Union Hill High School
Union Hill High School was a public high school serving students in grades 9–12 from Union City in Hudson County, New Jersey, United States, operating as one of two high schools of the Union City Board of Education, an Abbott District. The school was built in—and named for—what was formerly Union Hill, New Jersey, a municipality which merged with West Hoboken in 1925 to form Union City. Until 2008, Union Hill was one of the city's two high schools, with the former Emerson High School the other. The Union Hill and Emerson campuses continued to serve high school students for an additional year as separate campuses of the new Union City High School, after which that school's main campus was completed and both schools were converted to their current designation. The building that housed Union Hill High School is now Union Hill Middle School and houses students in grades seven and eight.
|Union Hill High School|
|School district||Union City School District (New Jersey)|
|Color(s)||Orange and Blue|
Union Hill originally opened at Union Hill High School. It served the town of Union Hill. In 1925, the town merged with its neighbor to the south, West Hoboken, which had been served by Emerson High School, to form the city of Union City. As the city was now served by two high schools, students who lived north of Route 495 (which previously divided the two municipalities) would attend Union Hill, while those who lived south of it would attend Emerson, though that boundary was shifted in later years to keep the school enrollments roughly equal.
By 2007, both Union Hill and Emerson, which are separated by one mile, had close to 1,500 students and offered the same schedule, courses and after-school sports, and their test scores and student demographics were comparable. Unlike Emerson, Union Hill did not have a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program, though Union Hill had a stronger arts program than Emerson, and both schools had different career education programs that allowed students to pursue interests like child care, hospitality, and fashion (the city was once known for its embroidery factories). Superintendent of Schools Stanley M. Sanger stated in 2007 that he received 25 to 40 requests a year from students who want to switch to the rival high school due to a particular academic interest or a family connection. Most such requests were granted.
In September 2009 Union Hill High School and Emerson High Schools converted into middle schools, and a new school, Union City High School, opened for grades 10–12 in new a building on the site of the former Roosevelt Stadium.
The school was the 233rd-ranked public high school in New Jersey out of 316 schools statewide, in New Jersey Monthly magazine's September 2008 cover story on the state's Top Public High Schools. The school was ranked 268th in the magazine's September 2006 issue, which surveyed 316 schools across the state.
During Union Hill and Emerson's time as Union City's two high schools, the Union Hill Hillers and the Emerson Bulldogs were rivals in athletics. In competing for the Hudson County Interscholastic Football Championship, Union Hill beat Emerson five consecutive years from 1923 to 1927. During the November 1927 game, Union Hill beat their rivals 19 to 0 in front of a crowd of 12,000 people.
The boys' basketball team won the Group IV state championship in 1919 (defeating Passaic High School in the tournament final), 1955 (vs. New Brunswick High School) and 1956 (vs. Trenton Central High School).
The boys' bowling team won the overall state championship in 1972.
For 88 consecutive years, the most notable aspect of their rivalry on the field was the annual Turkey Game, held on Thanksgiving, a tradition that began in 1919, when the high schools served the neighboring towns of West Hoboken in the south and Union Hill in the north, a rivalry described as "simmering hatred" that gave the schools' principals cause to fear that the first game might turn ugly. That game ended in a tie of 0-0. When the towns of Union Hill and West Hoboken merged in 1925 to form the city of Union City, the Turkey Game remained, despite the fact that schools in the same district usually do not often compete directly against each other.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Turkey Game attracted as many as 15,000 fans. A wooden chariot would be pulled around the field at halftime, carrying the football king and queen from the defending school, who were booed and pelted with paper when they got to the opposing side of Roosevelt Stadium. This part of the tradition fell into disuse by the early 1970s.
Stanley M. Sanger, who graduated from Emerson in 1969, and who never set foot in Union Hill until he became a teacher, characterized the Union Hill-Emerson rivalry by saying, "It's our Mason-Dixon line. You knew Union Hill was north and Emerson was south, and you respected the boundary. It was the natural state of things." An old traditional greeting before the game was "Are we having hot turkey or cold turkey?", as the loser was said to eat "cold turkey", figuratively speaking. Over the decades, coaches were known to zealously guard their game plans and players, who were alert for spies, were often excused from their classes to practice in secret locations. When sharing Roosevelt Stadium for practice, they would use opposite ends of the 50 yard line. While the athletic coaches were not permitted to recruit players from the rival school, students were known to often recruit players from the elementary and middle schools to attend their high schools. A 50 lbs. brass trophy whose base is engraved with scores from every game, was passed back and forth between the two schools, and the winning school was rewarded with a half-day of school on the Monday after the game. According to David Wilcomes, a former football player and later football coach and the last principal of Union Hill High School, the Turkey Game developed a nearly religious significance as a Thanksgiving ritual for Union City citizens, and a loss for one's favored team would cast a pall upon the day's subsequent holiday festivities, commenting, "If you don't win, it's a long Thanksgiving dinner." Wilcomes, whose father also played for Union Hill, stated that he stopped answering his home phone following losing games because of the endless reviewing and second-guessing of his strategies by various relatives. By 2007, the Union City district spent $130,000 annually on football.
Neither school was a regional powerhouse. Statistically, both endured cycles of consecutive wins and losses, and were roughly even in statistics, with Emerson having won 40 games, Union Hill, 39, and 9 ties. Union Hill won the 2006 game, while Emerson won the seven games prior. The Turkey Game tradition ended with its final game on November 22, 2007, prior to the two schools' merger into Union City High School, which is now housed on the site of the former Roosevelt Stadium, and features an athletic field on its roof. (During the year between the end of the Turkey Game and the September 2009 opening of Union City High School, the two schools shared the facilities at José Martí Middle School.) The district spent $2,000 on newspaper ads to invite alumni from around the state to the game, and to an alumni breakfast that preceded it. The district installed additional bleachers to accommodate an expected turnout of more than 4,000. It sold commemorative tickets featuring photos of the 1919 Union Hill and Emerson teams, and a game program whose proceeds went the new school's scholarship fund. During the final game, both principals sat together at halftime to present a united front, and the players on both teams were required to wear T-shirts bearing the new school's name under their shoulder pads. The final Turkey game was attended by 6,000 spectators, including Senator Robert Menendez (an alumnus of Union Hill), and saw Union Hill beat Emerson with a score of 20-8, tying Emerson's historical win record of 40-40.
The Turkey Game trophy is today housed in Union City High School, whose players are known as the Soaring Eagles. The end of the Turkey Game came amid waning Thanksgiving football traditions in communities across the United States, as earlier football seasons and competing holiday demands on players and their families made them less relevant. Post-holiday state championships have also overtaken such traditions in importance, as coaches grew reluctant to risk injury to players headed for the championships.
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