Tim Woodward

Boise centenarian made Bronco history

Grace Arnold with her 100th birthday gift from BSU. The ball was signed by the university’s football coaches and players, who still wear the colors she suggested for the school’s athletic teams.
Grace Arnold with her 100th birthday gift from BSU. The ball was signed by the university’s football coaches and players, who still wear the colors she suggested for the school’s athletic teams. Provided by Carol Mendiola

So many people came to Grace Arnold’s birthday party that it was held at her church because they wouldn’t fit in her home. They came from as far away as Seattle and California.

She was turning 100, but that wasn’t my reason for being there. People live so much longer these days that 100th birthdays aren’t as newsworthy as they once were. I wanted to meet her to learn more about the early years of our mutual alma maters, Boise High School and Boise Junior College. That she had made history at BJC was an unexpected bonus.

Arnold and I had never met, but recognizing her in the crowded church hall shouldn’t have been a problem. How many people there would be a century old?

Actually, it was a problem. A number of the guests were getting up in years, and no one stood out as looking the way we expect centenarians to look. There was a white-haired woman seated at a table with a birthday cake big enough for a marching band, but she didn’t look anywhere close to 100. That couldn’t possibly have been her.

It was. Even after being introduced and conversing with her for a while, I had trouble believing how old she truly was. She walked unassisted, her hearing was better than some people’s half her age and her mind was clear and bright. We should all be so lucky.

It didn’t take long to realize that she was a force of nature and had been all her life. At Boise High School, she was an “art girl” and a “letter girl,” a member of the art club, history club, home economics club and library staff, an honor student and a member of the National Honor Society. She didn’t tell me any of this herself; it was all in her 1933 Boise High School yearbook.

Then as now, students’ senior pictures were accompanied by predictions of what they’d end up becoming. Hers was “Old Maid.”

“I’m not sure how they came up with that,” she said, laughing. “I certainly wasn’t.”

Hardly. She was married twice, had three children and is a grandmother many times over. Her grandkids call her “GG,” for great grandmother.

I know. You’re wondering how she made history at BJC, now BSU. We’ll get to that, but first a wee bit more about Boise High in 1933.

Teachers stuck around in those days. My mother and one of my kids had the same English teacher I did — the redoubtable Inez Woesner. She was one of the reasons I wanted to be a writer.

“She influenced a lot of us,” Arnold said.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Woesner was her English teacher, too. The number of students she influenced would be in the thousands.

That brings us to BJC and Arnold’s role in its history. For years, I’ve heard that it was a woman who suggested blue and orange as the school colors. Every attempt to track her down, however, came to a dead end. So you can imagine my surprise upon learning that it was indeed a woman — namely Grace Arnold.

“There was a committee of us,” she said. “He wasn’t my husband yet, but my first husband and I were on it along with several others.”

BJC then was nothing like the BSU of today, which offers over 200 degrees to more than 22,000 students. It opened its doors (or quite possibly door, singular) in the fall of 1932 with 70 students and a full-time faculty of eight. It wasn’t even in the same place that the university is today. It was in the former St. Margaret’s Hall, an Episcopalian women’s academy on Idaho Street between 1st and 2nd. It was there that Arnold enrolled in the fall of 1933.

“We thought Boise was a big city then, but it was only about 25,000 people,” she said. “It wasn’t the Los Angeles of Idaho like it is today. And the school was very small. You knew just about everybody.”

A committee was formed to choose the school colors and a name for its athletic teams. Committee members thought that a Western theme would be appropriate and chose the name “Broncos” for the wild horses of neighboring Owyhee County.

The first mascot was “Elmer,” a paper-mache horse that was cremated after every game. Belying a winning tradition that would span decades, the Broncos lost their first football game: St. Joseph’s Academy, 6; BJC, 0.)

A real horse as a mascot didn’t come along until 1965. By then, the word “cremate” undoubtedly had been used —figuratively, of course — to describe what the Broncos had done to opponents on the field.

When the time came for choosing school colors, Arnold suggested blue and orange because “Boise High School had red and white, and other schools had most of the other colors, but nobody had blue and orange.”

She still cheers for the Broncos and proudly wears blue and orange on game days.

One of her birthday gifts was a football signed for her by the coaches and players.

As well it should have been. If not for her, they might be wearing pumpkin and puce.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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