There are few high schools anywhere with more of a story to tell than Peoria High, still affectionately known as “Central” in many quarters.
First, there’s all that history. Peoria High, founded in 1856, is the oldest public high school in Illinois, the second oldest high school in continuous operation in the country west of the Alleghenies.
No, we’re not talking about the building you now see at 1615 N. North St. That’s been in service only since 1916, before the United States joined the Allied cause in World War I. There were four previous locations – first at North Jefferson Street and Jackson (now Spalding) Avenue, opened six years before the eruption of hostilities known as the U.S. Civil War; then at the First Methodist Episcopal Church at Madison and Fulton streets; then at Fourth and Fisher streets; then at 300 NE Monroe, which was ultimately razed for what would become Interstate 74 through Downtown Peoria.
The present school building was designed by renowned Peoria architect Frederic Klein, whose list of local landmarks also would come to include the Madison and Rialto theaters, the Packard Building, Trinity Lutheran Church, the Japanese Bridge at Bradley Park and pavilions at Glen Oak Park and Grand View Park.
Besides the building itself, which has seen more than $3 million in improvements in recent years, you have all those illustrious alumni — writers Betty Friedan (Class of 1938) and Philip Jose Farmer (Class of 1936), Congressman Bob Michel (Class of 1940) and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman John Shalikashvili (Class of 1954), to name just a few. Pioneering comedian Richard Pryor once roamed Peoria High’s hallways. Edward Dunne (Class of 1871) is the only person to have been elected both as mayor of Chicago and governor of Illinois.
And then there’s all that sports history. Recent Central grads continue to excel in the NFL and on select college squads. Basketball is always in season at Peoria High, which has five state titles to its credit – including Illinois’ very first, in 1908 – and where distinguished alumni include former Golden State Warrior star Shaun Livingston (Class of 2004), Indiana University star and Chicago Bulls player A.J. Guyton (Class of 1996), NCAA Final 4 alum and Bradley University Athletics Director Chris Reynolds (Class of 1989), and Marcellus Sommerville (Class of 2001), now CEO of Peoria’s Friendship House. Peoria High has even produced a couple of Olympians, the most recent one being Matt Savoie (Class of 1998) in men’s figure skating.
In fact, the Distinguished Alumni Display has run out of space at the school and will soon expand to another wall in the school foyer.
Sifting through all this history is one of the responsibilities of the school’s Alumni Association. Along with maintaining an alumni database of 29,000 people, the association helps organize reunions as well as raising money for scholarships.
In 2022, Peoria High’s alumni group awarded 61 scholarships to the tune of approximately $314,000. That puts the figure for scholarships provided since 1992 at close to $2 million.
“We want every student who walks through the doors of 1615 North Street to be inspired, be hopeful and be a successful alum in whatever endeavor they pursue,” said Kate Schureman, Alumni Association president.
One of the 300-plus members of Peoria High’s Class of 2022 who received scholarship help from the association was Justus Omowumi.
Omowumi arrived with his family from Nigeria in March 2019. “We moved to Peoria because my father got a job as a nurse at UnityPoint Medical Center,” he said.
Omowumi, who learned English back in Africa, is only 16. Chatting quietly under a tree across the street from Peoria High, the young man didn’t appear to attach any great meaning to starting high school at the age of 13 and then earning, as he modestly put it, “mostly A” grades.
“Back in Nigeria I was usually two years younger than anyone else in class,” said Omowumi, already set for fall pre-med classes at the University of Illinois in Champaign.
“I like the pressure of having to do work,” he said. Omowumi found essays the most challenging assignments while in high school. “The mathematics came more readily,” he said.
Omowumi is a reflection of the diversity that exists in the student body at Peoria High, and of its ongoing institutional evolution.
From the 19th century to the 21st, PHS has proven itself a high school for the ages.