CHAMPAIGN – Jennifer Van Ness said she started her Central High School education confidently, knowing family members had walked the same halls successfully.
"I feel special to be the fourth generation to go to the school," said Jennifer, a freshman. "My sister loved it here. I knew teachers, and I knew my way around. I felt confident, and that gave me a good start."
Jennifer and other members of her family recently gave Central Principal Bill Freyman a family keepsake – a framed 1884 diploma earned by Soranus Shaw, Jennifer's great-great-great-grandfather, the first member of the family to attend the school.
Robert Shaw, 81, found the diploma in a cherished old desk, which was carved by his great-grandfather, Soranus Shaw, a furniture maker, when he went to the South after the Civil War to help rebuild.
He also found the program for Central's seventh graduation – on May 22, 1884 – when 18 young men and women received their diplomas, and is framing it to give to the school.
"The school was named West Champaign High School when my grandfather, also named Soranus, graduated in 1884," Shaw said. "In those days, schools were run by the county, and you could go anywhere you wanted to go. I lived with my grandfather on and off until he died in 1942, just before I graduated from the school."
The Shaw family originally came to Illinois with a land grant from service in the War of 1812.
Robert Shaw's grandfather was also a builder who constructed many houses in the Champaign area.
Shaw said he started high school just after state schools were organized into independent districts. "My aunt was on the board then, and there was a lot of fighting," he said. "There was talk about sending Bondville children to Mahomet, and Bondville didn't want to go to Mahomet. They'd always come to Champaign."
Shaw said his high school career was overshadowed by the war raging in Europe and the Pacific.
"We didn't care about school," he said. "The war was on everyone's mind."
He recalled that the high school he attended was at the corner of Hill and Randolph streets. The original Central building was built in 1935 as a junior high school.
Shaw's daughter, Cheryl, also attended Central, She and her husband, Phil Van Ness, are parents of Jennifer and another Central graduate, Elizabeth Van Ness.
Phil Van Ness has served on the Champaign school board, and he's a chairman of the committee now promoting a $65 million referendum to build new schools in the district.
Freyman said he's looking for articles documenting the school's history, and he hopes, with help from the school's alumni association, to find a place in the school for an archive room with permanent and rotating displays of school history.
Freyman said he also has an original copy of Champaign High School's "Fidelity" school song that dates back to 1912.
"One of our band directors is interested in creating a new alma mater based on our history," Freyman said. "We want to learn more about our history and our culture."