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Loyal Hearts: 70 years after high school graduation, the Lee High Class of 1944 gathers for a reunion

 

From left, Sammie St. John, Pat Shackelford and Esther Pippin reminisce Wednesday at The Dispatch about the S.D. Lee High School Class of 1944. The class holds its 70th high school reunion this week at the S.D. Lee Home.

From left, Sammie St. John, Pat Shackelford and Esther Pippin reminisce Wednesday at The Dispatch about the S.D. Lee High School Class of 1944. The class holds its 70th high school reunion this week at the S.D. Lee Home. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Launch Photo Gallery

 

A composite of the Class of 1944, an album of photos and other high school memorabilia are keepsakes Sammie St. John has cared for since graduation.

A composite of the Class of 1944, an album of photos and other high school memorabilia are keepsakes Sammie St. John has cared for since graduation.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Sammie St. John has kept this May 1944 issue of Lee High’s school paper for 70 years.

Sammie St. John has kept this May 1944 issue of Lee High’s school paper for 70 years.
Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

 

Sarah Fowler

 

In 1944, 85 students graduated from S.D. Lee High School in Columbus. 

 

Thursday, seven decades after they first walked across that stage, the class of 1944 will gather for their 70th high school reunion. 

 

Some of the organizers met at The Dispatch office this past week to discuss what they were like in high school and what has happened in their lives since. 

 

"I liked to have a good time," 88-year-old Pat Shackelford said of his teenage self. "Probably too much," he added with a laugh. 

 

Esther Weaver Pippin, 87, remembers when Shackelford and the other boys in her class would congregate on the grassy area across from the school, smoke cigarettes and call to the girls. 

 

"They couldn't get in trouble over there because they weren't on school grounds, you know," she said with a laugh, patting Shackelford lightly on the arm. 

 

Pippin also remembers a time when she was walking down the hallway and a boy came up behind her and unzipped the back of her dress. 

 

"You aren't going to say his name, are you?" Shackelford asked, and the two began to laugh and joke as only you can do with those you've known a lifetime. 

 

Watching the exchange between Shackelford and Pippin, Sammie St. John began to smile. St. John, who is also 87, transferred to the Columbus Public School System in the ninth grade. Since she didn't grow up wit h the majority of her classmates, St. John joined the band to make friends. However, she had to wait until her sophomore year to join because her elder sister had to graduate first and pass down her clarinet. Shackelford also played in the band. He played the bass clarinet. 

 

The group began to reminisce about Friday night football games. To hear the three tell it, football games were a community-wide event. 

 

"On Friday nights, everybody went to the football game," Shackelford said. "And I mean everybody. All the stores closed and we marched downtown." 

 

And if there was a budding high school romance, that was quick to show up in the high school newspaper. 

 

"Some were in there more than others," St. John said, and the group burst into laughter. 

 

While the country was in the middle of a war during the group's high school years, they didn't let on if it had a negative effect on their experience or their education. War bonds and ration books were sold at school, and they didn't have a school annual because paper was rationed -- but that was just accepted as part of the routine, St. John said. 

 

"It was just a different time," she added. 

 

Pippin recalls when a neighborhood family lost two of their five sons to the war. 

 

"They were older than us, but yes, I remember," she said, falling silent for perhaps the first time all day.  

 

 

 

Coming of age 

 

Shackelford joined the Navy when he graduated high school. After a brief stint at the University of Mississippi, he joined the Army and made it a career until he retired in 1970. He and his wife are now living at Trinity Place Retirement Community. 

 

Pippin went to college at Mississippi State College for Women and then married. While her husband was in law school at Ole Miss, she worked in the university's library. She and her husband then moved to West Point, and Pippin worked in the library at Mississippi State University. She credits high school for her chosen profession. 

 

"I worked in the library because I didn't like study hall, and the football players would come in and I got to help them check out books," she said, her smile ever present. She added, "And there was nothing better than the day a new box of books came in." 

 

After high school, St. John got married. 

 

"I could have gone to college, but I wanted to get married and that's what I did," she said. "I was just barely 18 and he was 19, and we didn't know anything -- but I don't regret it one bit." 

 

St. John's husband was in the military. They traveled the country with their two children. 

 

"I had a wonderful life," she said. 

 

Years after they graduated, S.D. Lee High School burned down. 

 

Pippin remembers driving into town and seeing the flames shooting into the sky. St. John was "living in the country" at the time and did not make the drive into town. Shackelford was serving in the military and had moved away from home. 

 

As it does with old friends, one story leads into another and suddenly, the trio transitions from talking about the fire to remembering when a group of high school boys would steal Halloween decorations from the house across from the school. 

 

"They moved stuff everywhere," Pippin said in a fit of giggles. 

 

The house that was the victim of high school boys' pranks survived the fire, thanks to firefighters who sprayed it throughout the night, Pippin said. 

 

The group tells story after story, and they weave together like an old patchwork quilt, comfortable and familiar. 

 

Ten years turned into 20, 20 into 30 and before they knew it, 40 years had passed and the group had never had a reunion. So, they began sending out newsletters and organized their first reunion. Ever since, they have met once a month to have lunch. 

 

When asked why it was so important to stay connected to each other for the past 30 years, Pippin said simply, "They're family." 

 

St. John said she and classmate Vernon Davis decided to have the 70th reunion to simply have a good time. 

 

"You know, we thought it would be fun to have a reunion," St. John said. "We have so many class members who have been having health problems. We've been going to a lot of funerals, so we wanted to have something happy. We want to have a happy, relaxed time." 

 

As St. John, Pippin and Shackelford began to gather up their things, St. John found a copy of the school's alma mater. The group then began to sing, "Hail S.D. Lee High, noble and strong, to thee with loyal hearts, we raise our song ... " 

 

Loyal hearts, indeed.

 

Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @FowlerSarah

 

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