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Johnny Vardeman: FDRs lectern to join Gainesville Highs birthday bash
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Prominently on display today at Gainesville High School’s 125th anniversary celebration will be the lectern especially built for President Franklin D. Roosevelt when he visited Gainesville after the 1936 tornado. It will be on display at the school’s Pam Ware Performing Arts Center.

The lectern was equipped with brass rails to allow the president, who suffered from the effects of polio, to stand while speaking.

Hubert J. Martin, a cabinet maker and grandfather of Wesley Martin and Angela M. Massengill, built the lectern. Another cabinet maker, Joe R. Brice, also is credited with building it. Perhaps they worked on it together. Roy Ledford, a Gainesville woodcarver, did the carving, which includes stars across the top and an eagle on its front.

After Roosevelt spoke, the lectern was given to the high school, where it remained until 1958. The high school building on Washington Street was razed, and the lectern was moved to Gainesville Junior High School. In 1964, it was restored and used by then-President Lyndon Johnson when he came to Gainesville to address a crowd of thousands about his War on Poverty.

Exactly where the lectern was stored after that is somewhat undetermined, though it apparently remained in the custody of the city of Gainesville. It had been brought out on special occasions.

In 1979, two Gainesville High students, Sam Harben and Jim Dunlap, went on a mission to rediscover the lectern and learn its history. They and other members of the student council at the time, Tommy McConnell, Ricky Shockley and Paula Ellenburg, went before the city council to request that it be returned to Gainesville High School, and it was.

The 125th anniversary celebration is set for 1-5 p.m. today at the high school.

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Roosevelt actually was supposed to speak in Gainesville around  Thanksgiving 1937 to dedicate the new courthouse and city hall that had been built after the original buildings were destroyed by the 1936 tornado. The city and county planned elaborate celebrations for the occasion, but the president’s visit was postponed till Dec. 8.

That date was scratched, however, because the president had to have some emergency dental work done. When Roosevelt finally came March 23, 1938, just a couple of weeks before the second anniversary of the April 6, 1936, tornado, all kinds of dignitaries, led by Mayor P.F. Brown, showed up at the train station to welcome him and escort him downtown. Estimates were that 35,000 people lined the streets and stood shoulder to shoulder to hear his speech.

Roosevelt had briefly visited Gainesville two days after the tornado, when he promised federal aid to rebuild the city, and that he would come back to dedicate the new government buildings. A monument marking the visit was installed in what is called Roosevelt Square between Gainesville’s old city hall and the old courthouse, both of which were built after the tornado.

The monument has the original date Roosevelt had planned to come, Nov. 25, 1937, rather than the actual date he finally came, March 23, 1938.

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Teachers, students and parents complain today about all the testing in the schools. The first graduating class of Gainesville High School in 1894 had rigorous testing, too, before students could get their diplomas. Senior class members had written and oral tests, but the real closer was an appearance before the Board of Education. They would be quizzed individually by board members.

William H. Hosch, who became a local historian, was a member of that first class. He recalled some years after graduation, “Well do I remember Col. Sanders (school board member) having me go to the blackboard and prove a proposition in trigonometry before the whole board and visitors. And every member of the class went through just such an ordeal before we received our diplomas.”

In addition, each of the graduates had to make speeches or read essays at the graduation exercises in the Stringer Opera House.

At the time, Gainesville schools’ total enrollment was 680, and 13 of those received diplomas. They were Robin Adsor, Kedar L. Boone, Marion Chambers, John T. Dorsey, valedictorian William E. Dozier, William H. Hosch, salutatorian Frank Looper, Maude Montgomery, Julia Palmour, Charles A. Rudolph, Lillie May Smith, Mattie B. Woodliff and Mary B. Whelchel.

Whelchel not only got her diploma, but a husband, too, R.E. Park, who was school superintendent at the time. Esten Whelchel was principal.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.

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