At age 50, she's still big and beautiful. Beginning this year, Perry Hall High School will mark a half-century of existence with celebratory events stretching 14 months.
"It's going to be a party," Principal George Roberts said.
The scope of the celebration befits the size of the school, which, student-population-wise, is a monster.
As it approaches a landmark year, Perry Hall boasts a student body that has frequently reached or exceeded 2,300 students. This year, it's a shade over 2,200. Student spillover fills nine trailers.
Alumni number 24,000 for a school with enrollment boundaries that reach Harford County on the north, Route 43 on the south, Old Harford Road on the west, and Philadelphia Road — and the Chesapeake Bay — on the east.
A school big enough to have five assistant principals, one of the largest cadre in the county, is also the centerpiece institution in Perry Hall.
"Perry Hall High School is really the glue that helps bind the community together," said Baltimore County Councilman David Marks, a 1991 PHHS alumnus.
"Perry Hall is very sprawling and suburban, but the high school brings it together," he said.
When the school opened in 1963, it was housed in the building that is now Perry Hall Middle School, drawing new students from Parkville and Overlea high schools. The current high school opened five years later.
Mary (Harvey) Miller was not only in the first graduating class in 1965, she was part of the first wave of black students to integrate Baltimore County's public school system. She spent her senior year in an honors class.
"After the things I went through coming up (in the school system), Perry Hall was really more friendly. It was a different atmosphere," she said. "It structured me. I accepted challenges better."
Miller, who retired in 2009 as the state's Equal Opportunity Employment coordinator, has had three children and a grandson also graduate from Perry Hall High. She is currently serving on the alumni association's 50th Anniversary Committee.
Another member of the first graduating class, Diane Knoedler, recalled an idyllic social scene.
"We didn't seem to have a care in the world. Everything was at a slower pace," she said. "We would go to Perry Hall Elementary for teen center ... and the music was great back then."
The parking lot at Perry Hall Shopping Center was a regular hangout.
"We would go by the bowling alley ... and sit on the hoods of our cars and listen to music," she said. "Then, after an hour or so, we would get scattered by the police. Not that we were doing anything bad, other than loitering."
Cindy (King) Horn, Class of 1978 and also a member of the 50th Anniversary Committee, rode a bus to school from her home in rural Fork, near the Harford County line.
"I slept a lot," she said. "I was a fortunate girl, though. I could get up, fix my hair and be right out the door."
Her's was the last class to wear unsightly gym uniforms, she said.
"It was this ugly yellow snap-up tennis dress with bloomers. I don't know one girl that liked them."
Now an insurance agent with King Loss & Co. and living in Fallston, she credits her mentoring by guidance counselor Bruce Seward and her experience in a career students program in her senior year with giving her a leg up in the business world.
Tim Crotty, Class of 1970, said the school was big from the start.
"We had 800 in our class alone," he said.
When he entered the school in 1967, he said, he discovered it was the only school in the county with a "conversation center."
"You could go to study hall and were allowed to talk. You could carry on a conversation while studying. That was unique in Baltimore County," he said.
Crotty said there was no going home right away after school. He was a member of the Gators football, wrestling and track teams. Crotty credits his football coach, Albert B. Miller Jr., with being the "greatest football coach ever."
What position did Crotty play?
"Any one the coach told me to play."
Crotty credited his high school years with launching him into a teaching position at the Maryland School for the Blind. "Perry Hall pushed me to become a teacher," he said.
Mark Owings, Class of 1981, remembered talent shows featuring student rock bands, pep rallies, wood and auto shop classes, square dancing, and a student campaign to put a stop to one-way stairwells.
"Everybody talked about what concerts they went to. Rush at the Capitol Center in 1980 — everyone was talking about that one," he said.
Marks, the first Perry Hall alumnus elected to the Baltimore County Council, was a walker then and still lives close to the school. He was in the Class Senate, and a member of the cross country team and the "It's Academic" team.
"We had a Homecoming Parade right down Ebenezer Road, award-winning sports teams, a nationally renowned marching band and an infectious sense of pride," he said.
Marks currently serves on the 50th Anniversary Committee and co-chairs its Time-Capsule Committee.
Roberts, the school's sixth principal — the first was Maynard Keadle — said one of the most anticipated events will be the creation of a video history of the school by a research class that was organized two years ago. Plans are to screen the video at a cocktail party with at least 800 guests on March 15, 2014, at the Towson Sheraton.
He said the school is unique in the special place it holds within the generations it has served, adding that some of the Class of 2013 are grandchildren of the Class of 1965.
"Without a doubt, this school is the heart of the community. Not just geographically, but figuratively. People have a special feel about it. ... Our teachers tend not to leave," the principal said.
How does the administration help students at Perry Hall High avoid feeling like a face in the crowd?
"They see us, not just in the hallways, but at sporting events, ceremonies, field trips, in the classrooms," he said. "They know they can come down to the office and talk to us."
Steve Arnold, the assistant principal in charge of the 50th celebration, said his main job now is getting the word out to thousands of alumni.
Oct. 18 is shaping up as a big day, a traditional homecoming with, of course, a big parade.
"The (football) game will be sold out, but there will be tents with tailgating. Maybe we'll group decades together for special parties," he said. "We want to invite people to be part of the tradition."
School history has had colorful moments, including John Waters filming parts of the original "Hairspray" movie there in 1987. The school also shows up in a DVD extra for "Heavy Metal Parking Lot," a documentary short about Judas Priest fans. According to Wikipedia, the "star" of the 1986 movie is a Perry Hall graduate who goes by the moniker Zebraman.
Noteworthy alumni of the school, in addition to Marks, include Reggie Aqui, a CNN anchor; Alfred W. Redmer Jr., former state delegate and Maryland insurance commissioner; Chuck Porter, a former pitcher for the Milwaukee Brewers; James F. Ports Jr., state delegate; and Tonja Walker, the 1980 Miss Maryland who went on to act in TV series including "Capitol," "General Hospital" and "One Life to Live."
Unfortunately, a recent event is also one that links the school to gun violence.
Google "Perry Hall High School" and you are inevitably offered "shooting." On the first day of school last fall, Robert W. Gladden Jr., 15, brought a shotgun to school and opened fire in the cafeteria, seriously wounding fellow student Daniel Borowy, 17, before Gladden was tackled and subdued. Gladden, charged as an adult, pleaded guilty to attempted murder on Feb. 19.
(Information on Gladden's trial is in our News section and on explorebaltimorecounty.com.)
As that incident recedes into history, other things are on the minds of those within the orbit of the big school on Ebenezer Road as it prepares to celebrate its first half century and embark on its next journey.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun