WOOD RIVER JCT. — The ongoing pandemic means there won’t be a party to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the opening of Chariho High School, but Chariho Development Officer Katie Kirakosian said those who remember the school's first days, back in 1960, would be finding ways to share their memories of the then-newly-built, regional high school.
“We have no plans currently for any in-person celebration, so we’re trying to think of ways that we can virtually, or in small group gatherings, honor this anniversary throughout the school year,” she said.
Chariho principal Craig MacKenzie said the anniversary was an opportunity to appreciate how far the school — and the communities — have come.
“It’s humbling to look back on the history of our school and to see the evolution of teaching and learning in our community,” he said. “I am so proud of the many ways families, businesses and organizations in our three towns invested in our schools, and by the legacy of service reflected in the many faculty and staff who attended Chariho."
Entitled “Le Premier,” French for “The First,” the inaugural Chariho yearbook contains the photographs of 84 students in the first graduating class, many of whom hailed from Westerly and South Kingstown in addition to Charlestown, Richmond and Hopkinton. Chariho was a junior and senior high school until the middle school opened in 1989.
The yearbook dedication read:
“We, the members of the very first graduating class of Chariho Regional High School, are pleased to dedicate our yearbook — so appropriately named ‘Le Premier’ — to the foresighted men and women of the towns of Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton in whose minds and hearts the school was conceived, and through whose devotion, encouragement, persistence, and sacrifice, the idea became reality.”
The photographs of 45 teachers and staff also appear in the yearbook, but only a handful of teachers from that first year are still alive today. Richard Bennett taught English and history, Stuart Douglas taught agriculture and eventually became the director of what was then known as the vocational and technical school, and Edgar Brouillard taught French and Latin.
Douglas recalled that at the time, it seemed to him that the school had been built far out in the country.
“It was really out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “You could come in from Hope Valley, over Mechanic Street there, and then come down Switch Road, it was all dirt.”
Bennett, who taught at Chariho for 30 years, said the opening of the school was delayed until October because the new building wasn’t ready.
“They still were working on the building even when we moved in in October,” he said. “ Instead of having a normal week for Christmas and February vacation and April vacation, we only had three days in all of those vacations because we had to make up 15 days.”
The school’s first principal was Francis Mullen, a former Navy man with a penchant for discipline.
“We prided ourselves on discipline first and everything else afterwards,” Bennett recalled. “Make sure the kids follow the rules, no exceptions. The first principal was a commander in the Navy, so he ran it just like a ship.”
There was no place nearby for Chariho students to congregate, so Bennett said they gathered in Westerly.
“There were no facilities in the three towns,” Bennett said. “That was the nearest area for teens to hang around. Where would they hang around in Chariho?”
Brouillard taught at Chariho from 1960 until his retirement in 1990. Like most of his colleagues, he was new to the profession.
“Being young teachers, there was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm, and I think that as a school … they did an extremely good job right at the start, because everybody was new, everybody wanted to succeed,” he said.
Brouillard, who was unfamiliar with the Chariho area, was struck by the rural culture.
“When I taught there, that was Carolina State Forest across the road,” he said. “The seniors who had hunting licenses, in the fall, they wanted to go hunting. When the deer season opened, they would want to go hunting at dusk, so they would bring their shotguns into school and put it in their locker and put the ammunition up above it in their locker.”
Superintendent of Schools Gina Picard said the high school and the entire community has come a long way since 1960.
“As Chariho embarks on the 60th anniversary, it allows us all to take pause and remember the incredible history that has made Chariho what it is today,” she said. “Remembering our history allows us to build on the strong foundation that has been set. Maya Angelou said ‘if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.’ That is exactly how I feel about Chariho. We should reflect on our past and honor it. Every day, we work to ensure every child that walks through the door will be prepared for the future."
Kirakosian is hoping more members of Chariho’s first graduating class will come forward to share their memories.
“Through social media and other means, we’re hoping to reach a broad audience and connect with former students, anyone who has a connection or has had a connection to the school over the past 60 years, and think about the ways we might celebrate the diversity of experiences,” she said.
Kirakosian is inviting Chariho graduates and former teachers and staff to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (401) 552-7277.