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Johnny Vardeman: Gainesville High School classes making history 125 years apart
Johnny Vardeman

When Gainesville High School’s Class of 2019 get their diplomas and turn their tassels Friday night at City Park, they will be the 125th class of graduates to do so.

It will take some time for the 500-or-so graduates to march across the stage, shake some hands, perhaps get some hugs and have their pictures taken. Quite a contrast to the first GHS graduating class, 1894, which had only 13 students, seven males and six females.

Instead of receiving their diplomas on a spacious football field, those seniors were honored at the Stringer Opera House, later known as the Hunt Opera House, located at the corner of Washington and Bradford, where Christopher’s is located today. About 700 people attended the exercises.

While complaints are common about testing that overwhelms students, teachers and parents in today’s schools, there was no lack of it 1894. Students then, however, didn’t seem to gripe as much as they expressed pride in the thoroughness of the examinations required to graduate.

Wrote William Hosch, a member of that first graduating class: “The curriculum at the time was very thorough and complete … We went far into the classics, completing Sallust and Horace in Latin, trigonometry in mathematics, and physics, chemistry and history with a splendid course in English literature.”

Seniors were submitted to both oral and written examinations in each subject before the school board and visitors. “Every member of the class went through just such an ordeal before we received our diplomas,” Hosch wrote.

Hosch was one of seven senior speakers at the graduation.

R.E. Park was superintendent at the time and went on to become an honored educator at the University of Georgia, where Park Hall is named for him. Esten Whelchel was principal. Among the members of the school board was Col. C.C. Sanders, a Confederate officer in the Civil War who became a prominent businessman in Gainesville.

The high school at the time was a couple of classrooms in the old Main Street School, which later became the site of the Hall County Jail. Wendell Williams, a member of the Class of 1915, used his graduation speech to urge the city to build a new separate building for the high school. That didn’t happen until six years later, the building that many present-day alumni attended on Washington Street. Williams was one of only three boys and 24 girls graduating that year.

Fewer boys graduating from Gainesville High was a trend for a while. For instance, George P. Estes Jr., who later operated Estes Department store on the downtown square, was the only male graduate in 1914. The 1919 class, which included poultry entrepreneur Jesse D. Jewell, had only four boys among 28 seniors.

After that 1894 graduation, Gainesville High used either City Hall or Hall County Courthouse for its exercises. A gymnasium-auditorium was being added at the Washington Street high school building when the 1936 tornado struck Gainesville.

The Class of 2019 will be the largest in Gainesville High School’s history. About 150 of those participated a few days ago in “Decision Day,” which is similar to an athletic signing day, the difference being students were making academic commitments to their colleges of choice. Thirty-five of those were accepted to colleges rated in the top 50 in the United States. This year’s seniors earned 500 hours of college credit through dual enrollment.

Unlike the first graduating class, 2019 graduates had to earn 23 credits, including four courses in each of the core areas, English, math, science and social studies, along with physical education and health, language, fine arts or technical electives.

Black schools were separate in those days of segregation in the 1890s, and few blacks graduated. All 13 Gainesville High graduates in 1894 were white while today’s GHS is much diversified with more than 40 languages spoken by students.

Graduation at City Park with thousands attending Friday night will be just as exciting and perhaps as loud as the football games that have been played on that field for more than a century. A baccalaureate service sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes will be held at St. John Baptist Church.

More local history coming in this column next Sunday.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326;

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