Brookfield Academy alumni recall memories of the school in its earlier years

·8 min read
Students play a game of four square in front of the original school building of the Academy of Basic Education, today known as Brookfield Academy, in the mid-1960's. The building is today known as Founder's Hall, which houses the school's administration.
Students play a game of four square in front of the original school building of the Academy of Basic Education, today known as Brookfield Academy, in the mid-1960's. The building is today known as Founder's Hall, which houses the school's administration.

Intellect. Heritage. Individuality. Truth. Character. Grammar. Phonics. The study of Western civilization.

Those "five pillars" and the study of those subjects have been the pillars of Brookfield Academy's philosophy since its founding in 1962, according to Linda Pryor, the school's executive director of mission and academics.

"There's a lot of things about us that are tried and true and we want to preserve. I think that's part of what's kept us going," she said.

Those core values were critical for the families who founded the school, said Robert Solsrud, former head of school and biology teacher and also a former coach of the high school's football team.

"That's why they have a Founder's Day because they, thankfully, never want to forget their heritage and they want to honor that and they want to keep the essence of what the school is about," he said.

The school held a 50th anniversary reunion for its first graduating class from 1971 in September, bringing back memories of the school's early years for those in attendance.

Memories of being in school

Before Jim Homan became a teacher at the academy's middle school, he was a student at the academy, having graduated from the high school in 1974.

As a student, he felt he connected with his teachers and classmates. He recalled a conversation with a classmate that started during a break between classes and continued through most of the next class period, causing him to miss the class. Homan remembered what the head of the high school at the time, J. Robert Drez, said to him.

"He walked in and said 'Where were you two?" and I said, 'To be perfectly honest, we got into a really good conversation and just lost track of time.' He said 'happens to me all the time.' That was it, because I think there was a lot of trust there," Homan said.

Homan said that conversation was the first time he recalled a teacher having enough trust in his character that the teacher would take his word for what happened and wouldn't need to discuss things further.

"That was a very valuable lesson to me because it helped me being a teacher years later to let the kids know that same lesson in that you are your actions, you are your behavior," he said.

Homan also said he remembers the subjects that formed his academic life — and how those subjects shaped the way he looks at things even now.

"I always think of Latin for the structure of language; I think of geometry — even though I'm not at all a math guy — I think of geometry as the reasoning for putting together proofs, and probably at (Brookfield Academy), those were probably the two most impactful subjects," said Homan.

The principles he learned in Latin are "a very important way to help organize language, which helps organize thoughts," he said.

He said that, with geometry, doing proofs helped him learn how to prove mathematical problems or arguments. Those kinds of principals can help outside of math, as well, he said.

"If they say 'I think asparagus is a fine vegetable' and I say 'I don't,' we're even.

"But if they say, 'Asparagus is a fine vegetable because it has a great nutritional value, it's flavorful, (and) warm vegetables are preferable than cold,' then they've made an argument that's based on facts or at least solid ideas. That can be argued much better than just a thought. Geometry helped with that," Homan explained.

Old pennants showing Brookfield Academy's blue and gold colors and mascot, The Blue Knights, are shown here in a frame at Founder's Hall at the school.
Old pennants showing Brookfield Academy's blue and gold colors and mascot, The Blue Knights, are shown here in a frame at Founder's Hall at the school.

Howard Pryor and his wife, Linda, met while they were students at the school during its early days.

Howard Pryor said the school's focus on individual attention stood out from his previous education experience. He especially appreciated how the competition of trying to keep up at the academy and simply learning how to study contributed to his later years in school.

Linda Pryor, a 1973 graduate, said she attended Catholic school until sixth grade. Her family was neighbors with one of the founding families of the school. She said she kept begging her parents to go because of how her dad talked about the school.

"I didn't really know anyone who went here, but the people I ended up meeting here have become my lifelong friends, which I think is unusual in high school," she said.

As a member of the first graduating class in 1971, Pryor also remembered the sports and activities, participating in football, basketball, track and field and golf.

"We were the first football teams; we were the first drama productions; we were the first clubs. We chose the blue and gold colors. We chose the mascot's name," he said.

But there were some growing pains in those early days, he recalled.

For example, Pryor remembered that the drama club wasn't able to hold rehearsals until 6 p.m. because of sports team practices going on before then.

