An Oral History of the Spotlight, and Denver East High School
By Leo Kamin
In 1921, Denver’s population was just over 250,000. The city had just entered its seventh decade. Streetcars and, more and more, Ford Model T’s crawled past the recently-opened Ogden Theater on dusty East Colfax Avenue. The downtown skyline was hardly a skyline — comprised of buildings mostly no taller than 15 stories. Many of the city’s teenagers attended the “Old East” high school at the corner of 19th and Stout, in the heart of what is today downtown Denver.
On Apr. 7 of that year, a small group of students — boys who were part of a writers’ group, the Scribbler’s Round Table — published the first issue of the East High Spotlight newspaper. Its first editor was Frank Johnston, who was also president of the Round Table. By the end of the 1920-1921 school year, the small staff had published five more issues.
The paper’s first motto was “Nothing but the Truth.” It was quickly changed to “Don’t Filch; Don’t Foul; Hit the Line Hard” — a Theodore Roosevelt quote. In its second year, the Spotlight ran a list of “Blue Laws,” styled after the Ten Commandments. They are full of the crude humor shared by, it seems, every generation of high-schoolers, though they are unmistakably of the 1920s and rife with misogyny. Some highlights: “Thou shalt not be a flapper;” “Thou shalt not use deadly cosmetics to beautify thy comely features;” “Thou shalt not wear the dangling earring.”
Clearly undeterred by the sentiments of “Blue Laws,” girls quickly joined the Spotlight staff, making it one of the first activities to go co-ed. Other improvements were made in the first few years: the paper was expanded to five and then six columns; “more professional type for headlines” was adopted; issues were printed on “real news paper.” New traditions — April Fool’s and Christmas editions, the latter printed in red-and-green ink — were established.
The changes paid off. The 1922-1923 staff captured the “silver Loving cup,” awarded to the best school publication in the state. The 1923-1924 staff missed the title by 0.5%. The 24-25 staff won “two Loving cups, signifying the championship of Colorado and the West and five ribbons.” That year’s staff was not lacking for self-congratulation: “We had indeed proved worthy, had reached a new high mark, had come to a glorious climax,” wrote editor Eugene Duffield in the 1925 Angelus.
In “Flights of Angels: A History of Denver East High School,” Richard Nelson, who served as the Spotlight’s faculty sponsor for 21 years, writes that, in reading early issues of the paper, “one is struck by how little has changed in high school.” Common in those early days were editorials, which ranged in subject matter from “smoking on school grounds” to “academic shortcuts” (cheating) to “the value of sportsmanship.”
Indeed, many headlines from early editions would not feel out of place in Spotlights of the 1990s or 2020s. From September 1922: “INTER-CITY GAMES ON SCHEDULE AS LOCAL HIGH SEASON OPENS” and “SCHOOL BOND MUST PASS.” From November 1924: “PLAY PROCEEDS GO TO WELFARE FUND” and “EAST STUDENTS SPEAK ON SENIOR HIGH ADVANTAGES.”
In the 20s, with radio on the horizon but not yet widespread, newspapers dominated American society. East was no different. In 1926, the Spotlight even sponsored a popularity contest for juniors and seniors; six lucky Angels were victorious. The Spotlight was quickly becoming an East High institution.
Perhaps the most important development 20s, though: in 1925, the Spotlight staff began to do its reporting from the corner of Colfax Avenue and City Park Esplanade, from the massive, H-shaped, Jacobethan-Revival building now famous for its bright red bricks and central clock tower.
Through the 1930s, a decade dominated by the horrors of the Great Depression, the Spotlight provided what Mr. Nelson describes as a “softer, less complicated view of teenage life.”
In February and April of 1930, a reader glancing through the Spotlight would have no idea that the nation was in the throes of an ever-worsening economic meltdown. “SENIOR CLASS TO PLANT TREE,” “OPERA SINGER IS FORMER SERAPH,” and “LAST DAY TO MAKE APPOINTMENTS FOR PICTURES IS FRIDAY,” cried headlines.
The presses kept running, and the Spotlight kept winning awards. Mr. Nelson writes that “most years, the paper received the highest ranking given by the National Scholastic Press Association.” In 1932, 1933, 1939 and likely other years, the Spotlight received this coveted “All-American” status, awarded to the top 5% of publications nationwide.
