From Cornfields to Cyberspace

If you look across the street from where my Dad’s office was on North Marion Avenue in Washington, Iowa, you will see the office building that houses the staff of The Washington Evening Journal. This postcard image (right) was taken in front of that building in 1950 with Don Radda’s 23 feet, 71⁄2 inch “World’s Tallest Corn Plant”.

Mr. Radda, who farmed outside of Washington, was known for his record setting corn plants from the late 1930’s to the early 1950’s. Those corn plants appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Guinness Book of World RecordsRipley’s Believe It or Not, and numerous American newspapers and magazines, including the September 11, 1939 issue of Life Magazine.

Don Radda’s 23 feet, 7 ½ inch “World’s Tallest Corn Plant”

Like the “World’s Tallest Corn Plant” in the picture, 1950 was also the year that I started growing, first in Minnesota, then in Iowa. My family lived in Kalona during my grade school and junior high school years, and then we moved 15 miles south to Washington in 1965 and I graduated from Washington High School in 1968.

In 2008, my graduating class held it’s 40th Class Reunion. I live in California and was unable to attend, but I had an idea about how I could participate in the celebration: I would scan the 1968 yearbook and put it on my websiteI contacted my best friend in high school, Randy Hilfman, and convinced him to send me a copy of his 1968 Hi-Life yearbook. He was reluctant to part with the yearbook itself, so he copied every page on a copy machine and sent that to me. When I got it, I started scanning it and building it into an item.

The project took longer than I thought it would to complete due to the amount of imaging processing that had to be performed on the copied images, and I didn’t complete it in time for the class reunion. But I did get it done and posted and I notified all of my classmates that were on the email list compiled by the reunion committee.

The 1960 cover of Hi-Life

Then I wondered, “Could I find more Hi-Life yearbooks on eBay?” The answer was “yes”, and I purchased the 1960, 1961, and 1962 yearbooks. As you can see, the 1960 Hi-Life cover (below) is the most interesting or perhaps, provocative of all of the 91 covers from 1920 to 2010. Washington High School’s team name was “The Demons” and our mascot was “The Demon” and all that decorates that yearbook cover was the head of “The Demon”. That’s it, no text, no other images, just the head of “The Demon”. This was not a demon that required an exorcist; this was one of those demons that goes trick-or-treating on Halloween night.

As I was scanning these three Hi-Lifes, I decided that I would run an advertisement in the Washington Evening Journal (of world’s tallest corn plant fame) and offer the same amount I paid for the 1960,

1961, and 1962 Hi-Lifes. The response of the townspeople was astounding, and I purchased every Hi-Life from 1920 (the very first issue) to 1989. The reason I stopped at 1989 was because of copyright concerns, which were later resolved and a second wave of yearbooks were purchased (1990 through 2010) directly from Holly Soboroff , head of the Washington High School Journalism Department.

A Washington resident also sold me a book written by Floyd A. Shaw, an alumnus from the class of 1909, titled “Washington Academy – Its History and Service”. This was a 200 page book containing the history of Washington High School dating back to founding of Washington Academy in 1870 by Professor S. E. McKee (right). It also contains class pictures from 1880 through 1910.

For 8 months I scanned and image processed every page of Floyd Shaw’s book and every page of every Hi-Life from 1920 through 1989, 70 years in all. I also wrote the navigation software that runs the yearbook website: PDF files of each Hi- Life were created and placed on a computer data DVD (DVD-ROM) named “Hi-Life Yearbook PDF Files 1920 Through 1989” (left) and given to anyone who requested the DVD, free of charge.

The website software is a PHP/MySQL-based navigation engine that displays the tables of contents and page images of each Hi-Life. I took that code (I am a software engineer by profession), converted it to JavaScript, and put the entire website on a computer data DVD (DVD-ROM) so that the website could be run on an individual’s computer without any Internet access required. I called it the “WHS Yearbooks Website on DVD” (right) and offered it free of charge, too.

After the release of these two DVD’s and much research with my copyright attorney, a green light was given to scan and process the rest of the past Hi-Life yearbooks. I refer to the 2011 Hi-Life as the “current yearbook” which will be posted on when the Class of 2012 graduates and the 2012 Hi-Life becomes the “current yearbook”. This is to allow for the current Hi-Life to be sold exclusively by the Washington High School Journalism Department for one whole year.

On December 12, 2011, I ordered a cake (above) from the local Hy-Vee and had it delivered to the Holly Soboroff’s Journalism room at Washington High School to celebrate the completion of the entire project. That day, Washington High School became the high school with the largest complete collection of on-line past yearbooks on the Earth. Here, my young fellow alumni pose with the cake for the camera. Left to right are Tiffany Allender, Paiton Leyden, Caitlin Yeggy, Nick Gingerich, and editor Brooklyn Reid. I assume they ate some of it after this picture was taken.