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Bomb’s Away: February 1991

October 01, 1999 4 min read
For nearly 30 years, the symbol for the Richland High School Bombers has been the mushroom cloud.

When it comes to nicknames and logos, most schools do their best to steer clear of controversy. It’s no coincidence that interscholastic sports leagues are filled with Panthers, Trojans, Bears, and the like; in these politically correct times, they are the safe, innocuous choices.

Still, a few schools throw caution to the wind, embracing logos almost guaranteed to raise eyebrows. A high school in Idaho sports a maniac in a straitjacket. Teams at a Virginia school go by the name Johnny Reb.

But a high school in Richland, Washington, boasts what must be one of the nation’s most unusual logos. For nearly 30 years, the symbol for the Richland High School Bombers has been the mushroom cloud. A town in the dry southeastern part of the state, Richland grew up with the nuclear age. The Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of the area’s biggest employers, and Richland residents working there helped process plutonium for the atomic bomb that devastated Nagasaki. This contribution to ending World War II remains a source of local pride. As a result, many residents see the cloud as the perfect logo.

But not everyone at Richland High is “Proud of the Cloud.” A decade ago, a small group of teachers broke the calm by asking a simple question: Should students embrace a symbol that represents the end of the world? Offended by the logo, they fought to get rid of it. With the school divided over the issue, a vote was called. Cloud supporters clobbered the opposition.

Teacher Magazine visited Richland after this fracas, and the resulting story reignited tempers. “There was hell to pay after the article came out,” says English teacher Jim Deatherage, who, along with social studies teachers Lonnie Pier son and Scott Woodward, led the anti-cloud insurgence.

These days, no one fights about the cloud. “People who like it use it, and those who don’t, don’t,” says cloud booster Mary Yarborough, a longtime math teacher at the school who retired last spring.

Still, the issue has not died. Deatherage says he and several other teachers-Woodward among them-use the cloud as a topic for class discussion and writing. “We’ve continued to quietly express our displeasure,” he says. “As a teacher of literature, I’m keenly aware of the power of symbols, whether they be a swastika, a cross, a raised middle finger, or a mushroom cloud. Symbols have power; they speak volumes.”

Anti-cloud sentiment may even be growing, bolstered in part by the revival of a school logo from years ago. Despite the town’s historical connection to nuclear weapons, Richland High did not get the “Bombers” nickname from the atomic bomb. On July 23, 1944, workers at Hanford contributed their day’s wages to the war effort. The sum was enough for the Air Force to buy a B-17 bomber, which was christened Day’s Pay. Caught up in the patriotic spirit of the times, the school changed its nickname from the Beavers to the Bombers and made a B-17 the school’s logo. It wasn’t until 1972, when a football coach tired of the plane and asked his math class to draft a new logo, that the cloud caught on.

Recently, the B-17 has been making a comeback at the school. Several years ago, graduating seniors commissioned an enormous painting of Day’s Pay for an outside wall of the gym. The 3,200 square foot mural-the class gift to the school-is now a prominent reminder of how Richland High really got its nickname. Since then, other graduating classes have added smaller images of Day’s Pay to the school grounds.

Deatherage says that once the kids learn where the school got its nickname, they think twice about the cloud. “Almost without exception, they understand its inappropriateness as a symbol,” he says. Still, many are conflicted. “In their hearts, some like the cloud because it represents all they’ve been through [at the school],” he says. “But in their heads, they cannot believe we use the symbol.” Last year’s seniors elected to remove the cloud from their graduation announcements.

Harder to convince are the adults. Some three decades of Richland High graduates associate the symbol with their high school years. Nearly a third of the school’s teachers are Richland graduates themselves. And a lot of school and community history is tied to the image and all it represents.

Yet one key convert is Jim Qualheim, a Richland graduate and the school’s activities director and track coach. Qualheim joined the faculty in 1979 and was both surprised and pleased to find that the mushroom cloud had replaced the bomber. “I thought it was a unique symbol,” says Qualheim, whose father was a Hanford engineer.

Then, in 1992, he took eight members of his track team to compete in Japan. They stayed with a family in Hiroshima, who took them to Peace Park-ground zero for the first nuclear blast. “It was very graphic,” he says. “You see what the explosion did. I saw the shadow of the guy there in the cement.” Qualheim returned to Richland with a new perspective on the cloud. “I came back and looked at the symbol and thought, Why do we have to keep reminding people of this?” he says. “I tell people, ‘You go over there. You’ll have a different view coming back.’”

As Richland’s activities director, Qualheim helps seniors plan and execute their gifts to the school. He suggested the idea of a Day’s Pay mural. “I planted the seed,” he says, “but the kids did the work and raised the money.

Still, Qualheim doubts the school will ever completely abandon the cloud. “I think it will persevere, but more subtly,” he says. “The kids are now thinking that they don’t want to have this in their faces.”

--Blake Hume Rodman