On Dec. 8, 1941, many Angels attended an assembly they would never forget. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, students listened live as President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan. Just a few days before, their greatest stresses were math classes and prom dates; now many of them would be heading off to Europe or the South Pacific; a number of them did not return.
Life at East would not be the same. “The sometimes aimless, wandering pattern of high school life had changed,” declared the 1942 Angelus. “Girls knitting in class, a sudden interest in radio news and commentary, . . . first aid classes — these were outward manifestations of the change at East.”
Patriotism swept the nation and the school; East became part of the massive home-front mobilization efforts. Headlines from war-era issues of the Spotlight reflect this fact.
“DEFENSE NEEDS PAPER:” an editorial called for the collection of East’s waste paper for use in the war effort. “TWO PLANES PURCHASED: $45,846 COLLECTED WITH 2 DAYS LEFT:” East students sold war bonds to parents and local companies, raising enough money to purchase two planes (in today’s money almost $700,000) ”
In March of 1942, when the Spotlight had a paid circulation of more than 1,700 and cost just 10 cents, it ran a section titled “EAST ON ALL THE FRONTS.” The section reflects just how strange high school life must have been in the 40s: under each of six headings — “Classroom,” “Navy,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Third Floor,” “Entertainment,” and “Art Studio” — writers detailed what Angels were up to. Some worked on ceramics; others were on aircraft carriers. In the 40s, some East students toiled in the South Pacific, while others toiled on the “third floor.”
Throughout the war, amidst the terror of seeing friends shipped off to combat and the clamor of paper drives and war-bond sales, East remained a fairly normal high school, and its inhabitants remained fairly normal teenagers. This, too, is reflected in the Spotlight’s headlines.
Sports continued to draw the student body’s attention: “ANGELS HAVE NO MERCY ON THE NORTH VIKINGS.” Hairstyles continued to go in and out of fashion: “‘BABY’ HAIRCUTS SUGGEST SPRING.” Teenagers continued to be, well, teenagers: “NEW SOPHOMORES EXCLAIM EAST GIRLS ARE BEAUTIFUL.”
In 1957, Arnie Reisman moved west down Colfax Avenue, from the now-defunct Gove Junior High School, at 14th and Colorado, to East. He arrived during a period that Mr. Nelson called East’s “Golden Era.” In these post-war years, clubs and school spirit abounded.
The student body was obsessed with popularity — each year, Angelus recognized a “Best All-Around Girl;” the Spotlight ran a list of the “top 25 seniors.”
Reisman describes his years at East as “heady times:” George Washington and Thomas Jefferson High Schools had not yet been built; forced integration had not yet driven thousands of white families southward to the suburbs. As a result, there were around 1,100 students in his freshman class. His schedule would not be unfamiliar to East students from the COVID-19 era: due to overcrowding, he only attended school from 7:30 AM until lunch.
Reisman had been the editor of the school newspaper at Gove, so, naturally, when he came to East, he joined the Spotlight. At a school so large, one had to make an effort to find their place. By his senior year, Reisman was the editor-in-chief.
Editorially, the Spotlight was “pretty much sticking to the issues of the school,” said Reisman. “If anything, we would get into education budgets from time to time.” The biggest stories, in this age of school spirit and popularity contests, were “what the latest dance was and who the homecoming king and queen were.”
Every once in a while, the paper would run an editorial, but these, too, did not often concern themselves with issues beyond the school doors. Some examples from Reisman’s time include, “ARE YOUR PARENTS GETTING A BANG FOR THEIR BUCK?” and “SHOULD CLIQUES DOMINATE A HIGH SCHOOL?”
There was always, said Reisman, a sense of “levity” to the Spotlight. The tradition of April Fool’s and Christmas editions continued. “There was a constant mockery of what was then the tabloid paper in town, which was the old Rocky Mountain News,” he remembered.
During the 50s and 60s, the Spotlight’s role at the school entailed much more than reporting. Together, the Spotlight and Angelus staffs would hold “symposiums on major events of the day.” After school hours, students would fill the auditorium and discuss issues like Civil Rights and the rising tensions in Southeast Asia.
The Spotlight also got involved in the most important school events of the day — the dances. The Spotlight and Angelus would co-sponsor dances in the gym and foyer, an effort that would likely overwhelm contemporary Spotlight editors.
