Cindy Sellman Jensen flew in from Seattle for a school board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 9, at the school where her father, George Sellman, was a teacher or superintendent for 25 years. After the meeting, she headed right back to the airport.
One of Mr. Sellman's former students drove from Santa Barbara. They weren't alone. More than 70 other fans of Mr. Sellman, who died in 2005 at the age of 81, were at the meeting.
Teachers who had worked under him, Woodside residents who had sung and acted for him, and quite a few parents whose children attended Woodside Elementary decades after they had attended it themselves were there. There were former members of the boards of the school, its fundraising foundation and the PTA.
All showed up to let the governing board of the one-school Woodside Elementary School District know that taking the name of George Sellman off the school's theater and gymnasium just wasn't acceptable, even if a new building has replaced the building originally named in his honor.
Not one person spoke in favor of changing the name.
While board president Wendy Warren Roth only allowed 12 audience members to speak, after listening to the testimony, board members voted unanimously to name the new building Sellman Pavilion.
George Sellman, who was a teacher or superintendent in the district from 1957 until he retired in 1986, is best known for his contributions to Woodside's community theater productions and the school's long tradition of having the entire eighth-grade class put on an operetta each year. He was active in community theater for 12 years after he retired.
In 2003, the original Sellman Auditorium was rededicated in his honor following a $1.5 million renovation. That building was torn down 12 years later.
Like the building it replaces, which was 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, the new building will serve as an auditorium, theater and gymnasium. A grand opening for the building is scheduled for April 20.
Norris Finlayson, a Woodside resident whose six children went through the school while Mr. Sellman was superintendent, said that removing Mr. Sellman's name would disrespect more than just Mr. Sellman's memory.
"It also diminishes all commemorative acts, present and future," he said. "The process of removing somebody's commemorative name from a building, I think that's a very significant thing."
The speakers weren't all old-timers. Samantha Frenkel-Popell, a high school student who graduated from Woodside Elementary in 2012, said she learned at Woodside that history is important. "I think one of the best things Woodside gave me was a foundation in history," she said. "If you throw away the name Sellman, you are throwing away a tremendous opportunity to teach the kids" about their own town's history, she said.
Other speakers didn't even know Mr. Sellman, but still wanted to continue to honor him. Denise Fenzi, with one son at the school, and one who has graduated, said a historic context is what the school needs. "I think our kids lack for tradition. I think we're in a very forward moving society," she said. "I think they need things to ground them in the past."
"I don't understand why we would take away something that has so much power," she said. Mr. Sellman's history allows parents and teachers to say to students, "Look, the past matters," she said.
Lisha Mainz Jekat, who went to Woodside Elementary and whose two children are students there currently, and who is chair of the town's History Committee, reminded listeners that Mr. Sellman was superintendent at the school for decades. "He was here for a long time. His children went here, he lived in town," she said.
"I think it's a disservice to take (his name) away," Ms. Mainz Jekat said.
Other speakers said they felt the school has become less a part of the greater community in recent years. Steve Lubin, whose 1954 kindergarten class has its photo on the wall in the school's front office, is now an architect. He said that during school construction projects in 1989 and 1999, he was asked to be part of a design committee. But when the last bond came up, in 2014, "I asked if I could be involved in it, but didn't feel I was really welcome," he said.
Mr. Sellman, he said, "made people who don't have kids here feel welcome."
Connie Hammond Weinsoff drove from Santa Barbara to attend the meeting. "I went to school here only one year, eighth grade," she said, adding that it was the "best year of my life."
But the operetta was "just a small piece" of what Mr. Sellman was involved in," she said.
Her mother, Barbara Hammond worked with Mr. Sellman developing classes for gifted and talented students and environmental education. They brought technology to the school before most had even heard about technology, she said.
Her mom, she said, "talked about computers and (artificial intelligence) in 1974."
"She bought the first Apple computer and brought it to Woodside Elm to work with the kids," Ms. Weinstock said. "It wasn't just my mom, it was George and her," she said. "He had his hand in everything."
Nothing was said at the meeting about why changing the name of the building was being considered. But a Jan. 12 email to district parents from Superintendent Beth Polito about the search for a new name for the building said: "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.
"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.
In the email she said "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."
The board members said they had gained a greater appreciation for Mr. Sellman by listening to all of those who spoke and wrote to them about him. "Everybody knew Sellman's name because it was on the auditorium," said board member Marc Tarpenning, "and yet I had to research to find out who he really was."
Board member Kevin Johnson said he, too, had appreciated learning about Mr. Sellman's legacy. "The name Sellman in my view is something that should continue," he said. "I feel like I know him a little bit now."
Board members said they will consider a plaque or something to tell more of Mr. Sellman's story in the new building. Several audience members offered to help pay for the plaque.