An Honorary Diploma from Washington High School

Linus Pauling holding his honorary high school degree, 1962.

“My early education in Oregon was outstandingly good. My father, who died when I was nine years old, had recognized that I had an unusual interest in reading and in obtaining knowledge. It is my opinion that the many excellent teachers I had contributed very much to fostering this interest. I remember in particular several teachers at Washington High: Miss Pauline Geballe, who taught me my first course in science; William Greene, who taught me my first course in chemistry and gave me special instruction during the following year; and my several teachers in mathematics. I feel that my early education in Oregon was outstandingly good.”

-Linus Pauling, 1962.

Sunday’s historic commencement here at Oregon State University got us to thinking about the conferring of a different degree many years ago. Although Linus Pauling received honorary doctorates from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, it was not until 1962 that he received his twentieth degree, a high school diploma, from Washington High School in Portland, Oregon. As noted previously on the Pauling Blog, the 45 year gap between senior year and diploma was due to a regulation that forbade the young Pauling from taking two courses in American history during the same term, ultimately preventing him from graduating in June 1917.  However, at the time Oregon Agricultural College accepted students who had not graduated from high school, so off Pauling went to Corvallis and, eventually, a long and storied life in academia.

The idea to award an honorary high school degree to Pauling was initiated by Jerry Ross, a journalist for The Washingtonian newspaper at Washington High School. Ross attended a press conference given by Pauling on May 4, 1962 at Portland State College in which Pauling talked about his childhood, mentioning that he was a former student at the high school but not a graduate. Ross reported this information to Harold A. York, the principal at Washington, prompting York to write to Pauling about the issue. In his letter, York exclaimed

We have taken steps to correct this embarrassing action. Washington High School is intensely proud of the fact that you are numbered among its most illustrious former students.

Along with the note, York enclosed the honorary diploma, a copy of the school paper, a copy of Pauling’s high school transcript and a commencement announcement coupled with tickets to the exercises. York made sure to point out that the old Washington High School had burned to the ground in 1922 – it was rebuilt as a brick building in 1924 – and most of its records were destroyed, which may be the reason why Pauling’s transcript appeared to be incomplete.

York likewise invited Pauling to that year’s commencement exercises as the honored guest, to be held on Wednesday, June 13, 1962, in the Benson High School auditorium. He also asked if Pauling would take a picture of himself looking at his diploma for publication in the school paper. (Pauling did so, as evidenced above.)

In response Pauling expressed his appreciation for the honor, especially as he was the first and only honorary graduate of Washington High School. “I am happy to be a member of the graduating class of 1962,” he wrote, “and I send my regards and congratulations to the other members of the graduating class.” He then apologized for being unable to attend the ceremony due to a previous speaking engagement but noted that he would never forget the school and his many exceptional teachers, and promised that he would pay a visit at a later date.

Following Pauling’s acceptance of the honorary degree, The Washingtonian published an article with the headline, “Dr. Pauling is 1962 Grad! Worldly Physicist Gets Only Honorary Washington Degree.” Reporter Jerry Ross opined in the article that the high school diploma seemed justifiable since Pauling had shown that he was certainly capable of post-high school caliber work.

The New York Times also published a brief article, emphasizing that Pauling “finally received a high school diploma.” More thoughtfully, the Meriden (Connecticut) Record commented on the story with an editorial of its own. In “Belated Diploma,” published July 2, 1962, the newspaper suggested that

the lessons may not have been the ones in the prescribed high school textbooks, and then again they may. But the concern for people in society, their freedom, safety and well-being has been Dr. Pauling’s distinguishing characteristic….He has made the rest of us think, and forced us to face our own responsibilities a little more squarely in this matter, too. Clearly, this is social studies at its best, considerably above the high school level. Dr. Pauling did it the hard way, but he has surely earned his diploma.


Washington High School

Washington High School building, Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Washington High School.

The history of Washington High School dates back to 1906, when it first opened its doors to students. The school was originally called East High School, but changed its name to Washington three years later. Located at SE 14th and Stark in Portland, Oregon, the school merged with Monroe High School, an all-girls school, in 1977.