The paper continued to be a cornerstone of the community. Students were excited to read each issue when it came out. They would drop by the newspaper room to pitch the staff on a story about their club or team.
And the paper continued to win accolades. During his senior year, Reisman was part of an event organized by the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Ladies Home Journal that brought together the editors of the top 10 high school newspapers in the country and editors of major national newspapers.
From East, Reisman went on to Brandeis University — where he was again the editor of the newspaper — before beginning a career in journalism that included working as a producer and writer at ABC television and a documentary filmmaker. He interviewed the Apollo 11 astronauts. One of his documentaries was adapted for Broadway. He retired to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where he continues to write columns for the local newspaper.
Richard Nelson could barely believe his eyes when he first saw East High School. He came from a small Colorado town, from a small high school. When he first saw East, he thought he was in the wrong place — high schools didn’t look like that.
He arrived in the fall of 1964, with a journalism degree from the University of Denver. He was made faculty sponsor of the Spotlight, a position he would hold until 1985.
In 1964, the Spotlight was still “a pretty traditional paper,” Mr. Nelson said. “When you look back at the old newspapers, they had one thing in mind: their goal was to treat East High School as its own little separate world and to cover the news of that little separate world.”
In the post-war years and the early 60s, the “Golden Era,” that “little separate world,” innocent and idyllic, seemed to be enough for East students and the Spotlight staff. By the late 60s and mid-70s, though, after a national reckoning on civil rights, Vietnam, political assassinations and forced integration in Denver, it was no longer enough. East could no longer be a “separate,” idyllic teenage world. Spotlight writers could no longer ignore the issues of their time.
The change happened — could happen — because East had, said Mr. Nelson, “the right principal at the right time.”
Bob Caldwell — the progressive principal who, among other things, held conversations with the local Black Panther Party that led to the creation of the Black Students Union and the Black history curriculum — was committed to freedom of the press.
There were principals in Denver Public Schools at the time who would not let the student newspaper go to the printers before passing across their desks. Each year, though, Principal Caldwell would promise the Spotlight staff that there would be no prior censorship.
Thanks to this freedom, and the state of the country, the Spotlight began to break out of the “little separate world.” Of the events of the 60s and early 70s, Mr. Nelson said that “it’s impossible for the kids not to want to write about that stuff.” “It’s not like you live on some island that you could be sheltered from all that,” he said. “And the kids understood that.”
One innovation was the “pro and con.” Previous editorials were largely about school issues — cliques and parking spaces. These “pro and con” articles would, for essentially the first time, discuss the hot-button issues of the day. These pieces, said Mr. Nelson, were the precursors to the editorials that have since become an integral part of every Spotlight issue. The pro-con format itself is still quite common today.
Though much of the pressure to change with the times likely came from within, from editors and writers, some of it surely came from the student body, too. Following a larger societal pattern, East students in the 1960s began to reject many of the school’s long-running traditions and institutions. Angels of the 50s, said Reisman, looked for “any excuse” to hold a dance; in the 60s, the junior prom was canceled due to lack of interest.
The ire of the student body also turned its sights on the Spotlight. The 1969 yearbook, whose all-black cover and provocative imagery made the pages of the New York Times, described the Spotlight as an “elongated bulletin” and “mouthpiece of the administration.” Naturally, Mr. Nelson said, the staff began to feel a desire to push back on these notions.
The change was not just editorial. When Mr. Nelson came to East, the Spotlight was not allowed to run advertisements. By 1967, the policy changed. In the following decades, the ads were mostly for local restaurants — Blackjack Pizza and Subway; the Spotlight’s first advertiser, though, was not a restaurant. It was Planned Parenthood.
“We got all kinds of heat from it,” Mr. Nelson said. “We had the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Denver write a scathing letter to us about it.”
The Supreme Court had only two years earlier established the constitutional right to contraception — but only for married couples. Colorado had just become the first state to decriminalize abortion — but only in a narrow set of cases. Birth control and abortion were still very much taboo, but, despite what Mr. Nelson described as a “firestorm” in the community, “the kids just stuck with it,” and Principal Caldwell stuck with them.
As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the national issues that captured the student body’s attention became deeply, deeply personal.
In a landmark Supreme Court case in 1973, one the first school desegregation cases dealing with a city outside of the South, Denver was ordered to integrate its schools. As a result, the “East-Manual Complex” was created.
