Billie Ray Graham and Melvin Pittman graduated together at St. Paul High School in 1969. The two men’s lives went in different professional and geographical directions but they’ve remained close friends all these years.
They’re looking forward to their Class of 1969’s 50th high school reunion late this September, and both will also try to make it to the whole-school reunion sets for August 31. That one’s open to anyone who ever attended the school. See related story this page.
Their senior pictures in the 1969 yearbook don’t hold a clue to what each man would choose as his life’s work.
Graham in that photo looked like he’d just stepped out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine, the picture of manly elegance in his blazer and his shirt with its flirtatiously-open top button. He was the dapper one in his class, his buddy says.
Pittman had on more casual attire.
But Pittman would begin to live in a suit-and-tie combo soon after high school. And Graham would spend most of his time in the garish-yellow outfit of a firefighter.
By the time Pittman retired from his administrative government job in Orange County, he was managing about a half-dozen departments. When he left service, they had to hire three to replace him.
Both men say their teachers played a big role in helping them find their individual paths to satisfying careers.
“It was a village at the school,” Pittman explained. “Our teachers were invested in each student. Their main trait was that they cared about the welfare of the students and their ability to learn. In my family, out on the farm, we had to get out and work before we went to school, and when we got home we had to change clothes and get out in the field.” His family grew cotton, corn, and peanuts, and they also had hogs, chickens and mules to tend. But that responsibility didn’t mean they were coddled during the school day. “Our teachers expected a lot of us from 8 to 3, and all this built character.” Pittman said.
Graham was responsible for making sure his household had enough firewood, and he had to clean the yards along with other family chores “that never ran out,” he said. ”Everybody learned how to do something. It was self-preservation. I’ve met men who didn’t even know how to wash their clothes. I could, and iron, too.”
Graham, Pittman, and most of their classmates had to make a hard choice their senior year. Their families couldn’t afford both a class ring and to buy traditional caps and gowns for graduation. It was one or the other, they knew.
Pittman put on a white shirt, black pants, and his shiny new class ring sparkled on his hand as he marched to get his diploma. He still wears his treasured ring. Its lion in the center is now so worn that it’s hard to make out the shape of the emblem. And the band is thinning, too. But those things hardly matter. Their days and their memories of their leaders at St. Paul still shine as bright, hard jewels in their lives.
Pittman offered a quick partial list of some most influential teachers in his life: Principal Herman H. Wilson; assistant Principal Ruben Gibson; elementary teachers America Broxton, Eva R. Wilson, Barbara Harley-Dixon, Margaret W. West-Wilson; high school teachers Callie M Long-Thomas, Ruth Glenn, Carl Williams, Monet Henderson-Stewart, guidance counselor Mattye Sue Douglas-Pittman, Edward Johnson, Edward Pedro Ealy, Daniel Baker, Aaron Granberry, Caretha Bellamy-Everett and Elmore Bryant.
Those and other adults had helped the classmates weave dreams and means for the future and hold fast to their goals despite the pressures in their lives, including those associated with the significant national tragedies that unfolded as they were coming into adulthood:
They were juniors and it was near spring break when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
In their last summer as students, another civil rights champion, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was shot to death, on June 5. 1968.
It was a loss for everyone because he had really unified a lot of people through his teachings and ways,” Graham said of King. “When he was assassinated, everyone felt it. It was talked about, in churches, in class. That’s something that, once you lose a great person, you can’t get over it just like that, all by yourself.”
Classmates, he said, helped each other and their teachers kept a watch over all. “During that time the country was in chaos. You had Dr. King, and Bobby Kennedy, and racial tension in the 60s was high, very high. It was something to deal with,” Graham said.
Those things they mourned together may have been a part of the reason so many from the Class of ‘69 have stayed close through the years, the two men agree, meeting often to talk over the old times and reinforce their connections. They also collectively mourn the ever-increasing number of their old educators and classmates who have passed away.
Time and tasks have a way of making people drift away from their roots back home, if they don’t make an effort to pull back close. Pittman and Graham say they and most of their remaining fellow graduates don’t let that happen.
“We were almost like brothers and sisters, our class,” Graham said. “I think 90 percent of our time at school we spent together, right on up through the grades. We always have something to reminisce on.”
They’ll gather in September for a variety of activities in this region of the county, including an excursion to Tuskegee and other important landmarks.
And what they don’t cover in September, they can make up for in November or December. “Our group has holiday get-togethers every year,” Graham said. “We’ve done that on a regular basis. It’s fun and it means something to all of us.”
“This whole thing is in memory of St. Paul, period,” Pittman said. “We want to keep the memory of that school. The structure was torn down and that was hurtful but nothing can tear down our precious memories of it.”