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Johnny Vardeman: Red Elephant also was a bus to haul athletes at Gainesville
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The Times is seeking memories of Gainesville School System for special coverage Friday on the occasion of its 125th anniversary.

Many alumni surely will recall the late 1940s and early 1950s at Gainesville High School. But in case they don’t respond, here in part is how it was.

The school, of course, was on Washington Street just off the downtown square where the Gym of ’36, now an office complex, stands today.

The school and adjoining gym stood on the site encompassed by Washington, Maple and what is now West Academy Street. The large lot adjacent to the gymnasium also fronted on Oak Street at the time. It was used for outside physical education classes and high school football practice.

Jimmy Bagwell (not the late owner of Georgia Chair Co.) was a lanky player whom everybody called Jimmy B. Despite being a workhorse at practice, he never made the Red Elephant varsity, but his long legs could outrun most anybody else on the team. Jimmy B. knew no boundary line, however, and when he had the ball during practice would run out into Oak Street to avoid being tackled.

The gymnasium was a cozy little place with balcony seating in addition to courtside bleachers. Students and others would cram the cramped quarters to cheer such basketball stars as Jack Roberts and Shirley Tolbert. Those were the days when in girls basketball you had guards who played half-court defense and couldn’t cross the center line into the forwards’ offensive side. Three players played on defense and three on offense.

But the gym had other purposes, too. It wasn’t like today where you have nice separate buildings for theater, band, weightlifting, etc. The Gym of ’36 was multipurpose in every sense of the term. Your high school plays were on the stage, and chairs had to be set up for the audience. Indeed, they had to be set up for any student assembly. Dances, carnivals, cake walks, P.E. classes and whatever else scruffed the hardwood floors of the gym.

Not that they aren’t today, but teachers were multipurpose, too. Laura Sue Hawkins taught physics and chemistry and directed school plays.

Locker rooms for guys and gals were downstairs at the west end of the gym. P.E. students used them to dress, but the guys’ locker room was a sweaty, smelly place where football players coming in from practice slung their nasty gear before taking a shower. The coaches’ office also served as the place where ankles were taped and warm ointment smeared on bruised muscles.

Two stories above that dungeon was a supply room where managers sorted and inventoried football jerseys, shoes, pants and pads.

The gym was connected to the main school building by a walk-through. In the bowels of the gym were a cafeteria, presided over by Mrs. Beusse Whitworth; a home-ec department; and industrial arts shop overseen by J. Allen Webster, a growly kind of guy who some boys feared, but all respected as a craftsman and teacher.

Wooden floors in the main building were soaked with oil and provided a unique aroma that is hard to forget. Bill Bray or another custodian would spread a sweeping compound on the floors periodically, then sweep it up with a push broom.

The city school system had no yellow school buses, and students got to school the best way they could. They would walk, ride with their parents or on bicycles. A mighty few upperclassmen had their own cars.

There was one bus, however, appropriately named “The Red Elephant,” and appropriately painted red. It mostly hauled players to baseball and basketball away games, but football players to City Park on home games. It occasionally was used for field trips. Many a romance was enhanced at the back of that bus when boys and girls teams rode together or when cheerleaders were aboard.

Gainesville High School usually chartered a bus for away games to places such as LaGrange, Decatur or Griffin.

On one baseball trip to Elberton, the Red Elephant bus broke down, and players had to get out and push it up the highway to a place where it could be serviced. Coaches usually doubled as drivers.

C.J. Cheves was superintendent of schools in the early 1950s, and J. Roy Callison was Gainesville High School principal. Ruth Hanie and Mildred Wright were the loyal secretaries.

Clayton Deavers had succeeded A. Drane Watson as coach, assisted by Graham Hixon and others.

Memorable teachers included “Miss Sue Johnson,” Lucy Finger, Latin; Mrs. E.T. Staton, journalism, newspaper and yearbook advisor; Gladys Holcomb, typing; Grace Speer, biology; Jane Hulsey, p.e.; Leon Hughes, social studies, Mary Pentecost, English; Bertha Turner, English; Jeffie Fitzpatrick, math; Don Rich, music; and Margaret Tyner, home ec.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.