Waukesha school's new name amplifies Les Paul's honors

Scott Ash
Central Middle School in Waukesha has been changed to Les Paul Middle School — Central Campus.
Published on: 6/16/2014

Les Paul's fame has now reached a bit deeper into Waukesha's culture.

The famous musician and inventor has a local highway named after him. An exhibit at the Waukesha County Museum that opened last year is dedicated to the man known as the "Wizard of Waukesha." Murals and oversized Gibson Les Paul guitars are displayed in downtown Waukesha in honor of Paul, who was born and buried here.

Now, in advance of what would have been Paul's 100th birthday in 2015, the latest local tribute to him is tied to the school he once attended.

Central Middle School, located at 400 N. Grand Ave. just outside of downtown Waukesha, will soon be called Les Paul Middle School-Central Campus.

Sounds of dissonance

The Waukesha School Board approved of the change at its school board meeting last week, though in a less-than-harmonious, 5-4 vote.

The name change was vetted over the last number of months after the Les Paul Foundation made a request to the school board.

"All of us at the Les Paul Foundation are delighted by the board's decision," said Sue Baker, executive director for the Les Paul Foundation.

However, there was reluctancy from board members after hearing from many Central alumni who were against a name change.

"I didn't know what it would be like," Baker said of the process. "There seemed to be anger. It surprised me. I didn't expect anger, but any change is difficult. I understand people want to stay connected to their alma mater."

Central Middle School is the oldest facility in the school district. Its campus buildings previously served as the district's junior and senior high schools and became Central Middle School in 1993 when Waukesha West High School opened.

Central to the honor

That was part of the reason the board elected to keep "Central" in the school's name.

The Les Paul Foundation's initial request was for the school's name to be changed to Les Paul Middle School. Two committees were formed at the district and school levels to discuss the change.

The school board's Finance and Facilities Committee initially recommended changing the name to Les Paul Middle School. But at a school board meeting in May, board members expressed concern about that.

"There's just a real hardcore opposition to this," said board member Ellen Langill. "People feel very strongly about Central Middle School."

After new names such as "Les Paul Central Middle School" and "Les Paul Middle School-Central Campus" were brought up, Superintendent Todd Gray suggested going back to the committee level for more discussion.

Baker also went back to the Les Paul Foundation to see if having Central Campus in the name would be OK with them.

"There were people in the community that really felt tied to Central Middle School and didn't want to see 'Central' disappear," Baker said. "We understand and respect the feelings of the people that attended that school and while we preferred Les Paul Middle School, the foundation was very willing to make the modification."

An educational figure?

Paul attended Central when it was called Waukesha Junior High and Waukesha High School. But he dropped out of school to pursue his music dreams. Those opposed to the change argued that a school shouldn't be named after someone who didn't finish school.

Baker, nonetheless, said "Les believed that education is important" and was a lifelong learner.

She noted that Thomas Edison, credited with a variety of inventions, never finished high school. President Abraham Lincoln was also self-taught, she added.

"Les' teachers in Waukesha were supportive of him and answered his endless questions," said Baker, who was friends with Paul during the last 10 years of his life. "He was very curious, and Les always credited the Waukesha teachers."

Baker said Paul never mentioned wanting his name on any school or building.

"He never pursued anything like that," Baker said. "I think he would almost be dumbstruck. He would be very pleased and humbled by it. But the Les Paul Foundation bringing the request to the school board was never about seeking honor about Les Paul. It was about how can we help the students. Those buildings are where Waukesha teachers inspired a young man. I'm sure people view that differently, but we were keenly aware of Les' gratitude toward his teachers."

Planning for birthday

The foundation will pay for all of the costs associated with the name change. Baker said she will be meeting with school district personnel in the coming weeks on details of the change.

"It would be very appropriate for the formal change (to happen) in 2015 for Les' 100 birthday," Baker said. "But the school district is in charge of that."