San Juan Elementary: 160 Years and Counting

Generations of alumni and current students join together to celebrate the 160th birthday of Orange County's oldest school.

Generations of current and former students of —or San Juan School or San Juan Grammar School depending on the decade—came together Friday to celebrate the enduring sense of community the school has created.

The school’s multipurpose room was transformed into a museum, with photographs, news clippings, books and toys from throughout the school’s 160-year history. It is the oldest school in Orange County.

Wick Lobo, Juaneño tribal elder, said the school may be even older than that. It may date back to the 1840s, before California became a state.

“Wouldn’t that be amazing? We would be the oldest English-language grammar school in the entire state,” he told a crowd of hundreds that filled the mission basilica for a ceremony that included songs, speeches and “flashback” skits of times gone by. Lobo is still hunting down newspaper articles that could prove San Juan to be even older than the 160 years it’s given credit for.

In the audience were San Juan Elementary alumni dating back to the class of 1938. Mary Cook Elliott walked in with her best friend from first grade, Colleen Buchheim, holding a panoramic photo of the entire school in 1938. She was smack-dab in the middle.

“I had a horse. I could ride all over the hills. There were no homes,” Elliott said.

Both moved away from the area, but San Juan Capistrano called them back. “I told my husband I would travel with him all over the [United States] for work, but 10 years ago, I told him: 'It’s time to go home to Capistrano.'”

Buchheim went on to be a teacher herself, in Escondido. Her clearest memory of San Juan School? She was asked to give a safety talk to the entire student population. “I was trying to tell them to be safe when they cross in the center of the street. I said [the cars] aren’t sure to stop for Presbyterians. I was supposed to say ‘pedestrians,’ ” she said.

Superintendent Joseph Farley was one of those on hand to give a speech. He noted that even though we are in advanced, technological era, things aren’t so different now.

On a recent visit to the school, he saw some students at recess. "I noticed a group of second-graders huddled on the ground around a little crack in the blacktop. They had taken sticks that had fallen from a nearby tree and were digging beneath the crack to see what they could find.”

A simple experiment by inquisitive children showed him how “we have come far, but we are not that distant from those early settlers and kids who came to this spot to learn and play and to figure out what they would do with their future,” Farley said.

Current San Juan "Cougars" presented skits and sang songs, outfitted in Western garb for the occasion. 

"Just like the incredible sense of community we feel today at San Juan School, people that have lived here always felt that sense of pride," said Principal Silvia Pule.

Leo Chade is one of those. He graduated in 1945, back when San Juan went through eighth grade. He remembers fondly former principal (and former superintendent) Harold Ambuehl, after whom is named. “He was the greatest guy. When a teacher was sick, he would always say to me, ‘Leo, go cover it for me.’ I was 14.”

Chade’s son followed in his dad’s footsteps, graduating in 1969. He’ll never forget his bus driver, Clarence Lobo, Wick’s brother, and namesake of in San Clemente. “He used to share special tales, history with me. I know the secrets that only five people know.” He said he can’t spill the beans now. “Then they wouldn’t be secrets.”

Jeff Jones, principal at in Mission Viejo, was also in the audience because he, too, is a San Juan alumnus, circa mid-'80s. “It was just a great community school. It was bringing all the cultures together.”

His principal, Ellen Fine, is still a principal in , serving now at . Jones added that he never got in trouble.

Brad Gates, former sheriff of Orange County, can’t say the same. His first day at San Juan School he decided he didn’t want to return to class after recess. So he didn’t. When his teacher came to get him, he kicked her in the leg.

“I was invited to the principal’s office,” he said. His parents later disciplined him. “I never did that again,” he added.

“This school has been an important part of the Gates family upbringing. We have nothing but good memories of San Juan School,” Gates said.

Farley echoed the sentiments of many by wishing the school a happy birthday and best wishes “as you begin your next 160 years of changing, while staying essentially what you always were and are.”


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