Jerry Franks of Columbus stands in a classroom Wednesday at the former Lee Middle School — S.D. Lee Senior High School from 1953 to 1992 — surrounded by a seascape he painted on three walls a quarter-century ago. The Columbus school, closed since 2011, is slated to become apartments and retail space. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
August 11, 2018 10:06:20 PM
Jerry Franks skirted the ravages of time in a deserted hallway of his alma mater, S.D. Lee High School. It opened in 1953 and later became Lee Middle School in the early 1990s. It closed in 2011.
Stepping past scattered debris and the occasional piece of broken skylight, Franks focused on his search for one particular classroom. He found it on the second floor. And there it was, in room 2214 -- the seascape mural he painted 25 years ago, spanning three walls. The heron still peered across the shoreline. A shrimp boat still made for harbor as whitecaps signaled a coming squall.
"I'd heard the school had been vandalized, and I just wanted to see if the mural was still there," said Franks of Columbus. "I was expecting everything from spray paint to vulgar language, but apparently they had missed that room. I was so pleased."
Sale of the 15-acre Lee property to a new owner, Military Lee LLC, was finalized in June. Plans call for conversion of the main building into apartments, plus a restaurant and venue space. The annex classroom Franks' mural is in will have to come down. He appreciated the nostalgic opportunity to see it again after so many years, before it's gone.
Gazing at the mural Wednesday, the 1969 Lee High alumnus recounted how he came to spend four or five days on a ladder one sweltering August a quarter-century ago. He simply wanted to brighten a classroom.
A cousin who served as a teacher's assistant at Lee Middle at the time had invited Franks to revisit his old school.
"I was talking with teachers there, and they were just saying their classrooms were gloomy," he recalled. "I told a teacher that I like to paint and that I thought I could uplift the room a little bit."
After flaking paint had been scraped and the classroom walls primed a baby blue, Franks went to work in the days before fall semester was to begin.
He recreated a familiar scene, one he'd soaked in many times on the North Carolina coast, while serving in the military. He chose to paint a day nearing sunset, with a storm brewing over Bear Island. The entire panorama was done using 1-inch and 2-inch brushes and a palette made of cardboard.
"I can almost remember the first brushstroke I made," said the artist. "I got here at the break of dawn and stayed 'til they threw me out. I was committed to doing this."
Franks' own years as a student at Lee High served as motivation to give back some of his talents.
"When I was in Vietnam in the military, the Lord pretty well showed me that if you can inspire someone with art, literature or whatever and let them see that there's a real reason, that it can promote an inner good feeling in the person, that they will be more ready to go on and learn other things. That was basically what happened to me at Lee High."
A shy student, Franks began to gain confidence when he took up art.
"The thing that got my courage up was when I started learning how to draw and to paint under the supervision of Frances Land in junior high and Margaret Smith in high school," he explained.
Colors fascinated him. "With just a few colors you can really brighten a room or give somebody a memory."
The seascape is just one reminder of the buildings' former life that developer Scott Berry of Military Lee LLC has come across. Although that phase of the Lee property is past, he and others like Franks look forward to the next one.
Effort is underway to retain much of the former school's character and features in the new design.
"When we get through, the whole idea is that when you walk into the lobby, it will look a lot like it did," said Berry, who graduated in 1971 from Lee High. "The school's main entrance lobby will be restored to its original layout, including the old trophy cases, principal's office and student supply store."
Plans for the auditorium, to the left of the lobby, call for it to become a multi-tiered venue. Classroom doors in the main hallway will be repurposed as apartment entry doors. The original cafeteria is envisioned as a restaurant and banquet area.
Some memorabilia, like the original 1953 plaque dedicated when the school opened, may be out in the community and will hopefully come "home" to be displayed, said Berry.
"Hours have been spent looking at annuals," he added, referring to archived yearbooks and developers' attention to detail and history.
Berry said expectations are to hold an open house when architectural renderings and more plans are finalized.
Jerry Franks will be there.
"It would probably be a last time for Lee High students to come together and see things as they were -- and to look forward to what it may look like a year from now."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.