Remembering the Class of 1956

Published 4:56 am Thursday, July 21, 2016

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, in June 1956.

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

Olympia Meola, my former student at Mills Godwin High School, reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, pictured this graduation scene in her 50th Douglas S. Freeman High School anniversary piece (2006) on the Class of 1956. Interviewing Georgia 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. That class 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 SCA president  in the Hermitage High School auditorium (now George Moody Middle School).

Intriguingly, we took the Rebel mascot in the weeks surrounding Brown v. Board of Education (bringing desegregation to public schools) Supreme Court Decision from Eisenhower’s Administration in 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: a 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 (Stancil), and much more musical than I — her opinion was valued. She put me in touch with Hunter Purdie, (music director for Douglas S. Freeman High School, 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 reporter, without byline, was not much older than the grads; his writing was 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 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 6-0 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 and 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.

Raymond B. Wallace Jr. is a retired public classroom teacher and a Hampden-Sydney College graduate. His email address is rbwallace01@verizon.net.