June 6, 2010 3:31:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
When the doors opened to high school students in the fall of 1953, Eddie Fisher's "I'm Walking Behind You" and Les Paul and Mary Ford's "Vaya Con Dios" were dominating the radio waves. Petticoats and saddle oxfords were in, TV sets were tuned to "I Love Lucy," and Columbus' student population was blooming -- thanks in part to Columbus Air Force Base.
The Stephen D. Lee Senior High School Generals eagerly entered their new home on Military Road, moving from the crowded school on Seventh Street North, site of the current Columbus-Lowndes Public Library. That building, later destroyed by fire in December 1959, had been a school since 1919. Scores of local families had multiple generations accept their diplomas wearing Lee's maroon and white.
But time marched on. The Class of 1992 was the last to graduate from S.D. Lee Senior High -- the last of the Generals.
The bearded mascot, replaced by a falcon in purple and gold, officially hung up his broad-brimmed hat when Columbus High School opened on the East side of town. The sprawling structure on Military Road became Lee Middle School.
Another era ends
In December of this year, the last students will walk out through the venerable building's doors, transferring to the new Columbus Middle School now under construction near the juncture of Highway 45 North and Highway 373. The building known as Lee High to so many will be decommissioned by the Columbus Municipal School District.
The conclusion of Lee's final full academic year in May prompted a memory walk for alumni and has stirred deep nostalgia. The stories of graduates far and near are more than can be told here, but a sampling of memories help commemorate a place that was more than brick and mortar to thousands.
First and last
J.V. Carr was basketball coach and a history teacher for the first seniors to graduate from the new school -- the Class of '54. He would later become principal and eventually superintendent, retiring in 1987. Jessica Howard Stephens was among the last seniors -- the Class of '92.
On Wednesday, the two met in Lee's lobby with their respective annuals, comparing fashion and hairstyles almost four decades and cultural worlds apart.
Coach, as he's still addressed today, turned pages, avidly pointing out former basketball players, some who went on to play at college, and one who became Mississippi's "first billionaire."
"When we moved in this building, it was finished but it wasn't furnished. The auditorium didn't have any seats; we'd use it sometimes for P.E. when it was wet outside."
Jessica was the 18th in her family to graduate from Lee High. Being the last was an emotional experience for the former homecoming queen whose parents, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles went before her.
She attributes a lot of who she is today to instructors who took time to do more than just teach a class.
"We knew they genuinely cared about us and our futures," she says.
And a few in between
Also visiting Lee Wednesday were Judy ('65) and Bob Herron ('63). Bob's is a three-generation Lee family. His athletic father lettered 16 times there -- four times in four sports. Bob and Judy's son, Mitch, a baseball player, was in the last class of '92.
The Herron's collection of school memorabilia dating back to the 1950s delighted Freda Brown Dismukes ('81) and her sister, Sheila Brown Jones ('80).
The alums checked out each others' annuals, unleashing memories and laughter.
Dismukes has come full circle; she's now the Lee Middle School assistant principal, daily walking halls she walked as a teen, serving as class secretary, playing volleyball and running track.
But one of her fondest memories was being named Miss Lee High.
"I made sure I did all I could to represent the school both academically as well as athletically," she recalls. "And as a cheerleader, I'll never forget winning the Red Carpet Bowl in Vicksburg!"
Gridiron and girls
Judy returned to Lee to teach, too.
Pep rallies, Magnolia Bowl and a North Big Eight Championship her senior year stand out.
"Someone chartered a plane for the team to fly to the coast for the game with Gulfport. I remember the players had maroon blazers and gray and maroon striped ties to match for traveling."
From Bob, "One of my most vivid memories is playing football my senior year under Coach Billy Brewer (a '55 graduate). The grueling practices and the initiation of the first week-long football camp at Camp Pratt are unforgettable -- they made the game itself a breeze!"
Driving past Bob's Place -- the iconic hang-out on the west side of the (now closed) bridge at the Riverwalk -- was a must, "just to see who all was there." Or circling the Chuck Wagon in East Columbus, or the Mug and Cone, "better known to us as the 'Mug and Hug'," Judy smiles. "Lip lap," a short street behind it, was a convenient place to go parking.
And then there were dances at Goforth Lodge and Lake Norris, with Wayne Gibson and the Rhythm Rockers, the Predawn Five and B.C. (Bennett Chotard) and the Cavemen. "Bennett always ended with 'Unchained Melody,' my favorite!" Judy remembers.
30 and counting
Like all good things, maintaining class ties takes effort, although the Internet greases the process these days. Still, reunions don't happen by themselves.
Sheila Jones was bubbling with anticipation Wednesday; she's part of a well-oiled committee planning the Class of '80's 30th reunion. It was held Friday and Saturday at Trotter Convention Center.
"I can't stress how much we're looking forward to seeing classmates we've not seen in 30 years," Sheila enthused, smiling broadly. "I still have moments when I say 'Lee High,' not 'Lee Middle.' It will always be Lee High. I know with time come changes and progress ... but I'm going to miss Lee High and the ability to walk through these halls."
The escalating chatter made it obvious teachers had enormous impact, no matter what era a student came through Lee.
"I still put a zero to the left of my decimals because Mrs. (Betty) Carnes counted off the whole problem that took me a page to work because I didn't follow directions," chuckled Judy, who recalls being dubbed the "Queen of the Careless Mistakes Club."
"But it taught me not only to be a better student, but a better person. She also came to my house and gave me my exam when I was sick and couldn't go to school ... always there for the extra mile."
Jessica remembers athletic director and volleyball coach Bert Wynn yelling, "Yes you can, Howard! You can run faster and jump higher!"
"Often, over the years, when I'd need a little encouragement, I could hear her voice telling me, 'Yes you can, Howard!'" Many other teachers make her list, including a Mr. Dawkins, who helped the seniors defend their homecoming float from saboteurs.
Dismukes cites teachers including Wynn, Bankhead, Baker, Locke, Townsend, Williford and (current Columbus mayor) Smith as impacting her life.
"The toughest teacher I had was Mrs. Carnes in math," she said, echoing Judy. "She made sure her expectations were high every day."
Cindy Wamble is principal at Lee Middle School.
"We get calls all the time from former students who are in town and just want to come by and walk through," she said. "It almost seems like some great need, a nostalgia for this building."
Past grads are curious about what will happen to the revered halls after students leave in December.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Del Phillips commented, "The public discussion that occurred in 2007 as part of our restructuring plan and bond issue referendum included the potential sale of the property after students were moved to Columbus Middle School. There have been no discussions with the board since that plan began in early 2008 concerning the property."
While the building's future won't be clear any time soon, the collective memories that are Lee High are in safe keeping, with alumni
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.