A public meeting this week on the proposed renaming of Badger Road School brought attention to the fact that not everyone agrees the school’s current name is improper. Many who attended the Oct. 10 meeting at the school spoke disparagingly of school board member Michael O’Brien’s move to change the name so that it doesn’t indirectly honor a man convicted of raping a 10-year-old girl in Fairbanks’ early days. While the resistance to the name change isn’t without merit, in the end, this is an argument about a school bearing the name of man who molested a child who was of an age to attend school there. The name should be changed.
The facts of the school’s name and its namesake are fairly clear: Harry Badger, a prominent strawberry farmer in Fairbanks a century ago, voluntarily admitted to raping a 10-year-old girl. His extremely lenient sentence — six months in prison — caused substantial outrage, but over time, memories faded enough that he not only regained prominent stature in the community but also was invited to schools to talk about life in the community shortly after its founding. Decades later, a new school off Bradway Road was named after Badger Road, avoiding an explicit connection with the man himself but resulting in an elementary school bearing his name.
The principle argument made by opponents of the school’s renaming is that regardless of its name, Badger Road School has little connection to Harry Badger. Its name is representative of the Badger Road community, they said at the meeting. What’s more, they have said, changing the name at this point would be an attempt to change history. Some said the name shouldn’t be changed if residents in the area are OK with it, and that Mr. O’Brien was presumptuous to advocate for changing the name of a school far from his own neighborhood.
It’s true that the school isn’t named explicitly to honor Harry Badger. It’s also true that over time, people’s life experiences can make an argument about changing a place’s name somehow about more than just the name itself.
It’s not surprising that Badger Road area residents feel like they’re having the rug pulled out from under them, or that the move to change the school’s moniker feels somehow like an attack on a school many of them attended, worked at or whose children were students there. It’s natural to be defensive about moves to alter things we love or about which we have fond memories, the events of the distant past notwithstanding.
But in the end, none of this overrides a central truth: Badger Road School is named, indirectly, after a man who raped a child. There can be no realistic comparison to E.T. Barnette, who was a corrupt banker, or Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop, who was a business mogul with sharp elbows who dropped out of school. When it comes to a school’s name, none of this compares to Badger’s crime. Removing his name from the school isn’t a rebuke to the community or an attempt to whitewash history. It’s a statement that no one who has committed such acts should be associated, even indirectly, with an elementary school. Mr. O’Brien, as an elected member of the school board, is well within his rights to point this out.
With that said, the school’s community should be respected as much as possible with regard to choosing a new name. Dermot Cole, a former News-Miner columnist, has put forth the name of Jo Anne Wold, a local journalist, author and historian who was paralyzed by polio but still had a successful and inspiring career writing in Fairbanks. Ms. Wold would be a suitable candidate, and there are surely also others who would be suitable under the school district’s criteria for naming schools. Whatever the choice, the wishes of area residents should be a strong consideration.
The debate over Badger Road School’s renaming shouldn’t stray from the fact that sending elementary students to a school bearing the name of a pedophile is wrong. We can and should address it.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,