The 72 gentlemen who gathered last week for a high school reunion at the Cherokee Town Club stood at the end of the luncheon, raised glasses of Champagne and chanted their motto: “Boys High forever! Boys High forever! Boys High forever!”
It was a brave show, but forever is a long time, and time is catching up to Boys High.
From its founding in 1872 until its closing in 1947, the school graduated more than 7,000 young men, many of whom went on to become influential leaders in Atlanta, including S. Truett Cathy, founder of Chick-fil-A, and Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.
Today there are 300 dues-paying members of the alumni association, according to Herman Mitchell, class of 1947, but the numbers are dwindling.
“We lose about five a month,” said Mitchell, 88, who established the Happy Herman’s chain of wine, liquor and specialty food shops.
With eternity near, the organizers of the yearly reunion decided to bow to the inevitable, and declared that this year’s reunion would be their last.
“Today is a sweet and sour day,” Bob Ginsberg, class of 1947, told the group during this “last hoorah.” Ginsberg reminisced about their meager facilities, which included drafty, portable wooden structures built during World War I. The portables were moved to the last of Boys High’s many locations, adjacent to the current site of Grady High School.
These graduates know which students occasionally threw firecrackers on top of the red-hot, potbellied stoves that heated those portables. But they aren’t naming names.
Such mischief might have landed a student in the office of H.O. Smith, the stocky, Harvard-educated principal of Boys High during its last 26 years.
“He made damn sure, whether we wanted an education or not, we were going to get one,” said Tommy Tillman, 87, who was a junior when Boys High closed, and took his senior year at Grady. “Dr. Smith assembled a faculty that was far better than a lot of college faculties. If they said, ‘Tillman, shut up,’ I shut up.”
Boys High shared its facilities with its students’ devoted rivals, Tech High. Boys attended from all over the city, and many took long streetcar rides to get there.
In 1947, Atlanta Public Schools discontinued the practice of allowing students to attend whichever school fit their future plans, and began opening neighborhood schools, requiring students to attend the schools that were nearby. Grady was one of these neighborhood schools, and took over the brick building that was once part of Boys High.
Many Boys High students, like Tillman, who were sophomores and juniors in 1947, finished their high school careers at Grady. Tall, erect, with a head full of white hair and a voice raspy from vocal cord surgery, Tillman is president of the alumni association. During last week’s reunion, he led the group in their fight song, “On to Victory!”
Time, it was evident, hadn’t dimmed affection for their old school, but neither had it improved their singing voices.
Tillman has seen his colleagues adopt many concessions to the advancing years. They started having the get-togethers at lunch because some graduates couldn’t drive at night. A few years ago, they began to allow wives and family members to attend, which was a big help to classmates who needed assistance. (There were 56 “esteemed guests” at this final reunion.)
But time seems to have given a pass to many of these men.
Tillman still drives and still lives on his own.
Rolf Sinclair, 88, still treks around Europe and the U.S., researching astronomy projects.
John F. Codington, 98, class of 1937, goes to work every day at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute, developing better blood tests for carcinoma.
(There were many jokes about age. One graduate explained that though he was born at Crawford Long Hospital, he didn’t know Crawford Long personally.)
The globe-trotting Sinclair and others recognize that the all-white Boys High prospered at the expense of all-black Booker T. Washington High School, and even, to a certain extent, at the expense of Girls High. “The focus then was on Boys High,” said Sinclair, a physicist who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. “Black students didn’t count. Girls didn’t count.”
Former U.S. Rep. Elliott Levitas, 87, who attended the reunion with the assistance of a cane, said the durability of the membership is matched by the tenacity of their affection for each other. “Tommy Tillman and I could not have more divergent political beliefs, but we are still tied together through Boys High,” he said. “They should make a documentary and call it ‘the school that won’t die.’”
“But it’s dying now,” said Mitchell, mournfully.
Don’t ring that death knell yet.
For years, the Boys High graduates have been contributing to a scholarship fund to send Grady students to college, a fund that now stands at $738,110. That fund will keep the Boys High name alive for a little while longer, as will a handsome entrance archway at Grady, paid for by the Boys.
And Ginsberg helped design a plaque — unveiled at the luncheon — to be installed at Grady. It is inscribed with the names of the first 18 recipients of the scholarships, and calls them “Keepers of the Flame.”
It is further inscribed: “To Henry Grady students who are Continuing the Legacy of Excellence of Boys’ High School.”
Mitchell said the fund might last another 20 years, at which point the last Boys High graduate will probably have gone off to join that last great reunion, where Varsity hot dogs are always on the menu and Tech always loses the game.
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