Memorabilia from PA Graduate Museum long gone

Published 1:00 am Sunday, May 6, 2018

The fate of the memorabilia from the abandoned Port Arthur Graduate Museum is now known.

Exposure to the Southeast Texas elements coupled with the fact there was no clear owner led to the disposal of memorabilia.

But their disposal was not done for lack of trying.

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On a swelteringly hot day in August 2016, Port Arthur Police Officer Al Gillen was tasked with securing the dilapidated structure at 435 Procter St. in preparation for demolition.

At the time the city was preparing to demo four structures on one side of the street and two across the street with funding tied to Hurricane Ike Round 2.2 disaster recovery grants.

Inside the deserted graduate museum were the scattered remnants of the city’s former three high schools as well as Bishop Byrne and Sacred Heart Catholic schools. The bottom floor was mostly vacant with some trophies set aside and graffiti marked the walls. Upstairs were piles of debris, unfinished walls and the unmistakable smell of mold. Bright sunlight poured through broken windows and the caved-in roof offered a view of the sky.

“No one wanted any part of it,” Gillen said earlier this week when asked what became of the collection. “And 95 to 99 percent of it was garbage. The roof had collapsed making most of the stuff stored in boxes unserviceable. We went in and tried to save some it but the smell of the mold was killing everybody. The stench was unbelievable.”

Gillen tried to find a home for the items quickly, knowing the wrecking ball was coming.

Ownership was an issue.

The museum was the brainchild of Donna Worthington, activities director at Memorial High School in 2002. The idea was to save memorabilia from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen F. Austin high schools that were consolidated to create Memorial High School, as well as items from Bishop Byrne and Sacred Heart schools, which had closed years earlier.

A committee was formed and fundraising began. Dr. Ronald Buchanan originally bought the old Walgreens building years before in the hopes of revitalizing downtown and bringing in social and entertainment venues, according to a 2002 archive story. He ended up selling the building for use as the graduate museum in late September 2002.

Not much is known about the museum following the 2006 death of Worthington and by January 2013 the building was purchased by Frank Andrews, making him the owner of the memorabilia as well.

A city representative said they received permission from Andrews in 2016 to ask both the Port Arthur Independent School District and the Museum of the Gulf Coast if they could salvage the items and both were unable to do so.

“It is my understanding that the memorabilia inside the building was contaminated,” PAISD Superintendent Mark Porterie said. “There are some things such as the Yellow Jacket and Bumble Bee mascots, secured by a patron, that are still in the area.  I am not sure who owned the building at the time but we regret we could not have done more to secure the wonderful trophies, photos and other items.”

Tom Neal, director of the Museum of the Gulf Coast, explained that his museum never had a claim of ownership to the collection, which, by this time was badly damaged.

In addition, the MOGC had no way to organize or display what was left behind at the vacant building.

“Even to this day people offer scrapbooks where they have clipped Xeroxed copies of articles that are fourth or fifth generation,” Neal said.

Rhonda Ritchie, a 1970 graduate of Thomas Jefferson, was one of a number of people who responded to an ad calling for PA graduates to claim items although she didn’t remember which year the ad was placed. She ended up getting a number of items and passed them on to a representative of that particular class.

As the date for demolition approached, Gillen grabbed what he could salvage and brought it to the police department.

“Mostly trophies that didn’t seem too bad but as they sat they began to grow mold,” Gillen said. “We did what we could but nobody claimed ownership. It’s sad.”

But, he added, there wasn’t much left to toss when the contractor, Inland Environmental, came to tear the building down.