By Lorraine Connelly
New England communities have a storied tapestry of legends, among the most famed emerges from the Town of Concord, Mass. On the evening of April 18, 1775, patriot Paul Revere got word that the British were about to raid military stockpiles in Concord. He ordered fellow patriots to set two lighted lanterns in the belfry of Boston’s Old North Church. This prearranged signal alerted patriots to the intended route of the British march. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow memorialized the lantern’s signal in his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “One, if by land, and two, if by sea.”
As it turns out, Wallingford also has a legend about a lantern. I discovered this recently when perusing a chapter of Dr. Stephen Hoag’s latest work, “Before the Picture Fades.” Last month, Hoag held a book signing event at The Library Wine Bar and Bistro with more than 300 in attendance. Hoag retired in 2017 from the Department of Education, Division of Education Support Services, after a 40-year career as an educator and coach. His new book tells the story of Lyman Hall High School from its founding in 1916 through the emergence of its renowned basketball and football teams of the early and mid-20th century. It’s a great read.
According to Hoag, the opening of Lyman Hall High School on October 16, 1916, was a seminal moment for the the town. The building, located on the site of what is now our current Town Hall, boasted a state-of-the-art auditorium and became a community mecca for significant events. What drew the largest audiences, however, were basketball games, where the LHHS team played some of the best high school teams from across the state.
Says Hoag, “LHHS basketball was almost a winter religion for the people of Wallingford. The citizenry waited for game results like Christmas presents.” He relates that when the team played an away game, townspeople would call the police department, or the school principal at his home, to inquire about the score of each game.
Principal Robert H. Earley became increasingly annoyed by the constant telephone calls to his home. Finally, he came up with a solution. In 1931 he arranged to have a candle street lantern affixed to the front of the school. After a victory, Earley would then call a neighbor who lived close by to light the lantern.
Says Hoag, “Over the years, large crowds would gather on the front steps and the middle walkway of the high school on the nights of tournament games to watch for the lighting of the lantern.” Townspeople who did not live in close proximity to the school, would listen intently for the cheers of the crowds at a distance. The tradition of the lantern ended after the 1948 basketball season as Lyman Hall upset the favored and undefeated Shelton High School team to win the Class B State Championship.
Although specific in its intended purpose, says Hoag, “the Lantern proved to be an attestation of Principal Earley’s goal of making Lyman Hall High School a focal point of Wallingford pride and enthusiasm. More than a communication device about the outcome of a basketball game, the lantern became synonymous with shared community spirit.”
Small town America is enamored with its high school sports stories imbued with community spirit. In 1990, H.G. Bissinger wrote the best-selling nonfiction book, “Friday Night Lights” which was later developed into the popular TV drama in the 2000s. Every Friday night from September to December, when the Permian High School Panthers played football, the West Texas community proudly gathered round to cheer on their players’ dreams and accomplishments.
In this coming post-election period, we need to reignite that community spark here in Wallingford. As the newly elected Board of Education grapples with the best path forward for Wallingford schools and wades through multiple proposals for restructuring its high schools, it’s important to remember the unity of purpose which the lantern represented. There is a century-old tradition that precedes the venerated 50th Annual Samaha Powder Puff Bowl.
If the Board of Education decides that one consolidated high school is the best option for the future, perhaps the tradition of the lantern can be revived. In the early 1980s, when the original lantern was about to be discarded, Hoag, whose passion is collecting Lyman Hall memorabilia, literally retrieved it from the dustbin of history. Wouldn’t it be great to have a replica of the lantern in its time-honored place as a symbol of hope and unity at a new high school?
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.