Students from rich, white neighborhoods like Hilltop were bussed into Manual High School, a predominantly Black school. Students could take classes at both schools — a policy designed primarily to benefit Manual students by giving them access to the greater resources at East.
“We were all sort of part of a social experiment, in terms of racial desegregation,” said Chris Herlinger, who came to East in 1974 — the year integration began — and was a co-editor-in-chief of the Spotlight for the 1976-1977 school year.
Desegregation made this a “dynamic time,” Herlinger said. “But I think we were in the shadow of an even more dynamic time.” The generation just 10 or so years older than Herlinger lived through the height of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war and social upheaval. “When we were there, I think things quieted down a bit.”
Still, there was plenty of upheaval. The East of the 1970s more and more no longer resembled the East of the 50s and early 60s. “White flight” to the suburbs accelerated, and many white students who in years past would have attended East now attended private schools or suburban public schools — like rapidly-growing Cherry Creek. Other students were simply pushed into newly created high schools like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Mr. Nelson said that, though the school may have, in some sense, lost some of its “talent,” the 70s were his favorite years at East. “When I look back on it, the kids that stayed at East High School, they were the best kids,” he said. “They were passionate about why they stayed . . . they felt like they were survivors of the exile to the suburbs.” And, he said, when it came to the Spotlight, “they would write about this stuff all the time.”
With this rapid urban migration came tensions, racial tensions, of course; but there was also tension between the white students who stayed and the white students who left. At times, these tensions played out on the pages of school newspapers.
Mr. Nelson said that, in the 70s, “our biggest rivalry was with Thomas Jefferson,” at that time a predominantly white school. Mr. Nelson said that, at East, “We had two [Spotlight] editors that were in a rivalry with them.” Things got personal: at some point, the Thomas Jefferson newspaper wrote an editorial about East High School, centered around the idea that East was a “ghetto school.”
Still, against this backdrop, the Spotlight remained largely the same. Stories mostly covered the same ground. Students loved the sports section — “that was big,” Herlinger said. The changes of the 1960s were cemented: advertisement continued, students continued to write about the outside world. Herlinger remembers, ahead of the 1976 presidential election, writing opposing editorials with a friend. Herlinger wrote in favor of Jimmy Carter; his friend supported Gerald Ford. The “pro-con” had become a tradition.
And the Spotlight, perhaps still scarred by the words of the 1969 Angelus, was no longer merely a “house-organ.”
One of Herlinger’s stories from the 1975-1976 school year is an instructive example. In 1974, Principal Caldwell retired. Because, in Herlinger’s words, “Downtown thought East was becoming too radical,” an “old-school” principal —World War II veteran John Astuno — was sent in to replace him. The East faculty — then, as it is now, liberal-leaning — pushed back against him. They went as far as to hold a vote of no confidence, a major embarrassment for the principal.
Editors did what Spotlight staffs of earlier decades would never have done. Herlinger, under editor-in-chief Suze Craighead, went ahead with a story on the vote.
“We ran it and we ran it without Mr. Astuno’s approval,” Herlinger said. “I don’t think he [Mr. Astuno] was too happy about the piece.” In the end, the students received no punishment, thanks, perhaps, to Mr. Nelson. “I do think Mr. Nelson was responsible for backing us up and kind of protecting us,” Herlinger said. The Spotlight’s editorial independence, which Mr. Caldwell cared so deeply about, was preserved.
Perhaps the Spotlight was no longer a “house organ” because society’s view of journalism had changed.
Following the Watergate scandal in the early 70s and the now-immortalized work of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the idea of journalism as a means of holding the powerful in check became widely accepted. “I think that post-Watergate idea about being an investigative reporter, that was the spirit in which a lot of us went into journalism,” Herlinger said.
Herlinger’s journalism career did not end after high school. He is a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. He has written three books and published articles with the Huffington Post. His reporting has taken him to Sudan, Uganda, Argentina, Haiti, Afghanistan and Liberia, among many others.
By the 1980s, East had changed. It changed so quickly that two siblings separated in age by just five years had vastly different experiences at the school. Becky Herlinger, Chris’ sister, came to East in the 1979-1980 school year. Chris described his years on Colfax as a “dynamic time;” Becky remembered hers differently: “It was the Reagan era. People were pretty conforming.”
