At age 96, Louis Padilla has a pretty sharp memory of the things he did in his life, though maybe some details are a bit hazy around the edges.
Like the time, decades ago, when he was asked to bury a copper box at the old Merced High School campus on G Street.
Padilla remembers doing it, but the “when?” and “why?” — well that’s another story that probably would have been forgotten for all of time.
Except Padilla scratched his name on the box, and the year he graduated, “Class of ’47,” right before he stuck it in the ground.
“I leave my mark where ever I go,” he recalls. “It got buried and I forgot about it.”
Fast-forward to the start of this school year.
A maintenance crew was working in the quad area of what is now Yosemite High School, and they discovered the box. It was under a cornerstone that commemorated a significant construction project and remodeling of the former Merced High School East Campus at the same location in October of 1976.
It might have made sense that the box was a time capsule from the ’70s; however, it bore Padilla’s name and the year “1947.” And that particular MHS school site dates back to the 1920s.
No one at the school district office knew anything about any time capsule at the site, or the name Padilla for that matter. So the box sat for a while on the desk of Principal Nicole Rose.
Fortunately, Padilla has a lot of family members living in the area. He’s a Merced native with local roots that reach back to 1920. In fact, his great nephew is a bus driver for the high school district.
“When I heard about the box,” 48-year-old David Padilla says, “I went straight to the office, and when I saw the name and the handwriting, I knew it was him. I just started calling everybody.”
When the dust settled, Luis Padilla was brought back to campus last Friday to find out what was in the box.
And the memories started flooding back.
Padilla is a World War II veteran who served with the Navy Seabees, or construction battalions. He actually left Merced High School (located on G Street at the time) early to join the war effort. He later graduated in 1947, though he doesn’t recall getting any diploma on paper. He stuck around Merced and eventually became a maintenance worker for the high school district.
In the early 1970s, the Merced High School “East Campus” on G Street was undergoing a modern transformation, with old MHS buildings from the 1920s being torn down to make way for new ones. The extensive construction work was completed in 1976, and a grand cornerstone ceremony was planned.
“I was working on the bathrooms,” Padilla recalls. “They were always getting plugged up. Some girls came out of the office with a box, and said: ‘Bury this.’”
Padilla shed a few tears before they opened the box. He had no idea what was in it. But it was a time for him to remember his past, and friends who have come and gone.
“I’m running out of time, but I’m happy,” he said.
He was surrounded by four generations of Padilla family members, including Peter Padilla, a well-known insurance agent in Merced.
Laughter soon erupted, however, when they cut away the copper lining to reveal a treasure trove of perfectly preserved items from 1976.
“We thought it was a Class of ’47 box,” said Principal Rose. “Can you see me asking the Class of ’76 for forgiveness?”
The time capsule was filled with 18 mementos, including an MHS yearbook, a copy of the school newspaper “The Statesman,” photographs of the cornerstone ceremony and the Board of Trustees, and a copy of the Merced Sun-Star with a lead story about the East Campus construction – all in pristine condition.
There were also patriotic items from the American Legion and the Knights of Columbus. If you remember, 1976 was the nation’s bicentennial year.
Principal Rose said the time capsule will be shared with students at Yosemite High School to help connect them with some of Merced’s history.
As for Padilla, he prompted one more round of laughter and applause after examining all the relics.
“Do you want to wrap it up again?” he asked with a straight face. “I’ll bury it.”