The owner at the James Dean Gallery had warned me. Don’t expect too much if you visit Dean’s old high school up the street. It was in ruins, he said. The roof collapsed the previous summer, in 2013. The entire structure would soon be razed.
I asked Nebra to drive up there anyway. We had come to Fairmount, the little town in east central Indiana where Dean grew up, mainly to visit his grave in the cemetery north of town. But it was at the high school where Dean first learned to act and appeared in plays on his way to Hollywood stardom.
The school rests just east a few blocks from downtown. It is bordered on the north by Adams Street, on the east by Buckeye, on the south by Jefferson and on the north by Vine. A chain link fence surrounded it. We parked on Adams and walked around the property.
The old Fairmount High was in better shape than I expected. Most of the walls remained intact. But the roof was caved in, in shambles.
We met a pair of local women taking an evening walk. The eldest said she had gone to school with Dean, but offered no particulars. She said the school had been abandoned since when? 1971, she thought. I asked if she would pose for a photo in front of the school’s entrance that said only “High School.” No “Fairmount.” She politely declined. I know. Shoulda put a gun to her head.
As I finished my shooting tour and walked back to the car, a man approached walking a small dog. He said his name was Bob Johnson. He worked at the Fairmount historical museum on Sundays.
“How much do you know about the Dean saga?” he asked. “A little,” I said. At that point, Mr. Johnson began a quick rundown of Dean’s life in Fairmount, starting with the father working as a dental technician in nearby Marion.
At the end, he pointed up to the second floor of the school. Adeline Nall’s speech class was on the right, the auditorium where Dean appeared in school plays, on the left. Ms. Hall, who is said to have greatly influenced Dean’s acting career, outlived her star pupil by 41 years. She died in 1996 at age 90, Dean of course dying in 1955.
As I walked to the car, a touch of sadness came over me.
While mortals like Dean come and go, you think of a school building, like a Carnegie Library, as a place that lasts forever.