This is the story of two high schools, separated only by time and local politics, and of how one reached across three decades to befriend the other.

It is the story of how one West High School embraced another West High School.

And it is the story of one brilliant West High graduate — Tom Petty-loving, movie-line quoting, dervish-dancing Fred Zulfa.

When West was built in 1965, Bakersfield was only beginning to infringe on the rich farmland west of what would eventually become Highway 99. California State College Bakersfield, soon to be situated on 375 acres west of the city, was in its founding year and many of the city's white-collar class were starting to move their families from the thickly treed neighborhoods of Jastro and Westchester to the wide, limitless west side. Doctors, dentists, lawyers and oil men swarmed the freshly paved cul-de-sacs.

West, the seventh of what are now 18 metro Bakersfield high schools, soon began to shine.

Its academic programs were quickly among the city's best, its students among the most gifted. Its extracurriculars dominated; not only were its sports teams strong, its Academic Decathlon and speech-and-debate teams were almost untouchable; at one point the Vikings' AcaDec teams won 10 consecutive and 16 out of 20 Kern County championships (1980-89, 1992, 1995-99). Its 1982 speech-and-debate team won the state title.

Remember that year — 1982.

But Bakersfield High, the revered flagship school just south of City Hall, seemed to be losing something. Driller alumni started to make noise and Kern High School District board members heard them. The enrollment borders needed some adjustment, trustees decided, and the middle- to upper-middle-class pockets within West's borders seemed like the best places to redraw them.

Ann Cierley, who arrived at West High in 1975 and served as principal from 1981 until 1992, fiercely opposed the effort.

"But the powers that be were never going to let Bakersfield High down and (let it) become an inner-city school," said Cierley, herself a BHS graduate. "So they fixed it — and they did it at the expense of West.

"I fought them hard. It got so I was ordered to stay away from boundary meetings."

West lost its upper-middle-class students in chunks. The most cherished piece, Old Stockdale, moved from West to BHS in 1993, right after Cierley retired.  

The ultimate effect: "West," Cierley said, "is now the inner-city school." Kern High School District buses haul students past West's front gates daily on their way to BHS.

And a generation of 50-somethings who attended West, and still had soft spots for it, found themselves raising young Drillers and attempting to reconcile their split allegiances.

But some West grads of that pre-boundary change era — four in particular — couldn't forget their school. And they couldn't forget one Class of 1982 classmate.

Zulfa was a witty, easygoing, compassionate kid who excelled in academic extracurriculars; in addition to cross country, he was active on those champion AcaDec and speech-debate teams, and he was good enough to win a debate scholarship to USC.

"Fred was brilliant and probably the funniest person I've ever known," said Jill Apsit Fordyce, who attended school with him from their days at Van Horn Elementary all the way through USC. "He was super spontaneous."

He loved movies. And he loved music, especially Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, whose poster adorned his apartment wall in college.

"Fred would dance with absolute abandon," said Andrea Zander Norman, another classmate. "I can still see his arms flailing around."

He graduated in 1986 from USC, moved in 1988 to the Netherlands, where he worked in finance, and died in Amsterdam of complications from AIDS in 1992.

In 2013 another classmate, Ann Johansen Warren, decided it was time she became involved in philanthropic giving. But what could she do?

"I reached out to Jill and asked if there was something we could do," Warren said. "And we thought of Fred. We wanted to honor him and just needed to think of a way."

And, soon, the Fred Zulfa Memorial Scholarship — benefiting college-bound West High students — was born. 

The first recipient, Josh Ramos, received $500. Then the '82 grads decided they had to get serious.

Warren, who works in health care, and Fordyce, an attorney and aspiring novelist, turned to Norman, a graphic artist, U.S. Tennis Association volunteer and all-around talent, for organizational help. 

They reached out to the Zulfa family, and Fred's younger brother, Kern County Assistant District Attorney David Zulfa, West Class of 1985, immediately said he was in. He saw the need at West and realized it was bigger than the three women had even imagined.

"They all went away after high school," said Zulfa, now a Kern County Superior Court judge. "They didn't realize it was really a different school" because of the boundary changes.

"We had no idea," said Fordyce, who lives in Santa Clara County, as does Norman. Warren lives in San Diego County.

In 1993, 37 percent of West High students were on the federal free and reduced-lunch program for low-income students. (Figures for 1982 are not available.) In 2015-16, 84 percent were on the program.

Which made those students' value as scholars all the more impressive. "They're amazing," Zulfa said. "They choose every day to get up and go to school. They succeed because they choose to succeed, not because something was handed to them."

But the selection committee, mindful of Fred’s interests in music and movies, isn't as concerned with GPA as with what they learn about the applicants from their essays. They ask the students to write about their favorite movie characters and the song lyrics that inspire them. 

"Writing about the songs that they love," Fordyce said, "we could see them through our 'Fred goggles': What would Fred think of this guy? When a guy has something unique or bold to offer, we know he's Fred's type of person."

One wrote about "Pokemon: The Movie," an animated film not commonly cited for its ability to inspire. For that scholarship winner it did, though. He said it taught him that the circumstances of your birth are irrelevant. It's what you do with what you're given.

And you thought that movie simply intended to be annoying.

The organizers were initially uncomfortable thinking that they'd create the perception that the smart, rich kids of the 1980s were absolving themselves of some sort of guilt by giving to students who were somehow lesser.

"That was a real concern for us," Norman said. 

But the changes that had taken place at West over the years made them even more proud and anxious to contribute.

"We really had a pride in West High School and still do," Warren said. "We're happy there's more diversity there now. And it's such a bonus to get to know these students." 

Zulfa scholarships were awarded to one student in 2014 and one in 2015. In 2016, the scholarship committee presented awards to three students and, in 2017, four recipients divided a combined $10,000.

They will make their 2018 check presentations April 20 at Luigi's at the third annual Fred Zulfa fundraising dinner and raffle. They're soliciting raffle prizes through April 16. For details, check out Facebook.com/fredzulfamemorialscholarship.

Their long-ago principal, Ann Cierley, isn't surprised they still care. "I'm proud of them for doing this," she said.

Said Zulfa, the namesake's brother: "You've heard, 'Once a Driller, always a Driller?' Well, guess what."

Once a Viking, always a Viking.

Contact The Californian's Robert Price at 661-395-7399, rprice@bakersfield.com or on Twitter: @stubblebuzz. His column appears on Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; the views expressed are his own.

(1) comment

Peter Roth

It was the sixth. Highland was the seventh

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