Members of West High School’s “Mighty Fine Class of ’79” remember Milton McPike as a towering man who was caring, kind and stern when need be, with a strong voice and a good sense of humor.
It was the influence the longtime East High School principal wielded and the impact he made that brought dozens of former colleagues, students, friends and family out on a chilly Wednesday afternoon as Madison’s Central Park was renamed in honor of the late McPike.
“Milton McPike was the kind of principal that led by inspiring,” Mayor Paul Soglin said at a ceremony to rename the public space McPike Park.
McPike, known as Milt, was principal of East High from 1979 until his retirement in 2002. In 1990, he was named by Reader’s Digest as one of 10 “American Heroes in Education.” He also served on the University of Wisconsin System’s Board of Regents from 2004 until shortly before his death in 2008 from a rare form of cancer.
His influence wasn’t contained to the city’s East Side.
Andrea Poulos, who was part of a group of 1979 West High School graduates at the renaming ceremony, wore her senior class shirt that prominently featured McPike’s name among the hundreds of students listed. McPike spent five years as West’s vice principal before becoming principal at East.
“He thought we were his heroes, but he was ours,” said 1979 West graduate Kathy Revello.
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McPike’s wife, Sharon McPike, remembers her husband’s community work off school grounds.
“He wasn’t just East High School. In our community, he would always take great pride with whatever he did,” she said.
Of Madison’s more than 270 parks, McPike Park is only the second to be named after an African-American — the first is Orlando Bell Park on the Southeast Side. The 5.8-acre McPike Park, situated on the Isthmus along the Capital City Trail, is home to La Fete de Marquette, the Central Park Sessions concert series, the Eastside Farmers’ Market and Madison’s first skatepark.
The fieldhouse at East High School, set to be expanded and upgraded next year, is also named after McPike, as is a scholarship fund at the high school.
Deputy Mayor Gloria Reyes, an East High graduate, remembers McPike stopping by her homes in the Kennedy Heights and Darbo neighborhoods. He would visit to chat with her grandparents, who weren’t comfortable going into the high school due to their limited English, she said.
“He was keeping us all in line and showing us accountability for our behavior but also changing our course by trying to show us a better way,” said Reyes, who was elected to the Madison School Board on Tuesday. “He had such a deep connection with the students.”Whether eating at the Avenue Club or speaking with parents of former students, current East High principal Mike Hernandez said he’s heard from hundreds of people about the impact of the man who formerly held his job.
“Whether white, black, brown, it was evident that he cared about everybody,” Hernandez said.