West High sign hopes to honor past, inspire future
Student Oakland Steingass is raising money for a new school sign.
Here’s one way a journalist knows he’s been on the job a while: I can remember interviewing my friends’ grandparents. Now I’m interviewing their grandchildren.
For example, Oakland Steingass, 17, a senior to be at Madison West High School. Oak, as he likes to be called, is the grandson of Susan Steingass, a former distinguished Dane County judge and the second female president of the State Bar of Wisconsin.
Oak’s grandfather and Susan’s former husband is David Steingass, a Madison poet whose work has been praised by Ted Kooser, a past United States poet laureate.
It’s been years since I’ve seen either Susan or David, but when Oak got in touch, I had a hunch he was related. The project he’s spearheading is impressive for a high school student.
The young Steingass hopes to install a new “West High School” sign at the Regent Street entrance to the school in a space that once held such a sign but now is empty. He has been raising money for the project since spring and is close to his goal.
“It started around October of last year,” Steingass says.
Two things motivated him: an appreciation of history and a desire to help his school, which like so many others is habitually strapped for funds.
“I’ve always loved stories,” Steingass says. “For me, history is a story — but it’s true. I’ve always loved researching history, finding out what happened.”
He found some pre-1950s photos of West High’s Regent Street entrance that included the sign. “By the ’60s,” Steingass says, “I’m quite sure it was gone.”
He arranged a meeting with West principal Karen Boran, showed her the historic photo and said he thought a new sign would improve the look of the school and might help morale.
“I also told her I would raise all the money,” Steingass says. “She was completely on board.”
Steingass launched a West High chapter of the National History Club, a national organization that encourages the study of history in middle and high schools.
The nascent chapter floundered, however, with the onset of Covid-19 and the closing of the physical school.
Steingass had been talking with sign companies which resulted in an estimated price of $3,200. He figured he might be able to raise that amount himself.
It was far less expensive than a major renovation of the Ash Street entrance to the school in 2009. They sold personalized bricks for that, and my sister — like me, she’s a West High grad — bought one, dedicating it to the motorcycle rides she took with her high school boyfriend.
The school offered some suggested ways to personalize your brick, one of which I thought was inspired: “Bobby, you still owe me ten bucks from 5/2/1977.”
To finance his Regent Street entrance sign, Steingass worked at soccer camps, mowed lawns, and went door-to-door, wearing a mask.
“I thought I’d be shooed away a lot,” he says of visiting homes. “But apparently a lot of people in my neighborhood are West graduates. They were really on board. It was super cool to see.”
By last week he’d raised $2,600 and established a GoFundMe page to help him cross the finish line. His hope is the sign will be installed by late October.
He also hopes his sign project might get people thinking favorably about referenda slated for the November ballot in Madison asking residents to approve spending more than $300 million for physical upgrades to the public high schools.
“It’s in such dire need of repair,” Steingass said, speaking of West High. “A lot of the lockers are rusted and don’t open. Paint is peeling. Two-thirds of the sinks in the bathrooms don’t work.” The list goes on.
Well, if things go as planned, Oak Steingass’s new West High sign will be in place prior to the November vote.
And what of his plans, post-West High?
“I’d like to go to college,” he says. “After that, I’m planning to go to law school and be a lawyer-judge like my grandma.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.
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