Perhaps nobody had a clearer view of the change than Mr. Nelson, who remained newspaper sponsor through 1985. He tells it this way: “And then the 80s came. And it’s almost like we just slipped back into complacency.” That decade “just didn’t have the same feel to it.”
When asked to describe East in the 80s, Herlinger responded, “Have you ever seen any 80s movies?” Films like “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” were true to life, she said.
When East students walked out of school and streamed down Colfax to the Capitol following the 2018 Parkland shooting, she was amazed. “I don’t know, in my time in the mid-80s, if we would have done that or if we would have had any kind of awareness of the issues that were bigger than us.” After the shock of the 60s and 70s, East in the 80s retreated into that “little separate world.”
Even the controversy surrounding the East-Manuel complex faded into the background. Students Herlinger’s age had been living with busing for years. “It was just a normal part of our school experience,” she said.
Herlinger followed in her brother’s footsteps, joining the Spotlight and serving as editor-in-chief for the 1981-1982 school year.
The paper’s focus remained the school. Herlinger said that editors were always asking themselves, “What’s the hard-hitting news of the day, in terms of East?” Students in the 60s had innovated, finding ways to cover the issues of the outside world; that continued — “we did have some very serious people who would write editorials,” Herlinger said. Through it all though, the Spotlight remained a school newspaper.
This 80s editorial philosophy also unmistakably reflected the post-Watergate obsession with investigative journalism that had inspired Spotlight staffs of the 70s — “what’s the hard-hitting news?”
For editors of the 80s, the best parts of the job were the days the staff went to the printers. Current Spotlight editors can create layouts using computer programs in just a few clicks; a few more clicks send a file to the printers and turn it into a newspaper.
Before digital printing, the staff would have to create the layout, by hand, the day they went to the printers.
“It’s so crazy old-fashioned to think back on it,” Herlinger said. “You’d have all the articles in strips, and you would physically lay it out on a big board.”
All of the text would be printed on long, thin strips of paper, which would be cut out and arranged into place. This made printing day a mad dash, an hours-long process of frantically trying to make text, images and headlines fit.
Though to modern ears this process may sound like a headache, Herlinger remembers trips to the printers fondly; “they were really special days,” she said. “We basically got a day off from school once a month to go and do this, and he [Mr. Nelson] would take us out to lunch. It made you feel really special.”
Another tradition during this time was the yearly joint edition with the Manual newspaper, the Thunderbolt. Though East and Manual were technically part of one “complex,” a real rivalry emerged. “It was very fraught and very competitive,” Herlinger remembers. Fights over issues as minor as “whose logo goes on top” bogged down the process. “Everyone was on their best game,” said Herlinger.
These joint issues also reflected a broader point about the East-Manual complex. Herlinger remembers that every year, both editorial boards were virtually entirely white. Manual had once been an almost fully Black school. Less than 10 years after white students were bussed in, though, its newspaper’s staff contained few if any Black students.
Reformers in the early 70s may have dreamed of an interracial student newspaper; what they got instead was the yearly ritual Herlinger describes — white students from Hilltop warring with white students from Park Hill over whose logo would appear first.
In 1995, mandatory busing ended, and white families in neighborhoods like Country Club and Congress Park blocked efforts to move many addresses in the eastern half of East’s district into Manual’s; today, East is majority white and getting whiter, while Manual is overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic.
Herlinger continues to live in Denver. She works at Community Shares of Colorado, a philanthropic services provider. She says she continues to use the skills she learned as editor-in-chief of the Spotlight daily.
From a young age, the news — events like the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption and the Iran hostage crisis — fascinated Peggy Krendl. She began reporting as soon as she could, joining the newspaper in middle school.
During her freshman year at East, the 1986-1987 school year, she couldn’t technically join the Spotlight. But by stopping into the newspaper room during lunch periods, she found a way to get in on some of the action. “I just loved what they did,” she said. In her sophomore year, she became a full-fledged member of the staff. By her senior year, she was editor-in-chief.
Over the next half-decade, two more Krendls — younger sisters Susan and Anne — followed in her footsteps, becoming the head editors during the 1991-92 and 1993-94 school years, respectively.
Somehow, even in the last decade of the 20th century, not all that much had changed at the Spotlight since its founding.
