It was Wesley Wright, Jr. who stopped me in Martin’s six months ago. He suggested exploring my experiences as a member of the first graduation class, Douglas S. Freeman High School, June, 1956.

Wright, financial advisor, mentor, counselor to generations of Princeton University volunteers, with wife, Elise, always occupied the front lines – both making substantial contributions to church, St. Catherine’s School, and the Valentine History Center – he’s not one to take lightly.

Olympia Meola, my former student at Mills Godwin High School, reporter for the RTD, pictured this graduation scene in her 50th DSF anniversary piece (2006), class of 1956. Interviewing Georga S. Williams, she noted: they personalized a new school for the thousands of students who walked the halls after them.

Hastily, let’s add Class of ’57 in that mix; ‘57 faithfully executed those decisions nailing down those early choices into established tradition. Culturally, ‘56 did set up the place after electing Pat Russell (Spencer) as our first S. C. A. President – in the Hermitage High School auditorium (now George Moody Middle School).

Intriguingly, we took the REBEL mascot in the weeks surrounding Brown vs. Board (bringing de-segregation to public schools) Supreme Court Decision from Eisenhower’s Administration, May, 1954.  I clearly recall thinking at the time….this may bring some conflict in the future…but was not bothered by it.

In addition to adopting the colors of blue and gray, we applied Dr. Freeman’s talent to all the publications: Literary Magazine (Educator); Newspaper (Commentator); Year Book (Historian). Dr. Douglas S. Freeman led in all those fields.

Still honored today, the school’s original Alma Mata is played and sung. Mary Beth Baldwin (Highton) actually composed it in late 1954. Now, from her current artistic perch, editing constantly today – at Westminster-Canterbury, Virginia Beach – she recalled: “after writing the lyrics, showing it to Suzette Sides (Stansell), and much more musical than I – her opinion was valued. She put me in touch with Hunter Purdie, (music director for DSF, originally from the Tony Pastor Orchestra). Purdie liked it – scored it. I supplied the words, the tune, and the chords. Purdie made it real – probably why it exists today. Purdie, what a guy!”

The Richmond News Leader’s headline: From The First – They Were There! It was an expansive news feature surrounded with ceremonial photos. The RNL reporter, without by-line, was not much older than the grads; his writing – exquisite. Here are a few reminders:

  •  When Principal W. Howard Mears crossed the school’s closely shaven lawn, he stepped into his office, tossed his rental cap and gown over the counter, and shuffled a stack of papers. Someone brought in Murray Janus’s lost report card. Mears glanced through his bifocals at the card and went on shuffling. He found what he was after. And with almost fatherly pride, he showed a letter from Cornell University to one of his students, Robert G. Quick (known as “rapid Rob”). It’s a four year scholarship -$1,100.00 the first year – mighty fine boy.
  • Nancy Chiles (Hermitage grad.), a college freshman at Lynchburg, warned Gretchen Woerner, “Now don’t fall down.”
  • Betty Lou Bartholomew suddenly decided her hoop skirt had too much hoop and rushed off to fix it.
  • June Revell sat on the bleachers flipped off a high heeled shoe and rubbed her ankle.
  • Ronnie Crawford folded his arms, rocked on his heels, and explained, “We’ve got to straighten up now, I hope the Marines can wait (they could). Jeff Poling giggled approval.
  • Tension began to show…Grace O’Neil Ward whispered, “I thought I would cry.”
  • Cliff Ford, (he sang Blue Moon better than Sinatra) a little panicky, raced across the gym floor with his gown flapping behind. He slipped in line 10 yards before the door.
  • The evening moved quickly. Diane Hoey was presented a first scholarship awarded by the Sterlingwood Woman’s Club….Patsy Russell unveiled a portrait of Dr. Freeman.

One graduate, Nancy Gardner (Thomas) would go on to become a nationally known contemporary artist, and Murray Janus would become one of Richmond’s top defense attorneys.

Thirty-nine of the 73 seniors were college bound. It was a class that took as much pride in winning a Latin tournament as beating Battlefield Park 6 to 0 in football. Cornell;  Dartmouth; David Lipscomb College;  Hampden-Sydney College;  Longwood College;  Mary Washington College; Richmond Professional Institute;  University of Michigan;  University of Richmond;  V.P.I.;  Washington & Lee; William & Mary College; all had their welcoming signs out.

Commentator’s editor, Bill Clark, has repeated through the years: “you know our timing was perfect – the window opened for us to crawl through – just sheer luck.” And so it was.

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud…was more painful than the risk it took to blossom…Anais Nin.

 

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