East Stanwood High School students strike on January 27, 1944.

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 1/20/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9694

On January 27, 1944, nearly the entire student body of East Stanwood High School walks out in protest of what they view as the draconian administration of Superintendent Alfred Tunem (1896-1972). The strike lasts for nearly a week, and makes frontpage news as far away as Seattle.


East Stanwood was a pleasant community located a mile east of Stanwood in northwestern Snohomish County; for a time the two communities shared an informal nickname, the “Twin Cities.”  But East Stanwood was its own town. It was incorporated in 1922, had its own post office, and its own high school. The school had a total enrollment of 86 as the second semester of the school year began in January 1944. 

But all was not well at East Stanwood High. Alfred Tunem had served as the school’s superintendent since 1929, but by 1944 had become unpopular with his students, who saw him as an arbitrary and draconian administrator.  The students fumed and schemed. They came up with a plan.  And at high noon on Thursday, January 27, 1944 -- right after receiving their first semester grades -- nearly the entire student body simply walked out. They gaily marched down the brick road into Stanwood, causing quite a sensation.  

Filled with righteous indignation, parents of the striking students rallied to the cause.  They came together for a protest meeting that night and vowed a fight to the finish.  “We don’t want our children to seem like a bunch of reds and radicals, but this matter must be straightened out,” explained J. A. Wallace, spokesperson for the parents. “The superintendent is a good educator, but a poor psychologist” (“High-School…”).  Tunem was accused of lowering grades on student report cards turned into him by teachers, and making it impossible for poorly-performing students to stay in school. Students also complained that there weren’t enough school-sponsored activities and “mixers” (dances).  

Echoes of Dissension

Tunem did not deny the accusations of grade changing, explaining that some students hadn’t done their work but still expected to pass. Nor did he deny student complaints that there weren’t enough activities at the school, disgustedly declaring, “Since the start of the war [1941] the pupils have been interested only in mixers, mixers, mixers -- entertainment!” (“High-School…”).  But he also blamed their parents for their “parental delinquency,” adding, “People who are not accustomed to making money grow rambunctious when they do. They take the attitude ‘nobody’s going to tell my children what to do’” (“High-School…”).  

The strike made frontpage news in The Seattle Times on Friday, right up there with war news from both the Pacific and European fronts.  Two students reported to school that day. You could have shot a cannon down the hall and not hit a soul.  Seattle Times reporter Robert Mahaffay, sent to investigate, found a somewhat shell-shocked Tunem sitting at his desk, idly toying with a gold Phi Kappa Delta key hanging from his vest.  Observed Mahaffay, “The echoes of dissension rang hollowly in the corridors of East Stanwood High School today” (“High-School…”).  

The school’s six teachers met on Friday and threatened to resign if Tunem was ousted. Another meeting held on Friday night between parents and school board members was inconclusive.  Tension mounted through the weekend.  The town divided among pro- and anti-Tunem forces. The Seattle Times reported on Sunday that the community and even some families were divided, with many people not speaking to each other. All anxiously awaited the zero hour on Monday when Tunem had declared school would open and proceed as usual.    

Like Pearl Harbor  

When Tunem walked into the school’s study hall at 9 a.m. on Monday, he was greeted by 29 grinning students -- about one-third of the entire student body.  But the political winds were shifting. Local businessmen, concerned with the burgeoning publicity, had begun quietly cornering some of the parents and explaining how the strike could damage the community.  Why, it might even lead to East Stanwood High having to consolidate with Stanwood High!

The pro-strike forces got it.  Spokesman Wallace suddenly changed his tune, explaining, “This thing got to snowballing. The deeper you dig into it, the more involved it gets.  I really think now that the parents were to blame for not taking the matter up in a regular way.  If the parents want Tunem out, they can get him out in the conventional manner” (“29 Pupils…”).  Tunem likewise struck a more conciliatory tone, comparing his situation with the shock America had experienced after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a little more than two years earlier:

“I think this thing is finished now. This is a period of war, and people like excitement. Well, now they have had their excitement.  In a way, it’s like Pearl Harbor. When the attack first came, the sound element of the populace was dazed.  As soon as they recovered, they asserted themselves and rallied to repel the Japanese. In a way, that same situation has obtained here, and now the sounder element has resumed control” (“29 Pupils…”)   

Not quite. The strike continued on Tuesday, with 30 or 31 students reporting to class.  Many parents continued to demand Tunem’s dismissal, while educators at the school continued to rally behind Tunem. But another meeting that night between parents and school board members settled it, and on Wednesday, February 2, 1944, 75 students reported to class, roughly normal attendance after taking illness into account. The Seattle Times was thin on details of any specific agreement reached, other than to quote school board chairman Harold Fjarlie, who said the students had not received any administrative concessions. The paper did not say what, if any, resolution was reached regarding Superintendent Tunem. 

A Surprise Ending

But Tunem did leave East Stanwood later in 1944.  He moved to Mukilteo, opened an insurance agency in Everett, and operated it until retiring in 1963.  He was elected Mukilteo’s first mayor in 1947, winning in a landslide over two opponents, and served for nine years before choosing not to run in 1956.  He also served as a leader in several social organizations, such as the Order of the Eastern Star and the Everett Central Lion’s Club. 

And later in 1944, the East Stanwood and Stanwood school districts consolidated. 

Sources: Robert Mahaffay, “High-School Pupils ‘Strike’ Against Low Marks At E. Stanwood,” Seattle Daily Times, January 28, 1944, p. 1-2;  Robert Mahaffay, “East Stanwood High To Open Monday, Avers Supt. Tunem,” Ibid., January 29, 1944, p. 3;  “Pupils’ Strike Splits Stanwood,” Ibid., January 30, 1944, p. 8;  Robert Mahaffay, “29 Pupils Back In Classes At East Stanwood School,” Ibid., January 31, 1944, p. 3;  “Many Continue On ‘Strike’ At East Stanwood,” Ibid., February 1, 1944, p. 11;  “Pupils Back At E. Stanwood,” Ibid., February 2, 1944, p. 12;  “Ex-Mukilteo Mayor Dies; Alfred Tunem,” Ibid., December 13, 1972, p. F-9;  Historylink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Mukilteo incorporates on May 8, 1947” (by Phil Dougherty), “Stanwood -- Thumbnail History” (by Karen Prasse), “Stanwood votes to incorporate on September 29, 1903” (by Karen Prasse)  http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 11, 2011).

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