The traditions were still around. For the 1992 April Fool’s Day edition, the Spotlight became the Spotlight Review. Articles included “FLASHER GAINS EXPOSURE AT EAST,” “TEACHERS SAY “#*$!!,” and “BICENTENNIAL [Constitutional Law] TEAM DISQUALIFIED!”
A full-page spread of a dozen or so photos of East students’ (clothed) rear-ends invited readers to “match these booties with their rightful owner.” Some notable bylines from the issue: “I.M. Chaffed,” “Chaka Khan,” “Para Liegl,” and “Amazin’ Krendl.”
“We got a little giddy with how crazy we went sometimes,” said Peggy.
Other traditions were not quite as fun for the staff. Every year, in its final issue, the Spotlight would include a “senior wills” section. It was a fundraiser: seniors could pay to have their “will” printed. Wills, which detailed what one was “leaving” to friends in younger classes, were mostly vehicles for inside jokes.
This added up to quite the headache for those who had to collect, edit, type and potentially censor them. Compiling these “wills” — many of which included phrases like “Matt-Stew-Stew-with-an-m-Stem” and “snorting KIX” (it’s a cereal) — would take hours. All three sisters remembered those long hours with smiles, though.
The wills themselves highlight the many ways in which teenage life in Denver has not changed. Students reminisced about ski trips, “drivin’ through Cheesman,” MORP, “swimming at Congress,” and “late-night study sessions,” among many, many other things that won’t be printed.
In non-spoof editions, the balance of stories remained mostly the same. A 1992 issue largely concerned itself with East: offerings included, “SPOTLIGHT FORUM ON COUNCIL CANDIDATES,” “ATTENDANCE APPEAL PROCESS ELIMINATED,” and “SPRING SPORTS PREVIEW.” Editorials covered broader subjects — “BOXING: IS IT A SPORT OR JUST BRUTALITY?”
The paper covered the outside issues that affected the community at the time. Today’s students worry about school shootings; students in the 90s were more concerned with gang violence. “It seemed like there was a drive-by shooting at least once a year when we were there,” said Anne, the youngest sister. It was not uncommon for students to be caught with guns at school. Today, such an event would probably trigger a district-wide lockdown; in the 90s, things were handled differently.
Peggy clearly remembers her history teacher, Ms. Feeney, a “petite little lady” who wore a neck brace, chasing an armed student down the hall, yelling, “You need to drop that gun! I will call your mother!” Simpler times? These issues, along with changes in school leadership and policy, found their way into Spotlight news stories and editorials.
Another especially potent issue at the time was sexual assault. In 1991, John F. Kennedy’s nephew, William Kennedy Smith, was accused of rape before eventually being acquitted in a trial that made national news. That same year, Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during televised Senate hearings. In 1992, Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in Indianapolis. These issues were front-of-mind for many teenagers at the time — and they showed up in the Spotlight.
“We would do surveys and there would be dialogue around safe sex, consensual sex, and date rape,” said Susan, the middle Krendl sister. “I think that was more of the undertone of what was going on.” Susan described these issues as, essentially, the “Black Lives Matter” movement of her generation. Unfortunately, though, discussions of sexual violence are still all too relevant at East.
Through the 60s, 70s and 80s, Mr. Nelson’s leadership had played a key role in drawing students to the Spotlight. When he left the paper to coach the speech team for the 1985-86 school year, David Riviera, or “Coach,” quickly took up the mantle and began to play a similar role.
When asked about their time on the Spotlight, it seemed that the first word out of all three Krendl sisters’ mouths was “Coach.”
“He had a long, outstanding history at the Spotlight,” said Susan. “He was really one of the motivating factors that kept kids engaged.”
Peggy described him as a “famous personality with my generation of the Spotlight.” He got his students excited about the newspaper, partially because, as Peggy said, “He really trusted us.” Like Mr. Nelson before him, Mr. Riviera protected the students’ editorial freedoms. “He was there to guide but not to dictate.”
He guided the Spotlight staff for 15 years, and he might have done so for 15 more had he not tragically passed away from lung cancer in 2000, at the age of just 51.
An obituary in the Denver Post highlights just how much of a force “Coach” was in the classroom: “He played rap music. He sang opera. He recited Shakespeare and chewed blue gum.” To stay hip and keep his references fresh, he frequently watched “teen-oriented movies and MTV.”