"It was somebody getting in a car and going to McDonald's or bringing your dinner and doing your homework between practice and rehearsal or during rehearsal if you weren't on stage," said Pryor.

There wasn't an actual stage either.

"It was a couple classrooms that had a sliding door in between them that opened up," said Pryor. "Nothing elaborate. No stage. We did things on the floor with folding chairs."

Pryor said to get the school going, "there was a real commitment to volunteer and be a part of things."

"In the early years, we need(ed) to justify every expense there was going to be for this. We bought our own uniforms the first years. We had four (number) 45s. The second year of football, we found some sort of discount place and (got) used uniforms and got used helmets," Pryor said of the football team's early days.

There was also, as part of the school's culture of service, commitment from students, staff and parents in doing things such as cleaning the blackboards and vacuuming the hallways after school. Some of the mothers volunteered their time to clean on the evenings or on weekends. Solsrud himself even cut the grass on the football field twice a week, Pryor said.

"Being able to do those things and know that you were needed — it provided for a bunch of us a great joy," Pryor said.

History of the school

Students and teachers of the newly formed Academy for Basic Education, which would later become Brookfield Academy, pose for a picture on the first day of classes in 1962.
Students and teachers of the newly formed Academy for Basic Education, which would later become Brookfield Academy, pose for a picture on the first day of classes in 1962.

The school was started by a group of parents concerned about "progressive" education and who wanted more of a focus on traditional teaching methods and texts, as well as a focus on Western civilization, the Judeo-Christian ethic, the "five stars" of intellect, heritage, individuality, truth and character, and parents as "the primary educator," the school's website said.

The school launched in 1962, when William Law, Walter Davis, Bob Baird and William "Bill" Smeeth purchased and converted a ranch-style home on a 12-acre hilltop site in Brookfield into a school and called it the Academy of Basic Education (ABE).

Smeeth became the first head of school. Six teachers were hired and 33 students enrolled, and the school started as a K-8 school. By the school's second year, the academy had 65 students, eight teachers, a new ninth-grade class and a waiting list.

In 1967, the school's Freedom Hall was built and the Upper School, or high school, grades were added. The new high school was called the "College Prep School" at the time. Students in ninth grade in 1967 were the first students to complete high school at the academy and graduated in 1971, according to an email from the school's communications director Melissa Eriksen.

Today, the school teaches students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The school would be renamed Brookfield Academy in 1978, the school's website said.

The 1990s saw the school add a new Upper School building, known as Patriots Hall, the creation of an athletic complex, the purchase of 100 acres of land across the street, and doubled enrollment, the school's website said.

By 2021, the school had 330 students and 42 faculty members in the high school; 1,951 students had graduated between 1971 and 2021.

Today, the school is a 125-acre campus that includes six buildings, four libraries, four gyms, eight science labs, playgrounds and play fields, a lighted football/soccer field, five practice fields, running track, field hockey game field, baseball and softball diamonds, tennis courts, three music studios, five art centers, five computer labs, wireless laptop computers and a fully-networked campus, a fact sheet about the school said.

Celebrating 50 years

Brookfield Academy students, teachers and alumni gather for the school's Founders Day ceremony in September to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class of 1971.
Brookfield Academy students, teachers and alumni gather for the school's Founders Day ceremony in September to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first graduating class of 1971.

The school celebrates Founders Day every Sept. 10.

The 2021 Founders Day ceremony included a speaker from the 1971 class, tours of the high school, a gathering at a former graduate's home, and a commemorative coin toss at Brookfield Academy's football game. A dinner was held at Bluemound Country Club the following evening.

"It was nicely organized. We had lots of help in organizing it, and it was lots of fun," said Howard Pryor.

As a former coach of the school' football team, Solsrud was thankful to be a part of the commemorative coin toss.

"It brought back a lot of memories. When you walk out there with two people you coached as 16-, 17- and 18-year olds, and back as 60-year-olds, it just gave me a heartfelt thanks and gratitude that the hand of Providence brought me here and kept me here for all those years. It was very memorable and very heartwarming," said Solsrud.

Contact Alec Johnson at (262) 875-9469 or alec.johnson@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlecJohnson12.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brookfield Academy alumni remember school in its early days

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