In January 2020, a new yet old landmark appeared quietly on TAS campus. Currently painted red and orange in alternating stages, a pagoda of about ten feet in height stands at the southern end of the Lower Athletic Field outside the Dr. Sharon DiBartolomeo Hennessy Upper School Building. For those in the know, it is a sign that the last of Taipei American School’s iconic items has come home.
Mr. Richard Arnold, who is marking his 50th year teaching at TAS this year, probably knows the most that anyone does about the origins of the Pagoda. According to him, custodians built the Pagoda at the campus on Chang’an East Road, where TAS was located from 1953 to 1968. It was most likely brought to the then-new campus in Shilin in 1967, where it quickly found a home on Senior Island. Mr. John Dankowski, former faculty, remembers seeing the Pagoda there on Senior Island when he arrived at TAS that year.
When asked to reminisce about TAS, the topic of Senior Island inevitably surfaces among alumni of a certain generation. For those who attended TAS anytime between the late 1960s and 1989, it was the focus of much longing and envy. Students had dug a moat around a Taiwan-shaped island in the middle of the horseshoe-shape made by the classroom buildings. Any students found on the island who were not seniors were summarily ejected from the island, sometimes into the moat. “I left Taiwan in 1973, at the end of my freshman year,” remembers Stacey Wire Ward ’76. “I can tell you we were all green with envy about how totally cool Senior Island was and of the Pagoda, etc. It was something the lowly underclassmen eyed with awe.”
Frank Miller ’76 recalls, “When I attended TAS at the Shilin campus, the Pagoda was at one end of Senior Island, protected by a moat. I was not a senior so did not have access to the Pagoda, but no one could move between classes in high school without seeing it. On nice weather days, seniors could be found lying in the short grass all around it.” Like Frank and Stacey, many students counted down the years when they’d be allowed to claim Senior Island for themselves, lounging on the island between classes and after school. “When I pull out my yearbook from my senior year of 1971 and look back, the Pagoda is on nearly every page of the section on the senior class,” reminisces Janel Wire Pratt ’71. “It was on Senior Island, never painted, but much coveted as a seating spot.”
Not all underclassmen on Senior Island were treated with scorn, notes Janel. “As a part of our Senior English class, many of us were paired with an elementary student as tutors to help them with their reading. We often took our ‘kids’ to Senior Island and sat under the Pagoda. Somewhere there is a photo of me and my charge, whose name was Bobbi.”
Traditions surrounding the Pagoda seemed to change with the decades of students who came and left at TAS. According to Romanus Wolter ’82, it was already a tradition during his time for juniors to cover Senior Island in toilet paper during “Senior Skip Day”. In 1980, the juniors failed to carry through with this tradition, so Romanus along with fellow sophomores Julie Thweatt ’82, Becky Bishop ’82, and Craig Dinsmore ’82 took it upon themselves to keep the tradition alive. “The seniors came back the next day, found the island full of TP, and took us to Student Court for the next day. We were found not guilty of ruining Senior Island but guilty of keeping a tradition alive. Also, the next year, I was voted Student Body President even though I was only a junior; so keeping traditions alive no matter the consequences was worth it,” quips Romanus. By the time Eric Kaplan ’87 became class president, he recalled that the seniors would often decorate the Pagoda for whatever holidays were coming up, like Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Chinese New Year, and St. Patrick’s Day. When the senior class was on their senior trip, the juniors were allowed to paint the Pagoda however they wanted to for the next year, which was the only time they could “legally” touch it.
Former assistant superintendent and business manager Mr. Ira Weislow was instrumental in negotiating TAS’s move to our present Tianmu campus in 1989. While the TAS Bell and the statue of The Thinker were both allotted places of importance in the new campus, Mr. Weislow elected not to move the Pagoda right away. “I did not have any knowledge of the construction design and was afraid it would fall apart. Taipei European School (TES) was quite gracious in agreeing to preserve the structure and allowing TAS alumni from the old campus to visit,” he remarks.
In fact, for alumni who attended school at the Shilin campus, the current TES campus became a staple of their return tours to Taipei, even though by then Senior Island no longer existed, and the Pagoda had been relegated to a corner of the TES campus. Alumni in 2015 found it unpainted and dilapidated, and succeeded in persuading TES to help spruce it up. In 2016 and 2018, alumni visited the Pagoda at TES campus during the Worldwide Reunions and delighted in taking pictures of this memory from their youth. Though there were numerous attempts to move the Pagoda back, it only happened this year, during the 2019-20 school year, thanks to the efforts of Chief Operations Officer Mr. Larry Kraut.
Today, the Pagoda once again sits on the TAS campus, situated at the entrance to the Joie Upper School Gymnasium. Not all current students know the history of this piece yet, but some with alumni family members have learned more. Nicole C. ’21 who is writing a piece on the history of the TAS Pagoda for the student newspaper, The Blue and Gold, heard stories and traditions surrounding the Pagoda from her father and aunts, who are all alumni. “After hearing their stories about the Pagoda, I was very excited to have such an important cultural piece back on TAS campus. I hope that my generation and future generations can continue the traditions that were created while also making new ones.”
Going forward, there are future plans to commemorate the Pagoda with a plaque that honors its history, and perhaps to inaugurate some new traditions with current students and seniors. What’s certain is that the Pagoda will continue to have a place in TAS history and become a part of the memories of students once again. Expressing the sentiment echoed by so many alumni, Debby Bever ’90 commented, “It looks great, and I’m so glad it’s back home where it belongs!”