Washington-Monroe High closed in May 1981 due to declining enrollment, after which time the building was used for administrative purposes in hopes of it one day becoming a community center once more funding became available. In addition to the Portland Public Schools administrative offices, in its later incarnations the old school hosted a daycare center, a continuation high for pregnant girls, a “vocational program for Indian youth,” and a segment of Portland’s special education students.

Portland Parks purchased Washington High School’s west field in 2004 and a few years later tore down the high school’s gym and cafeteria. Once the buildings had been demolished, it took another five years to secure the funds to draw up plans for a new facility. In an article published in The Portland Mercury on August 20, 2009, neighborhood association member Kina Voelz described the collective dream for the space, which might entail everything from a photography studio to a rooftop garden on top of the new building. “There’s been all kinds of wish-list discussions about this in the neighborhood for years,” Voelz said. Various developers later made offers to turn the space into condominiums and commercial buildings, but as the economy has tightened interest in the site has withered.

In the meantime, the space has been used in conjunction with Portland’s Time-Based Art Festival and with the City Repair Project’s 2011 Earth Day event. Recent reports also indicate that Portland Public Schools has selected Venerable Development to move forward to the next step in a selection process for development plans that would include housing as a main component. It is also expected that Venerable will be in contact with Portland Parks and Recreation, exploring their options for providing the long-desired community center.


Pauling’s Return

Linus Pauling reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Washington High School, Portland, Oregon, 1966.

The 1959 edition of the Lens, Washington High School’s yearbook, was dedicated to Linus Pauling, describing the professor as one who “personifies our highest ideals.” Published two years before Pauling’s honorary diploma, the first page of the yearbook featured a picture of Pauling along with a brief write-up about why he was chosen for the yearbook dedication. The yearbook further mentioned that Pauling learned the fundamentals of chemistry at W. H. S. under the direction of William V. Green, a Harvard graduate and former Lens adviser.

Seven years later Pauling made good on his promise of one day returning to Washington High School when he attended its 60th anniversary celebration on February 22, 1966. Former administrators, faculty and students were welcomed back for this event, which was held in the school auditorium. “Memories of School Days” was the theme of the evening, one which included messages from alums and small group conversations organized by year of graduation.

Pauling delivered a talk at the event, speaking on the “foolhardy aspect of brinkmanship in a nuclear age and implor[ing] young people to think as individuals.” He also met with physics and science seminar classes, signed autographs and was photographed alongside Principal York.


Washington High School has done a nice job of documenting its history online.  For more information on Linus Pauling’s alma mater, check out this website, which features memoirs, digital archives, photo albums and a detailed history of the school.

A Prominent High School Dropout

Linus Pauling posing with his ho norary high school diploma, 1962.

Linus Pauling posing with his honorary high school diploma, 1962.

Interviewer: Where did you go to high school at in Portland?

Pauling: I went to Washington High School for 3 ½ years, so that my whole high school career was there. It was on the east side of Portland.

Interviewer: How come they wouldn’t give you a diploma?

Pauling: Well, I didn’t finish the requirements. I started in February and by June of 1917, I had completed, essentially, the high school course. I hadn’t taken a one year course in American History. I planned to have it in my last semester. But there was a rule that said you couldn’t take the second half of a course simultaneously with the first half. So, I just wasn’t allowed to take American History. I didn’t return to high school in the fall, but was admitted to Oregon Agricultural College in 1917. I came down [to Corvallis] then.

-Oral history interview, Oregon State University, May 20, 1980.

Linus Pauling, as might be expected, developed an interest in learning at a very early age. By age six, he had already reached the second grade of the elementary school in Condon, Oregon. At eight, he developed an interest in ancient civilizations, and by age nine he had read almost every book in the Pauling household, including works such as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In February of 1914, right before his 13th birthday, Linus entered Washington High School in Portland, Oregon, having finishing an accelerated grade school program.

