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Column: Susie Mayes O’dell, oldest graduate of Gainesville High School, tells it like it was
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Sammy Smith, longtime Gainesville City Schools Board of Education member, reminisces with 104-year-old Susie Mayes O’Dell, who graduated from Gainesville High School in 1933. - photo by Kelsey Podo

Just before she graduated from Gainesville High School in 1933, Susie Mayes lost her father, Robert Mayes, in an automobile accident on Green Street.

Susie had to have a new dress for graduation and one for baccalaureate services, but her mother didn’t have the money for her husband’s funeral and the dresses. A neighbor had connections to a clothing store in Atlanta, and Susie got the dresses she needed. Her father had been 

Johnny Vardeman
superintendent of Gainesville’s waterworks.

Susie, who now is Susie Mayes O’dell, is 104 years old and the oldest living graduate of Gainesville High School. She was honored as such when the school recently unveiled its Legacy Wall, a montage of photographs from the past on a wall in the main lobby.

The wall features pictures of GHS activities, sports, arts and academics, and there are thoughts about adding another wall because so many old photos are available.

Gainesville High went through the 11th grade when Susie attended in the old building on Washington Street where the Gym of ’36 office building stands today. There was no gymnasium when Susie attended GHS. It was under construction when the tornado of 1936 struck, thus its name.

Susie was working at McLellan’s downtown when the storm came on April 6 that year. Students were on their way to school, and many of them crowded into McLellan’s and lay with employees on the floor. Nobody was injured in that building, Susie said.

Her sister, Kathleen Hayes, was already in school and lay down in the halls with other students and teachers.

“It was a very good school,” Susie remembers during her days at GHS. Her favorite teacher, who was the favorite of so many students, was “Miss Sue” Johnson, who taught her English and literature. She can’t remember many of her other high school teachers, but can recall many of her elementary school teachers.

She does remember Coach Joe Pittard, who was GHS football coach and taught some classes.  When the school conducted chapel about once a week, Coach Pitt, as he was called, was in charge and would have Susie play the piano. Another student, Louise Garrett, would play the guitar. Susie also played for dances at New Holland on Saturday nights.

“I could make that piano talk,” Susie said. She used her last period study hall at Gainesville High to walk to Brenau College to take music lessons. She earned that privilege because she made all A’s in her courses. However, she said, she lost it when she later flunked algebra.

The school had no cafeteria at that time, and Susie and other students would walk to their homes for lunch. She lived on Banks Street, later on Broad Street, now Jesse Jewell Parkway. If she got home, and her mother had no “sweets” for her to eat, she’d turn around and go back to school.

Susie’s younger brother, Edward, loved football, but would attend school only during football season. He worked at Smith Brothers at other times during the year. Finally, after about five football seasons, Susie said, they would not allow Edward to play football unless he attended school full time.

Susie attended Main Street Elementary School. She remembers on her walk to school one morning a long Gainesville Midland freight train blocked her way. She thought she might be late until a conductor told her to crawl under the train while he kept it from moving.

Another time at Main Street during recess, she and other students could see a hanging conducted at the county jail nearby. Susie remembers two people with hoods over their heads being led to a platform, nooses placed around their necks, and the prisoners falling to their deaths through the floor of the platform.

Susie once led a Brownie Scouts group. When someone showed her a picture of her girls, she could identify every one of them.

Susie lived with her sister, Kathleen, at Chicopee until she died at age 95. She now lives with her caregiver, Kathy Gilstrap, on Oconee Circle in Gainesville.

Too well dressed to be Methodist

Susie Mayes O’dell has other stories to tell. She likes to tell about the family who had hardly any clothes, and a Methodist Church in the Oakwood area bought them all new ones. The church expected the family to show up the next Sunday in their new clothes. When they didn’t, they were asked where they had been. They said they decided they were so dressed up, they’d go to the Baptist Church.

Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.

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

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