It's almost impossible to miss the turn off Highway 397 for Finley Middle School. Just look for the new large digital sign.
The $30,000 electronic readerboard replaces the weather-beaten display board that stood for years at the corner of the highway and Finley Road.
"It was like those you see at grocery stores. We had to climb up to a platform and change the letters by hand," said Lance Hahn, Finley School District superintendent. "And after years of being baked by the sun, we were looking at having to replace a bunch of the letters and the slots they slid into."
Instead, Finley schools alumnus Paul Knutzen spearheaded a drive to create a state-of-the-art sign for the school district. It was paid for by donations from businesses, residents and the Finley First Baptist Church.
"We felt it was important to donate because we like to support our schools and our community," said Pastor Don Fekete.
His congregation has a tradition of giving to the Finley School District, awarding $1,500 for the past six years to curriculum enrichment programs at one of the Finley schools.
"So when Paul Knutzen called and told me about the sign project, I went to the congregation and asked them, if, instead of giving the money to a particular school, we should put it towards the sign," Fekete said. "There was no question. Everyone agreed this would benefit all the schools and the community."
Not all the donations were in cash.
"A lot of graduates came in and donated time and effort down to digging ditches for the electrical wires. There was a lot of manual work as well as an incredible amount of generosity towards the school and the community," Hahn said.
The 5-by-10-foot readerboard stands atop a 30-foot pole and is topped by a lighted sign that proudly states, "Welcome to Finley, Home of the River View Panthers."
River View High School is on the same campus as Finley Middle School, and they share a black panther as their mascot.
"You can see the reader board from quite a ways away and it is especially easy to read if you're sitting at the train crossing," Hahn said.
The fundraising drive began in December when the Middle School Parent Group asked Knutzen about getting a new sign.
"I'm an engineer and have worked on all the new Kennewick School District remodels so I had some firsthand knowledge of how to get the job done," Knutzen said.
Knutzen graduated from River View High School in 1995. He works for Meier Architecture Engineering in Kennewick, but he has lived in Finley for years. His children and his parents attended Finley schools.
"This school district gave me many opportunities that I may not have had elsewhere -- a small environment, being close with the teachers," Knutzen said. "I just wanted to give back."
Knutzen's efforts were crucial because digital readerboards typically don't come from a school's budget.
"We would never have been able to afford this and wouldn't even thought of it but made do with what had," Hahn said. "As things got tighter I didn't feel we could spend that kind of money on a sign and justify it. This is real treat and a surprise. We needed a person like Paul who stayed after it and dedicated time and effort to make it happen."
The dedication is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday. The ceremony will be held in the middle school gym, with hot dogs and sodas served outside on the lawn.
-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; firstname.lastname@example.org