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C.H. FRIEND, ‘handsomest building,’ living on
SoVaNow.com / October 08, 2012To talk with planners of the C.H. Friend High School reunion is to pine for the halcyon eras of “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “Happy Days” — even if you are generations removed.
As among the last classes of the school, before it joined with eight other white county high schools in forming the “new” high school (now the middle school), they were buoyed by post-World War II euphoria and a booming economy. They faced the future with the surety that they could prosper as well or better than their parents.
To hear them reminisce, there were no drugs (although certainly alcohol), no hallway police and no assumptions that even long going-steady couples were having sex.
“You really didn’t kiss your boyfriend good-night on the first couple of dates,” says Janet Lloyd Adams.
You got your driver’s license on your fifteenth birthday.
And from Miss Martha Penick you learned — and retained the rest of your life — the rules of English grammar and read what you were supposed to read.
Some historical perspective on just how long ago 60 years is: Sputnik had yet to orbit, Elvis had yet to gyrate, JFK had yet to be shot, Martin had yet to march, Betty Friedan had yet to write “The Feminine Mystique” and the patrons of Stonewall had yet to push back against raids.
Adams (who married her high school sweetheart, Wayne Adams) and Jack and Bertha Jane Owen Dunavant (also high school sweethearts) are among the planners of this Saturday evening’s all-class reunion of the high school, which graduated seniors from 1939 to 1953, after which it was an elementary school until 2007 when South Boston Elementary opened.
Today the building sits empty but sound — and owned by the Dunavants. And when you have the keys to a beautiful building that meant so much to so many, you get asked to hold a reunion.
Jack Dunavant says he bought the building at auction as a business investment tinged with wistfulness. Initially he dreamed of having a charter school established there, but with Virginia not keen on charters, he now envisions upscale apartments or retirement facilities.
“It’s probably the handsomest building in South Boston — other than Berry Hill,” says Dunavant, referring to the antebellum mansion.
This weekend, the first floor will be open for reunion-goers — the second, likely off-limits, chuckles Mrs. Dunavant, “We’re all so old now, we don’t want any accidents on the stairs!”
The cupola-topped red-brick neo-Classical structure was born of sad circumstances: Its predecessor — also called C.H. Friend — on the corner of Hodges Street and Peach Avenue, had burned on Dec. 3, 1936. High school students shared time at Main Street Grammar School by attending later in the day, after the little students had been sent home. (The grammar school was demolished in 1970; it’s now the North Main Playground.)
The blaze “cut short a number of our cherished dreams and activities. But … we have been able to carry on in spite of all handicaps,” writes Shirley Owen in the 1938 yearbook.
That yearbook prominently features an architect’s rendering of the new school: “Our future home.”
By the 1939 yearbook, the brand-new edifice was pictured with dirt for a yard: “On March 27th, we went into the new school. It was different from anything we had ever had,” wrote Alice Smith, the class historian, who adds nothing else.
By the early 1950s, the school still lacked the traffic semi-circle, but students had long settled into the building: The 15 steep front steps were a favorite place to congregate. The 1951 yearbook, brimming with black-and-white photos of girls in long wide skirts and saddle oxfords, describes the library as the busiest place in the school. All the Friend yearbooks — especially the latter years — bulge with activities that seem typical even today: Beta Club, Glee Club, theater, sports. C.H. Friend competed against nearby county schools, recalled Dunavant; Virgilina played basketball on an outdoor dirt court.
The women recall that social life all about the dancing: lots of jitterbugging. Lots of slow dancing to romantic songs.
After school, one went to Sam’s (now Ernie’s Restaurant) or Reeves Drug Store, Boston Drug or the Rectangle. They say the Rectangle was a town-operated hangout with a snack bar, booths for playing hands of canasta, a ping-pong table and space for dancing. (It’s now the News & Record office.)
Of course, to flip through yearbooks is to see a homogenous, pre-integration society — all white faces, no ethnic names. If you were an African-American teenager in South Boston during those years, you might have attended Booker T. Washington High School (now Washington-Coleman Early Learning Center and a site on the Civil Rights in Education Heritage Trail ).
But C.H. Friend High would come to an end when it was consolidated with the other white high schools.
Adams remembers the anxiety: A member of the eight-girl cheerleading team at C.H. Friend, she naturally wanted to make the new Halifax squad — as did 125 others from their respective county high schools. The competition was suddenly fierce.
“I’d kill myself if I didn’t make that squad!” she recalls.
And unlike Friend, where she could both cheer and play basketball, the new school wouldn’t let her do both.
In retrospect, Adams is happy to have spent one year at the new Halifax High because she met people from all over the county. (And, yes, she won a spot cheerleading spot.)
And Jack Dunavant — a Town of Halifax boy who made the commute — wound up going to the new consolidated high school too due to snafus associated with transferring credits from a private boarding school to C.H. Friend. It was fine with him because he got to keep playing sports (now in a more challenging district) and he could take some tougher classes to prepare him for college.
Bertha Jane Dunavant and Janet Adams — now both lively grandmothers — are unapologetically nostalgic for their years at C.H. Friend.
“I wish I could live it again,” says Adams.
“And take my children with me!” Dunavant chimes in.
To register for the reunion dinner — and it’s actually past the deadline — contact the Dunavants at 476-6648.
Who was C.H. Friend?
Charles Henderson Friend was a teacher and superintendent in South Boston schools for decades.
The high school that once stood on the corner of Hodges Street and Peach Avenue was named for him. When it burned, the new C.H. Friend, on Marshall Avenue, also bore his name when it opened in March, 1939.
A graduate of Hampden-Sydney College, he was named one of its most distinguished alumni in 1938.
The next year’s yearbook calls him “one of the greatest citizens of South Boston.”
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