INTERVIEW WITH CHRIST CHRISTOFF
LEW WALLACE HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL 1969-1988
In a sunlit breakfast nook overlooking a back yard filled with bird feeders, I had the privilege of meeting with Mr. Christoff, who served 18 years as principal of Lew Wallace High School in Gary, Indiana.
Mr. Christoff was more than prepared for my visit, using suggested topical guidelines I had submitted to him earlier. Of course we went far into other things as well, but it was fascinating to listen to him and learn more about the school.
Mr. Christoff came to Lew Wallace as principal in 1969, replacing William Vorwald. Mr. Christoff had been on the administrative staff at Froebel High School in Gary as well as other positions in the school corporation. His assistant principals when he arrived were Joseph Black and Alfred Smith.
Serving as long as he did at Lew Wallace, Christoff was confronted with the major shifts in attitudes, morals, and social pressures that came to bear, particularly in the early to mid 1970’s. He remembers male students being sent to his office for a “violation” of the dress code: sideburns longer than what was deemed appropriate, as an example. As a self-described student advocate, Christoff worked within the Gary school system to get dress codes eased in light of the new freedoms of the time. He also recalls one year when the cheerleaders came to him about the uniforms they were wearing for games; with well below-the-knee and box-pleated skirts, they were not comfortable with the school image they projected. In time, the cheerleaders had new uniforms and the squads - junior and varsity - were both integrated racially under his direction.
A special pride of Mr. Christoff’s is that during his tenure, the school housed all the programs for the city that were offered for special needs students. There were sight-impaired classes, hearing impaired, emotionally disturbed, learning delayed and possibly one other he couldn’t quite recall. At one point in time, one of the longtime teachers on staff had had a stroke, but once she was up and about in a wheelchair, she wanted to come back to work with the full blessings of her medical doctor. After brainstorming and tossing ideas around with others, she was assigned to be the guidance counselor for the pupils with disabilities. Ahead of his time, Mr. Christoff was advocating for the disabled individuals of the school, not just students, but staff as well.
Also under his career at Lew Wallace, the school became the only one in all of Indiana to offer five foreign language courses of study. When he arrived, French, Spanish and German classes were available; he brought in through his own efforts Russian and Latin teachers to enrich the curriculum offered. This is one of his special prides as he looks back at his term there.
Mr. Christoff was very integral in developing all the “X” or excelled classes in the Gary schools - and of course Lew Wallace - as well. These new classes branched out into areas that had been largely overlooked before when it came to honors programs such as math, sciences, arts, and foreign languages.
Christoff also, as an active member of the teachers’ union, co-wrote the first collective bargaining agreement/contract in the state. When asked how things went during the teacher’s strikes while he was principal, he commented that he respected what the teachers were asking for, but still had to do his job as principal of the school. During one strike, picketing teachers had chain-locked the school doors from the outside and there was even an unfortunate incident of something being jammed into a door lock. As he was required to report to his building daily, a phone call was placed to the appropriate personnel in the school system, who gave him an example of one principal who had shinnied in through a window at his school. Mr. Christoff’s response was that he would report wherever administrative powers told him to be, but there was no way he would break and enter into his own building.
At the time that Mr. Christoff assumed the helm of the school, Glen Park demographics were basically the same as they had been for the last decade. However, he recalls that during his first year, approximately 300 African-American students were bused into the school from other parts of the city. The next year, that number doubled, and then continued to climb. As Glen Park began to be affected by the “white flight,” the school found itself less and less ethnically mixed.
When asked about racial unrest among the student body, he recalled that the first three years or so that he was there were kind of a wait-and-see period, with underlying tensions but no major confrontations. Finally, the simmering pot overflowed, and there was violence in the building that caused the school to shut down for 2 days. Student sessions were organized under school supervision for kids to talk out their differences as much as possible and not allow the violence to continue or be swept under the rug. When classes were ready to resume, rather than have a police presence throughout the building, Mr. Christoff arranged for other principals and teachers from throughout the city, most of whom were known to a number of the students, to be in the hallways to greet kids with a smile and chat while maintaining order at the same time.
When Christoff arrived, Lew Wallace was set for a minor renovation program which mushroomed into a 3 year, totally campus-altering project beyond the control of the Lew Wallace administrative staff. Mr. Christoff proudly points out that not a school day was lost during the renovation period due to the construction. Frustrations arose when contractor deadlines were not met, and there was often quite a scramble to provide makeshift classroom areas during the renovation period. A partition was installed in the library to fit in a class; the (very) old gym in the West Building was divided and subdivided to accommodate students and teachers. These are just two examples of the ongoing chess game that took place over the renovation years. And by the way: the school ended up being doubled in size and fitted with new facilities such as the Olympic sized pool that eventually went for naught.
In his 18 years as principal at Lew Wallace, Mr. Christoff estimates that he has called the names of approximately 10,000 graduating students.
He speaks with pride of the year the school graduated six national honor scholars and recalls with enthusiasm the city-wide Academic Super Bowl games that were held sometime in the 1970’s. Lew Wallace dominated the city in these exercises for the first - roughly - 5 years. He recalls one year that he and the team’s coach, Shirley Poogach, were seated nervously in the front row of spectators as the point totals teetered back and forth. The two of them were keeping score on their own, and when the proceedings were over, they were elated that their school had won again. But wait - another school was announced as the winner. His face lights up as he speaks of he and Ms Poogach racing backstage to protest the announced results. A recalculation of the points was requested (demanded?) and indeed, the Hornets had won once again.
An anecdote that just makes one shake their head is from the very beginning of Mr. Christoff’s time at the school. He asked the head custodian to please show him around every nook and cranny of the building; not just the main rooms, but the basements and subterranean areas as well. He found a couple of interesting items: first, in a room no larger than some stall showers (which served as the head custodian’s office), was the graduation portrait of the Class of 1932, the school’s first. I think he said it made its way elsewhere more visible shortly. Secondly, when we spoke of the basements and sub-basements of the building, I recalled the old yellow and black “Fallout Shelter” signs that used to be attached to the exterior of the building. Eyes dancing, Mr. Christoff told me that when he first went to the sub-basement, there were signs on the walls left from the Second World War declaring the area an Air Raid Shelter and there were canned rations of food on the shelves! Remember, this was 25 years after the war had ended! Oh, to have a photo of that find.
Christ Christoff is a Gary, Indiana, native, having grown up in the neighborhood surrounding his father’s store near 13th Avenue and Adams Street. I believe he is a Froebel High School graduate who went on to earn a degree and then became a social studies teacher. He also spent time on staff at Emerson High School; when he left Lew Wallace in 1988, he became assistant director for elementary and secondary schools for the city. He estimates that during his administrative career with the Gary schools, he trained 7 or 8 principals and one superintendent of the city schools, Myrtle Campbell.
He served in the military, drafted in 1956, and was all too happy to return to civilian life. His love of history endures today and he is widely read on World War I and World War II, as well as presidential biographies. He is a model train buff and also a very talented artist, working in oils and watercolors.
Asked what his concerns are in today’s education system, he points to the growing prevalence of charter schools, where only certain students are able to receive the education that all deserve. He acknowledges that William Wirt’s “work, play, study” philosophy had lived its lifetime, but the educator in him wants every child to have the chance to succeed.
- Kim Steinert
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