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Earth Day at Wenatchee High School, 1970 – 6/8/2024

Courtesy of The Wenatchee World. Wenatchee High School students bag trash they found along the Squilchuck Road on America’s first Earth Day 40 years ago. From left, they are Jeanie Jeffery, Dave Foraker, Pam Halverson, Linda Haw and Rick Swanson.

Written by Bill Asplund

I was sitting at my desk in the chemistry room at Wenatchee High School reading a news release about the value of involving students with the coming “Earth Day,” April 22, 1970. I was impressed with this novel idea of increasing environmental awareness across America.

Discussing some ideas with my friend Dave DeJong, an English teacher at the high school, we came up with having students pick up junk along the Squilchuck road, from the little grocery store in south Wenatchee to Squilchuck Park on the way to Mission Ridge.

The plan began by asking for the city’s help. It was as follows: the students would pick up garbage and place it in large black plastic bags, leaving them along Squilchuck Road. The city would bring the bags back to the school.

The original plan was parking these large dump ­trucks along the street, in front of the school, for
publicity. The city agreed, offering two trucks for this project. Dave and I were pleased.

Next was requesting two buses from the school district for our field trip. The kids would be dropped off at established points along the road. Any student could go, except they must obtain parent and their teacher’s permission using signed permission slips. We prepared a written plan and submitted it to Vice Principal Bud Weiss. Mr. Weiss approved our plans. As we were organizing the project, Principal Tom Byrne called me to the office for further discussions about our Earth Day field trip. Tom thought it was a great idea and gave us both his blessing. Tom’s concern was kids having supervision and being returned at school in time, not missing their bus home.

Earth Day arrived and the troops were assembled. Wearing old clothes, with gloves in hand and their high school enthusiasm, they were ready. Teams were formed and their helpers assigned positions. We began the field trip with :he city trucks following us one hour later to pick up full black bags, old tires and scrap metal.

Some girls complained that some boys escaped from our work party. I took names and spoke with them the next day.

Courtesy of The Wenatchee World. A pile of trash four feet tall and nearly 20 feet across was built on the Wenatchee High School lawn while Earth Day speakers talked to students on April 22, 1970.

Looking for publicity for student project

A week earlier, I had met in person with Mr. Hu Blonk, city editor for the Wenatchee Daily World. I requested that a news reporter come to the school and do a story about these kids. I said the reporter should be there about 2 p.m. as the trucks should be parked along the curb in front of the high school. Mr. Blonk was not too receptive, telling me: I only have so many reporters, besides we did a story of the Honor Society at your school last week. We are not a special paper to only one school. I pleaded with him. His reply was – Maybe! As I left the news room, I said, “Please come.” There were no smiles from the editor.

Now, looking at the trucks filled with black plastic bags, I became excited about the response from these kids. A driver asked where I wanted this stuff. With a vision of effectively demonstrating what these kids had done, I told the driver to dump it all on the school’s front lawn, as I had newspaper people coming. The drivers followed my request; they dumped two truckloads on the grass.

Dave and I were proud of our students’ accomp­lishments. But we were concerned seeing Mr. Tom Byrne approaching us – no smiles. “What are you doing, dumping this garbage on the school’s front lawn?” I told him about Hu Blonk from the newspaper coming to do a story about our Earth Day school project. Tom looked at me and asked, “Who is cleaning up this garbage from our school?” I told him that Dave and I and some kids were to work cleaning it up. Tom told me he wanted not one scrap of paper left on this lawn tomorrow morning. “Do you understand?” Our answer was a solemn: “Yes, sir!”

There was a problem. I did not have a secure com­mitment from Hu Blonk for a story. I ran into the school and called the editor, informing him the garbage was now on the school lawn and I may be in trouble as I had forgotten to request permission before dumping the garbage. “Hu,” I pleaded, “you must come and help me out of this mess!” Happily, a reporter soon arrived.

All the garbage was removed by 4:30 that day with kids helping picking up and throwing the bags into huge trucks. Principal Tom visited with Dave and me as we were throwing garbage. He complimented us on our project. Tom also suggested that we fully disclose our field trip plans from now on.

The principal had a great view of our ecological progress as the garbage pile was directly below his office window.

It has been nearly 40 years since Dave and I worked on this first Earth Day project. I think of it often. One benefit I personally received from the experience was getting to know World editor Hu Blonk. During the political movement in the early 1970s establishing the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and the deposit bottle bill, Initiative 256, Hu helped me with encouragement and information how to win and succeed with my political views with newspapers. I remember when Hu introduced me to U.S. Senator Henry Jackson.

As I sit in front of this most modern communication machine and reflecting upon my 26 years’ teaching career, I am proud to have been a teacher at Wenatchee High School.

Photo of Bill Asplund

First Earth Day

Hundreds of thousands of Americans joined in observing the first Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22, 1970. The day was meant to call attention to the need to preserve our fragile planet by ending pollution, decreasing resource use, and cleaning up the landscape. Marches, demonstrations, rallies and grass-roots projects were conducted across the country. The National Education Association estimated that 10 million public school children attended teach-in programs, with smaller numbers participating in projects like picking up litter.

At Chelan High School, world affairs teacher Stan Mettler organized a student crew to clean up the shoreline of the Chelan River. Eastmont High School brought in three speakers to discuss various phases of environmental deterioration. Wenatchee Valley College students spent the afternoon gathering trash along the Wenatchee River. Pioneer Middle School teachers and students followed Wenatchee mayor Walter Young on a short Earth Day march. Other elementary schools did cleanup projects at their schools and in city parks.

Wenatchee Daily World reporter Jeanne Doering talked to one of the high school girls picking up garbage on Squilchuck Road. The student said the litter outing had made her “want to pick up every can in sight.” An unidentified teacher with them eyed the large, bulging bags of garbage placed every 1,000 feet along the roadway.

“They say black is beautiful,” he said.

This story was originally published in Confluence Magazine in the Spring edition of 2010. In an effort to preserve these stories, the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center will be posting these stories on the museum’s official blog.

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