Old North Natchez High School building cherished by alumni

Published 12:04 am Sunday, May 20, 2012

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Barry Wilson and his wife Felicia stand beside his green and gold truck outside the old North Natchez High School, now Robert Lewis Middle School.

NATCHEZ — Had the powers that be decided to demolish Robert Lewis Middle School, Barry Wilson could have made a pretty penny. The tradeoff, though, might have been a broken heart and some green and gold tears.

Wilson said he joked with friends that if the Natchez-Adams School District decided to demolish the building, he would sell the bricks that housed his alma mater, North Natchez High School, for $100 a piece.

At least five of his friends were willing to cough it up for the memorabilia of the North Natchez Rams, he said.

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Despite the opportunity to pocket $500, Wilson, a 1986 North Natchez graduate, said he’s overwhelmed with relief that the Natchez-Adams School District administrators opted to close the school and renovate it rather than go at it with a wrecking ball like a hired consultant suggested.

The school spirit, the teachers, the band, the basketball, the football and the memories — all are wrapped up behind those walls, Wilson said.

“You have to be a part of North Natchez to understand what I’m talking about,” Wilson said.

But he tried to explain, anyway.

“Back in the day, everybody was like a family. God was in school. Back then we had spirit,” Wilson said.

People would trek miles on foot down the length of Pine Street, now named Martin Luther King Jr. Street, to go to football games at North Natchez, Wilson said. And when games were hosted at Margaret Martin School — now a performing arts center — he said cars would be lined up downtown all the way to Cathedral School’s campus.

“You would think you were at an LSU athletic event if you came to one of (the schools’) basketball or football games,” Wilson said. “Anybody white, anybody black — they’ll tell you, there was a spirit.”

Wilson, who worked in recent years for the district, was in one of the Robert Lewis athletic dressing rooms two years ago when he got a shock of nostalgia. By some maintenance loophole, green and gold paint covered the room, a relic of the school colors that represented so much school pride.

“You can almost feel the chills coming to you from the atmosphere (in the dressing room) the way it was back in the day,” Wilson said.

“I cried … I was shocked to see the colors green and gold.”

Wilson’s school pride can be seen as he cruises the roads today in his green and gold Chevy Silverado. When he spotted the truck, he said he had to have it.

He even had a green truck in high school, and he used to lead the parades with it.

“It was a green Dodge Dart, everybody will tell you about it,” Wilson said.

The memories will always exist, Wilson said, but he’s relieved the structure will remain, too. When alumni tell their children about what it used to be like, they can visualize it, too, he said.

Board of Supervisors President Darryl Grennell nurtured his leadership skills at North Natchez. Grennell, a 1983 graduate, was the student council president and president of his class. He also played saxophone in the band.

“We were like the envy of all of the bands in the area,” Grennell said.

“We were just terrific; those were great days.”

Grennell said it was unfortunate to learn the structure of the building was in bad shape. And he understood the district had to follow precautions laid out by engineers and architects. But he’s pleased the district will renovate it and has plans to turn it into a science technology, engineering and mathematics magnet school.

Grennell said in a technological age, he understands the importance of adapting to conform to modern day demands in education.

“If it means shutting (the school) down and making it a different type of school to enhance education, let’s do it,” Grennell said.

Angela Brooks is a teacher at Natchez High School and was voted one of the class favorites at North Natchez for the class of 1989 — the last class to graduate from North Natchez.

“That was our high school, and green and gold kind of runs deep in our veins,” Brooks said.

She said pride still exists at district schools, but it is different. At North and South Natchez high schools, the sports teams played nearby competitors, which made for competitive rivalries.

Brooks said she hopes the district’s plan to restructure elementary schools according to neighborhoods in addition to the creation of a magnet school can restore some of that pride.

“The pride doesn’t (have to) go to ruin along with the building,” Brooks said.

Grennell said regardless of the fate of the campus north of town, the memories will last as a moment in time and progress is just a part of life.

But Wilson stands by his sentiment.

“They can make a car wash out of it as long as the building stays there,” Wilson said.

In Wilson’s mind, the brick and mortar are as sacred to him as Graceland is for some people, he said.

“The way I am about North Natchez is like a bunch of old people are about Elvis Presley.”