Rayen Mural, Now on Display, Brings Back Memories

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — In 2004, Harry Mays, president of The Rayen School class of 1958, was invited to return to speak to a journalism class about the history and subjects in the mural there painted his senior year.

He could not have known that three years hence the mural would be the only relic left of his alma mater.

Installed and painted by art teacher John J. Benninger and students during the 1958-59 academic year, the mural, six feet high and 65 feet long, decorated the entrance to the auditorium 48 years. It depicts 140 years of history of Youngstown and The Rayen School.

Mays recalled watching Benninger and students create the mural in 1958. “He had some sort of onion-like skin,” Mays recalled, “where he etched what he wanted to paint. He had a light behind it that projected up onto the wall with the right proportions, and he had either a student or himself draw the outline. They then filled in the outline. That’s how they painted.”

Benninger painted the mural as part of his master’s thesis at Kent State University. He spent a year conducting research before setting so much as a pencil to the wall.

“The purpose, in the main, was to recapture, select, and revitalize ideals and the events they led to, so that today and tomorrow may be better related in impressionable minds,” he said later.

In 2006, a teacher at Rayen informed Mays of the pending demolition of the building. In January 2007, he helped artist and conservation specialist Phyllis Beard remove the mural.

“The two of us took it off the wall,” he said. “We used scaffolding as she went up and took it off the wall. It took about three months for her to clean it.”

Mays donated the proceeds from his book, The Rayen Retrospective, to help pay for the restoration of the mural.

For three years, the mural remained in storage. After plans fell through to build a middle school at the site on Benita Avenue – proposed as a home for the mural — the Youngstown Board of Education agreed to permanently lend it to the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.

In 2016, the mural underwent further cleaning and restoration at Intermuseum Conservation Association lab in Cleveland. On Jan. 6, the history society unveiled a new viewing stand for the mural at the Tyler History Center.

The mount, constructed by museum mount builder Carlo Maggiora, allows visitors to view 11 feet of the artwork on an upright table in the Anne Kilcawley Christman Gallery.

“To tell you the truth, I really never realized the significance of it until we had to think about preserving it,” said Judy Solomon, class of 1960. “It was difficult to grasp at that age and at that time.”

The Rayen School occupies a unique place in the history of Youngstown. It was the first free high school within Youngstown when it opened in 1866 at its first site on the corner of Wood Street and Wick Avenue. It moved to Benita Avenue in 1922.

Some of its more famous graduates are William F. Maag Jr., publisher of The Vindicator; William R. Stewart, the first black lawyer in Youngstown; and Omarosa Manigault, reality TV personality recently named President-elect Donald Trump’s director of communications.

“I don’t think there was another public school like it in Youngstown,” Solomon emphasizes. “Judge William Rayen put aside money in perpetuity to support students who went to school there. He felt that every student was entitled to an education for practically no cost.”

Mays views the restoration of the mural as important in preserving the legacy of the school. “We’re really pleased with the way it turned out,” he said. “It’s been a long haul, but here it is.

In addition to Mays, funding for the project came from the Rayen School Alumni, Edward W. Powers Charitable Fund, and the W. E. Bliss Foundation as part of The Campaign for the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center.

The general public can view the Rayen Mural as part of admission to the Tyler History Center.  The History Center is open Tuesday-Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m.  Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and college students, and $2 for children. MVHS members are free.

Watch how the mount for the mural was constructed and hear more about its significance.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.