Two dozen people showed up at a Woodside Elementary School District governing board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 14, with a clear message to board members: Preserve the name on the building the school uses to stage its eighth-grade operettas in honor of the man who directed them for nearly four decades, George Sellman.
Mr. Sellman's daughter, Jennifer Sellman Anderson, drove from her home in Glen Ellen, in Sonoma County, to read a letter to the board.
"I am here today to ask that the memory of my father and what he contributed to this community for over two generations continue to be honored by his name remaining on the school auditorium," Ms. Sellman Anderson said.
Construction of a new multi-purpose auditorium and gymnasium, complete with a theater, is now underway and expected to be completed by April 1, in time for this year's eighth graders to begin practicing their operetta. At a December school board meeting, finding a new name for the new building was brought up as part of a report on the construction.
The previous multi-purpose auditorium and gymnasium, named after longtime district superintendent and Woodside resident George Sellman, and used by generations of Woodside students for everything from their eighth grade operettas to basketball games and cotillion classes, pumpkin carving contests and science fairs, was torn down in June 2015.
A Jan. 12 email to district parents from Superintendent Beth Polito confirmed the district is considering a new name for the building.
"Community members have provided input that, as the new building is a true multi-purpose room utilized by the entire school for a wide variety of activities, a name reflecting that diverse use might be appropriate," the superintendent said in the email.
"A variety of building names have been suggested and the Board will hear ideas from students in the near future prior to making a final decision about the name," she wrote.
She said the "possible name change is not based on a donor request nor any donor name."
"George Sellman played a significant role in the Woodside community for many years as a Superintendent/Principal as well as director of operettas and community productions," the superintendent's email said. "As such, the district will continue to honor Mr. Sellman's dedication to the school and to the community by naming either the lobby and/or the performance stage of the new building after him."
While the email made it sound as if retaining the Sellman name for the auditorium itself had already been ruled out, Superintendent Polito later clarified what she had written. "No decision has been made, including keeping the name Sellman," she said in response to a question from the Almanac.
Many of the speakers at the Jan. 14 board meeting, most of them alumni of the school, seemed to be on the verge of tears as they spoke of Mr. Sellman, who was a teacher or superintendent in the district for 37 years, but is best remembered for his contributions to the school's annual eighth-grade operettas and to Woodside's community theater productions.
Mr. Sellman died in 2005 at the age of 81, a few years after the original Sellman Auditorium was rededicated in his honor following a $1.5 million renovation.
Grant Finlayson, whose elderly parents were also in the audience, spoke about Mr. Sellman and his lasting impact on him and his five siblings who attended Woodside School.
"We live in a time where everything's about the present," he said. "It's texts and screaming video and kind of epitomized by Snapchat," he said. That makes it all the more important to honor history, he said. "If we remember the good things that went before ... that matters," he said.
"I apologize for getting emotional," Mr. Finlayson said, his voice quavering. "We need to remember and continue to honor Mr. Sellman."
Robert Hooper, chair of the school's bond oversight committee, wanted to make sure the board knew that members of the committee who had spoken in favor of a name change at a December board meeting had not spoken on behalf of the entire committee.
One of the committee members had brought the idea of a new name for the auditorium to the committee as an informational item only, he said. "There was never any formal action taken by our committee," Mr. Hooper said, adding that the committee's responsibility is to review the spending of bond money.
Former Woodside Elementary governing board member Elianne Frenkel-Popell presented the board with a collection of comments made on social media after it was reported that the school might name the new building something other than Sellman. "At 50, I quit counting," she said as she provided the board with 12 pages of comments.
"These comments -- they're really angry," she said. "I know you guys -- but these people don't," she said to the board members.
Ms. Frenkel-Popell said she had actually hoped the district might drop the idea of not continuing to use the Sellman name before Mr. Sellman's family found out about it.
Jim Degnan, the father and grandfather of Woodside School graduates and active in community theater, talked about working with Mr. Sellman. "It was a wonderful time and George was such a wonderful person" who "did so much for the community," Mr. Degnan said.
"George put so much of his life into (the community theater productions), just to raise money for the school and the community," Mr. Degnan said.
Scott Michaelsen -- who graduated from Woodside Elementary in 1972, whose son and daughter graduated from the school, and whose wife choreographed many theater productions that took place in Sellman Auditorium -- said: "I think what's interesting to see is the multi-generational response that you're getting."
"I don't know the reasons why you want to change the name," he said, but "George Sellman and the operetta need to live on."
Lehua Greenman, a local real estate professional who moved to Woodside in 1972, said one of the reasons her family moved to Woodside was "the history and the character," as epitomized by Mr. Sellman.
As a PTA president while her two children attended Woodside School, Ms. Greenman said she worked closely with Mr. Sellman.
"George Sellman is a legend in Woodside," she said, and not only because of the theater. "It was the feeling of community and the feeling of appreciation and love for children," she said.
The matter was not on the agenda at the Jan. 14 board meeting, but board president Wendy Warren Roth said it will be discussed at the Feb. 9 meeting.
One of the audience members warned that the board might need a bigger room for that meeting. "This gathering was organized this morning," he said.