The archiving room at Bakersfield High School is a wonder.
The walls are covered with ephemera, like old playbills from Harvey Auditorium. The shelves are stacked with class mugs, student newspapers dating back a century, and yearbooks dating back to 1899. There is a trove of class panoramas dating back to 1916.
The file cabinets are full of negatives, including those from the Kern High School District's resident photographer from 1948-1972. Some of the photos illustrate the damage the 1952 earthquake wrought at BHS, North, Shafter and East Bakersfield high schools and Bakersfield College.
All of these archives are the domain of Ken Hooper, a history teacher at Bakersfield High School, and his senior archiving classes.
"I've always liked old stuff," he said.
Hooper's love for history goes back to his parent,s who collected antiques. In college, he was fascinated by professors who brought in realia that dated to the Napoleonic wars.
"He’s a community treasure," said Mike McCoy, executive director of Kern County Museum. "We have a lot of really good historians floating around, but Ken Hooper has committed his life to working with young people."
Hooper's work as a historian isn't limited to the work he does with his classes at BHS. He is also well known for his work with the Kern County Historical Society — his walking tours of Eastchester are a community favorite.
But the work Hooper does with his classes is crucial not only for BHS, but also for the community.
Recently, students were working on a project for the Fox Theater. His students have done quite a bit of hard work pinpointing the histories and hometowns of men engraved in the Wall of Valor at the Kern Veterans Memorial.
In the past, his students have done quite a bit in partnership with the Kern County Museum.
The Raymond A. Watson Transportation Exhibit had been planned since the 1960s, but the ribbon was only cut last year thanks to BHS students, McCoy said. Students physically moved the wagons, organized the artifacts and helped out with the writing.
In a pre-COVID era, students would get in costume and serve as docents for Frontier Day at the museum to teach elementary students about the history of the county.
The Kern County Museum's previous curator, Lori Wear, who now works as a California State Parks interpreter, first met Hooper when he was working as a teacher at Valley Oaks Charter School. His students helped to properly store and catalogue 276 boxes of photographs from the 1940s and 1950s.
Nothing Hooper's students work on is for practice. Their services are needed immediately in the community, and he trains them to do it.
"We don't scan stuff just to scan stuff, there are no make-work projects," he said. "Everything is for real-life."
Hooper said the work of his archiving students is the history in their own backyard.
"The primary thing we work on is school history," he said.
Because BHS is the oldest school in the county, there's quite a bit of history to be found in every nook and cranny of the campus. When he was given the charge to archive, the students in his class were given a free pass to roam the halls and look for anything worth preserving.
Hooper remembers pulling back a piece of plywood in a classroom in Harvey Auditorium, and finding band photos from 1919.
"That stuff still happens," he said.
Hooper isn't sure whether his students always have a full appreciation of what they're doing. He asks one student scanning photos how they feel about local history.
"Eh," is her reply.
"That's what it's like to teach teenagers," he said. "Is she doing stellar work? Yeah. But there you go."
McCoy said Hooper is downplaying his own legacy. He said many historians have a much more limited reach, but to do the work of local history while passing it down to the next generation, is a unique legacy that few here can claim.
"He’s a pebble that hits the pond," he said.
Hooper said that alumni do have a deep appreciation for the work of the young archivists in his classes. They enjoy touring the archive room and looking at old photos from their classes. Alumni have donated to the class; for instance, a fire safe that holds a young Earl Warren's grades are safely stowed in a fire safe.
Hooper will take some credit for the skills his students acquire, even if the path of professional historian is not a common one. He spoke to one student who had taken a photography course, and she expressed shock at excelling at analyzing photos.
"Are you freaking kidding me? Did I not get any credit?" he laughed.
Her class had spent a lot of time trying to figure out what year unidentified photos of the football team were from. They would look at small details like sock patterns to figure out the year.
History is more than reminiscing about the old days. He said that BHS' Harvey Auditorium should probably be on the National Register of Historic Places. It was a place visited by Martin Luther King Jr., Liberace and Rosa Parks. Alumni were able to use its history to block the high-speed rail from bulldozing it.
Writers and journalists often come calling when they have a question about regional history. Hooper said his class helped author Mark Arax dig up key pieces of water history. When national or local media has questions about Merle Haggard or local music history, Hooper has been able to provide key information. He helped out the crew working on the documentary series "Ken Burns: Country Music."
McCoy asks Hooper questions all the time, and he's always amazed what Hooper and his students are able to accomplish.
"You got high school kids with these really high levels of expectation," he said. "That’s a good lesson for all of us. They’ll rise to the occasion."