Students of the old St. Paul High School, formerly located in Campbellton, will celebrate their bi-annual whole-school reunion on Aug. 31. Anyone who attended St. Paul in any year is welcome to attend, but all planning to do so are asked to call 850-317-5852, 850-326-8651, or 850-482-7734 for the gathering place and time. Prior contact is required as seating is limited.
This reunion is one of two St. Paul events this year.
The second is scheduled for September, and that one is strictly for the class of 1969. It will be their 50th reunion. See more on that in an accompanying story.
Leroy Boone, a sales representative at the Miller and Miller vehicle dealership in Marianna, is the current president/coordinator of the whole-school St. Paul Reunion Committee. He said he’s involved so deeply in part because he believes, as many of his old school mates do, that St. Paul was one of the three biggest influences on their lives and was one of the keys to their success as adults.
No cell phones existed in his days as a student, and there were very few house phones in their neighborhoods. There was no Facebook and no convenient texting through which to communicate. But somehow, as if by magic, it must have seemed to the youngsters sometimes, their teachers kept their parents well-informed of their behaviors – good and bad – and of their success and struggles. It was common for teachers to stop by the house, or reach out at church, or by some other means get word to their parents about what was going on at school. He said St. Paul was an outstanding example of teachers backing parents, and parents backing teachers.
Sometimes their parents knew before they got home from school about something going wrong – but they also knew when things were going right.
Most families had little extra money to scrape together for rewards, but they managed to show their children in some way that their hard work and good grades or good showings otherwise did not go unnoticed at home. “It might be a new shirt, or a new pair of socks, or just a cookie or piece of cake, something your mother did for you,” Boone said. “Our teachers and our parents communicated and it worked out good for us. It caused us to be very aware of what we were doing and it caused us realize the good that can come from good. Our teachers encouraged us to do our best, to strive competitively, and to always do the right thing, to be fair in our day-to-day lives, and play fair.”
For many young men there, that striving spirit extended from the classroom to the clay basketball court, where the St. Paul Lions played and drilled. In Boone’s time, the Lions were champions many times over, winning regularly against teams at home and away that had the luxury of a gymnasium. “My heart was basketball, and in those years we were an elite team. That’s something I’m proud of,” Boone said. “We put our whole selves into it.”
He, his coach, Elmore Bryant, and his fellow teammates would take to the court in all kinds of weather. When heavy rains turned their court to mush, they’d work together to get it back in playable shape, using boards and such to pack down the clay as it dried. In winter, they put out burn barrels around the court to keep their crowds warm and giving themselves and their cheerleaders a respite from the chill.
A graduate of 1964, Boone well remembers the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, during that senior academic year.
“We were in our math class, during the last half of the day, when the word started coming in about that. It was not instantaneously known back then like it would have been today. But when we heard it, knowing that we seemed to have a good president doing good things for the country, it was a shocking thing,” he said. “Some of our teachers cried, and in the older groups of us, classes were suspended. We couldn’t leave, but we stood and sat together out on the campus in front of the school and tried to come to terms with it. It was a tough time that we dealt with together.”
He said he’s proud to be part of keeping the memory of St. Paul alive.
“When I look back at the teachers and how they sacrificed and worked on our behalf, how they pulled together with our families to help ground us so that we grew into adults capable of great success, it’s something that we must honor. I’m proud to be part of it. It’s something we should always do. St. Paul prepared us well for life.”
Hand-me-down school books, limited resources and the charged atmosphere of early desegregation efforts in Jackson County were a daily reality for the St. Paul students coming of age in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Jackson County Commissioner Dr. Willie Spires is a professor and dean at Chipola College of many years. He was in the last graduating class at St. Paul in 1971. The year after that, the high school was converted to a middle school. It would be shuttered for good at the end of the 1975-76 school year and was later demolished.
As an educator himself, Spires has perhaps an especially well-informed appreciation for what his own teachers and administrators accomplished for their students in those often difficult days.
His respect for and affection for them remains strong and he says he’s not alone in that admiration. He expects that many conversations during the reunion will include shared memories of those leaders.
An overall consistent theme ran through the many things they tried to instill in or support in their students, he said. “They consistently reinforced this message,” Spires said. ‘Whatever you choose to do, whether it’s to dig ditches or go to school and study for a different kind of career, do your best.’ That was their constant message.”
Spires said his teachers and administrators also forged close connections with their students’ parents, so much so that misbehavior at school would not only mean punishment at school, but would almost guarantee that trouble was waiting for them at home, too.
But their strong disciplinary ethic was equally matched by their compassion. When, for instance, tragedies like King’s and Kennedy’s assassinations occurred on the national stage, their school leaders would sometimes gather the student body for assemblies to comfort and assure the youngsters that better days were coming and that steadfast focus was an important way to be part of making those better days come to pass.
Spires said he thinks the teachers of St. Paul were possessed of special internal drive , determination and insight that pushed them to do all they could to forge the same in their students.
‘They did a lot to make you feel worthy, no matter what you were being told in other settings outside your core,” Spires said. “Teachers motivated me. I initially didn’t like school. I went straight from my mother’s side to first grade. I wanted to be home with her. But by third grade, I had gotten to the point that I just loved school. I’m looking forward to the reunion. We learned from each other and we love each other. We had special leaders, and just to share and think about those things, and to take pride in the fact that we made it, despite the challenges, that’s going to be a wonderful experience.”
Elease Wynn Varner is both a product of and a veteran teacher of St. Paul High School. She attended there from 8th through 12th grade, and then went straight into college for her teaching degree. She was 22 years old when she started that career, and says it was three St. Paul teachers-James Howard Garris, Edward Johnson and Carl Williams- who inspired her to further her education.
“Those three men gave me the insight,” she said. “They were concerned about their students and their ability to lead productive, meaningful lives.” They provided a model that she followed, when she found herself at the front of the class.
“You had to be dedicated and committed to be in the vocation,” she said. “I learned that if you want to help somebody, you have to be that way.”
She said she had fellow-teachers who felt the same way. She and one of them worked together to supplement children’s unmet needs, sometimes.
For instance, if she saw that a child needed new shoes, Varner got permission from the parent to contribute a pair, usually taking the money out of her own pocket. But sometimes, one of her fellow teachers had her Sunday school class contribute the funds to help her colleague help.
On a salary of about $4,200 a year when she started, Varner said the money stretched okay and that she was willing to give in personal ways and in supplementing school supplies because it was necessary “if you were going to be an effective teacher, to make your little classroom productive.”
Now 78, Varner said she’s happy with the choices she made and that she still loves St. Paul. It was she, in fact, along with Willie Spires and Willie Charles Brunson, who helped get the bi-annual reunion tradition its start several years back.
She plans to be there on Aug. 31. Asked whether she felt more like a student (Class of 1959) or a teacher in gathering with her St. Paul family, she said it was “half-and-half.”
“Any student, anybody who went to St. Paul, when they got out in society, they found meaningful jobs, and knew how to take care of themselves,” she said. I was that way because of St. Paul. I tried to teach young people in a way that would help give them the same strength. So, it’s half-and-half for me when reunion comes around.”
On the heels of the whole-school reunion, the class of 1969 will be gathering next month to celebrate a big milestone – their 50th class reunion.
See an accompanying story featuring some memories from Melvin Pittman and Billie Ray Graham.