After his passing, the entire Spotlight staff “fanned out” to research and write a story commemorating his legacy. Then-News Editor Caitlin Smith described it as “the easiest story I had ever written.”
Peggy Krendl now lives in Houston, where she is a Managing Director of the accounting firm Accenture. Her sister Susan (now Susan Krendl-Armstrong) lives in Atlanta; she is the Executive Director of Operational Processes for Cox Communications. Their youngest sister, Anne, is a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.
When Anne was about to graduate from East in 1994, Mr. Riviera approached her mother. His question: “When are you expecting the fourth Krendl?”
The 21st Century
Many things have not changed at East High School since the 90s. The Constitutional Law team — then the “bicentennial” team — still dominates. Students still frequent Colfax restaurants. Angels still pack the stands and bleachers for big games.
But students also mill about the halls scrolling Instagram and Snapchat. They lock the classroom doors and huddle together in corners once a month. They wear masks, report symptoms and spit into vials.
East High School — teenage life — underwent massive changes during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, and so did the Spotlight.
Perhaps the most significant change was the advent of new methods for relaying school news to students. These days, the administration, the athletics department, the counselors, every club, every sports team and even some academic departments each have their own Instagram account. This means that most “news” — basketball scores, club-sponsored events, rule changes — is reported out online almost instantaneously.
Recently, East has seen the creation of the popular “Angels on Air” broadcast journalism program, which runs features and news stories on its online channels weekly.
With the role of directly informing the student body in some sense off of its shoulders, the Spotlight has undergone a shift in editorial direction that dwarfs any of the changes made in the 60s and 70s. It now more closely resembles a news magazine like the Atlantic than a traditional newspaper like the Denver Post.
In the late 2010s, the Spotlight joined a growing number of high-school publications in moving away from the classic broadsheet format in favor of a 16- or 20-page magazine. Articles are longer and cover a broader range of topics. The majority of stories are still about East, of course, but these often take the form of extended features or investigative stories. Recent examples include “Nonbinary at East,” “Colfax: A Day in the Life,” and “We Are East: The Immigration Issue.”
Every issue contains multiple news stories from the outside world. During the 2020-2021 school year, students wrote about topics like the balance of power in the Senate, the Gamestop fiasco, Black Lives Matter protests and local wildfires. Following overall media trends, op-eds have become perhaps the most popular assignments for Spotlight writers. Some pieces focus on the school — “A Senior’s Perspective on COVID-19 and Online Learning,” “PRO/CON: Return to School” — while others cover national issues — “Black History Month – The Retail Holiday,” “The Mistakes of the Trump Administration.”
During the pandemic year, these changes were accelerated. For the first time in 100 years, not a single physical issue of the Spotlight was printed. Editors and writers had to adapt. Stories were posted online and on an Instagram page. And, frankly, during the 2020-2021 school year, very little happened at East High School. The choir performances, musicals, packed sporting events, dances and assemblies that would normally fill the pages of the Spotlight were almost all canceled.
Yes, the Spotlight has certainly changed — this year more than ever. It looks different than it did in 1921 (or 1991, for that matter). It covers vastly different subject matter. It no longer holds popularity contests or sponsors dances. It no longer takes hours upon hours to print.
But some things are, unmistakably, the same. The staff — the editorial board, especially — still bonds while obsessing over the layout. The same teenage humor — what Reisman called “levity” — that produced the “Blue Laws” in the 1920s and April Fool’s Day issues in the 1990s produces the “Dad Jokes” section and articles like “PRO/CON: TikTok” today. The post-Watergate desire to find the “hard-hitting news,” to not be simply a “house organ,” is alive today: in 2018-2019, Spotlight writers investigated disparities in funding for girls and boys athletics, literally “follow[ing] the money.” The paper has a natural continuity to it: each spring, for the last 100 springs, senior editors have passed the reins to the class below them, handing down tips, values and inside jokes.
That 100-year human chain continues. Current juniors Ally Yager, Harrison Getches and Allen Harder will lead the Spotlight into its second century.
A lot is sure to change throughout that second century, but the Spotlight is no stranger to change. In its first 100 years, East, and its school newspaper, survived the Great Depression, the largest war in human history and — knock on wood — a pandemic.
The next 100 years should be a breeze.