For years, many of the mementos and memorabilia of Riverside Military Academy, from old uniforms to yellowed newspaper articles, from trophies and class pictures to cadet guides and yearbooks, sat collecting dust in an on-campus storage room.
Now, as the college preparatory boarding school celebrates its 100th anniversary, there’s finally a place for folks to get a better sense of the academy’s history.
The Heritage Center at Lanier Hall, assembled by 1955 Riverside graduate Barney Rothgery and overseen by Errol Bisso, director of alumni programs, gives visitors a good idea of how much things have changed on campus, and how they’ve stayed the same.
The mini-museum opened to the public in time for Riverside’s centennial celebration, and serves as another avenue in the school’s continued drive to boost alumni participation.
The school’s current cadets get a kick out of seeing how things used to be, too.
"They’re always sticking their heads into my office with a question about the history," said Bisso, a former longtime athletics coach at the academy and a 1961 graduate who keeps an office just off the display room.
"They think it’s really cool," said Col. Guy Gardner, Riverside Military’s superintendent. "It’s their heritage. Before, the cadets had very little access to a lot of what went before them, so it’s been a big hit."
Last month, more than 300 alumni peered into the display cases and thumbed through old yearbooks during the academy’s centennial celebration.
Riverside, after years of what Gardner said was essentially disorganized alumni relations, has tried in recent years to grow a more active network of past graduates.
So far, Riverside officials have been able to find and contact about 3,200 of the estimated 10,000 or more living alumni.
"We’ve got our work cut out for us, no doubt about it," Bisso said.
Part of the reason the school lost track of its alumni was that it was not dependent on the donations of past graduates to maintain a substantial endowment.
"For years, they were told you would never be asked for any money," Bisso said. "So we never kept up with anybody. That’s been the hard thing, is trying to find everybody. We started dead from scratch."
As the work went along, Riverside groups formed from California to Massachusetts. The school, with a current enrollment of about 350, draws students from across the country and the world.
Many wouldn’t recognize their old school if they come back to visit, had they not already seen the pictures. The academy underwent a dramatic $95 million, seven-year campus overhaul that started in 1997 and was completed in 2004. All that remains of most of the old building is a collection of bricks with identifying plaques sitting in Bisso’s office.
Sometimes, when old alumni drop in on the campus, what they see doesn’t correspond with their memories.
"The old guys are all disappointed, because they’ve been telling their wives how horrible the living conditions were," Gardner joked.
But while the look of the academy is different, and its winter campus in Hollywood, Fla., is long gone, some things haven’t changed.
"It’s still Riverside," Bisso said. "You’re a Riverside cadet, and that will never change."
"It’s still preparing young men for life," Gardner said.