drugs and drug use. Whether or not students were actually experimenting with marijuana and LSD, drugs were the talk of the school. Administrators and staff, unprepared for this radical shift in values, tried vainly to assert discipline.

At the same time that the counter culture was finding a place on the campus, a shift in the ethnic makeup of the student body was occurring. As some whites began moving out of Keppel's attendance area, Mexican-Americans were moving out of East Los Angeles and into the area. As the stability of long time residence weakened, racial tensions began to emerge. Scott Mangrum remembers those times: "In a way, Keppel was becoming a school made up of strangers. I remember that I hung around with a few friends I grew up with and with whom I attended school since elementary. Now suddenly, it seemed there were a lot of kids I didn't know. There were white kids I didn't know and there were Mexican kids I didn't know."

In this milieu, many students perceived that ASB was irrelevant, an exclusive clique whose activities only inflated their own egos, and for these students school was not what was happening, although the most popular campus activity still continued to be the school dance-with a 60's spin. These dances featured live bands-many with name bands like Iron Butterfly performing-and the psychedelic light shows popular at the time.

Cruising continued to be a popular off-campus pastime. The car of choice for cruising was a custom '56 or '57 Chevy. But the Monterey Park and Garfield theaters were past their prime, and more and more teens opted for drive-in movies where they could watch a flick and show off their car.

Conditions were difficult in the classroom. In the 50's, the San Bernardino Freeway had been build along the north side of campus, separated from the school by only a chain link fence; and by the 60's, students had to either endure the deafening din of freeway noise or close the windows and swelter in non-air-conditioned classrooms.

In spite of everything, the number of students attending Keppel continued to grow. By the mid-60's the school population numbered between 2,500 and 3,000 students. And bungalows 1-9 had already been installed beside the lunch court.

The girls' gym was constructed in the mid-fifties. An expansion to the girls' locker room area was built in the 1960's.. No sooner had work begun than an unusual problem arose: A bus stop/shelter had been constructed at the Hellman Avenue entrance to the campus at the same time as the main building in 1939. Cement trucks attempting to deliver their loads to the girls' gym site could not drive beneath the massive concrete and steel structure. The solution seemed simple enough: Get some men to knock it down. The proposers of this solution had no idea how well it had been constructed until they found that sledge hammers made no dent in the shelter. Not even a wrecking ball could penetrate its wall. It took the clearing of neighboring residences and the use of explosives to bring down the massive structure. Engineers marveled at the amount of material that had been used for such a marginally important building.

By the end of the 1960's the face of Mark Keppel High School had completely changed. School apathy, the counter culture, and anti-war and ethnic activism dominated the atmosphere of the time and accurately mirrored the growing cynicism of society in the years following the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Keppelites watch on television as young men-including Keppel graduates-died in the jungles of Vietnam and the Watts section of Los Angeles set itself on fire in angry frustration at social injustice.

Yet amid the tears and the flames, students continued to enroll at Mark Keppel High School in record numbers, and teachers and staff renewed their commitment to the youth of their community. If they just kept the faith, the general feeling seemed to be, things might get better. The 1960's had been a era of social revolution and upheaval. Keppel would survive, stronger, in fact, for the experience.