East Portland High School, the second oldest in Portland, was renamed Washington High School in the early 1900s. It was later rechristened Washington-Monroe High School, and eventually closed in the early 1980s because of declining enrollment. In its prime, however, WHS was a great school and, for a young boy keen on learning all he could, there was no better place to be.

In his first semester, Linus took a standard course load consisting of elementary algebra, English, Latin, and gym. After the summer, he returned to WHS for the full year and took his first actual science course, physiography. In this course, Linus was taught about minerals, which he found very interesting. Subsequently, he began a rock collection, and although it never grew to be very large, he enjoyed analyzing and classifying his specimens.

Before long, Linus was taking a course load of above-average difficulty. On top of his normal classes, he continued with Latin and began taking every science and math course he could. Mathematics and the sciences quickly became his favorite subjects, because, as Linus later remembered it:

It’s like the story of the little boy who, when his teacher asked him, ‘Willie, what is two and two?’ answered, ‘Four.’ And she said, ‘That’s very good, Willie.’ And he said, ‘Very good? It’s perfect!’ I liked mathematics because you could be perfect, whereas with Latin, or in studying any language, it’s essentially impossible to be perfect.

As his high school career progressed, Linus easily maintained his challenging schedule and still managed to find time outside of school for other activities. In fact, high school never presented any sort of challenge to him. This was fortunate, because he needed every minute of his free time to work his various jobs, and also to feed his ever-growing appetite for chemistry, which he had developed around the same time he entered high school.

Although chemistry quickly became Linus’ main interest, he wasn’t able to take many classes on the subject. He took first-year chemistry as a junior, which was the only chemistry course that was offered at WHS. Fortunately, the teacher of the course took a liking to Linus, and he was allowed to stay after class to work on additional problems during both his junior and senior years.

W.V. Green was an important early mentor of Linus Pauling.

W.V. Green was an important early mentor of Linus Pauling. This annotated extract is from Pauling's W.H.S. yearbook, ca. 1917.

In his last semester of high school, Linus took his first physics course. The instructor of this course impressed Linus, and specifically emphasized the importance of the use of precise language in the sciences. One of the main points that Linus took from high school was the importance of the careful use of language, not only in the sciences but in all aspects of education. Linus even tried his hand at fiction writing, which resulted in his English teacher encouraging him to write a novel. Linus’ appreciation for languages and reading would be a great help to him throughout his career.

At the end of his seventh semester at WHS, Linus had run out of math and science classes to take. He had also completed all of the requirements for graduation, except for the year of senior-level American history required by the state of Oregon. Upon learning of this requirement, Linus decided to return to WHS for his last semester after summer break, with the intent of taking the two required history courses simultaneously. This decision was quickly vetoed by the principle, and although Linus had been impressed with the thoroughness of his high school education, he decided to attend Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in the fall without a high school diploma – none was required by OAC at the time.

Although this was a natural decision for Linus, it soon provided him with a fair amount of anxiety. The following, written on September 5, 1917, is an excerpt from his diary.

Yesterday and today the feeling has often come to me that never more will I go to school. I think of all the other students beginning their studies, I imagine how I am [sic] member of the graduation class, would appear at Washington, I remember the enjoyment I got out of my studies and school life in general, and I sometimes poignantly regret that I have decided to go to college without graduating from high school. I covet every term of education that I have, and would gladly have more. College still seems so dim and far away that I often forget all about it. In a month and a day from now I will be in Corvallis. I try not to think of College, because of the way it affects me. Why should I rush through my education the way I am?

Despite his nervousness, Linus stuck with his decision and did not return to WHS. He left for college in early October and ended up thriving at OAC. He would eventually go on to have an extremely long and distinguished career as one of the most influential scientists in history. And finally, in 1962, he was awarded an honorary diploma from Washington High School.

For more information about Linus Pauling and his relationship with Oregon, please visit the Linus Pauling Online portal or check out the previous posts in our Oregon150 series.  For those interested in the history of Washington High School, have a look at this great alumni website.

Oregon 150