Alumni rally to remember and save beloved school building

Published 9:55 am Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tony Byrne holds a photograph of former Natchez High School Principal Margaret Martin taken in 1987. The old high school building named for Martin now houses the Natchez Festival of Music, the Natchez Ballet Academy, the Natchez Gymnastics Association and other organizations. (Photo by Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

She was strict, said students of their former Natchez High School Principal Margaret Martin.

“Boy, she would tear you up,” said Eloise Parent Reed, graduate of Natchez High School in the class of 1954.

Reed remembers how students walked around what is now dubbed the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center, which served as Natchez High School from 1927 to 1961.

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Students followed Martin’s rules, walking down on the right side of the hallway and stairwells. Streams of students walking in single file in both directions was a common scene.

“It was very structured,” Reed said.

Don Estes, who was president of the student body in the last Natchez High School graduating class at the building in 1961, remembered Martin as a tough teacher, as well.

The first thing Martin did in the classroom was scan the class to check that no one was chewing gum, Estes said.

“She would say, ‘Mr. Estes, get rid of that gum immediately, and I mean properly,’” Estes said.

“And usually that meant swallow it,” he added.

Tony Byrne, former mayor of Natchez, class president, Natchez High football standout and graduate of the class of 1954, remembered catching flak from Martin for a prank the class did on their senior day.

The administration threatened to kick Byrne out because, as class president, he didn’t control his classmates when they got rowdy while white washing the street with their class number and speeding though the parking lot until police were called to the scene.

“I was fighting mad,” Byrne said about being reprimanded. “No. 1, they’re seniors,” he argued. “No. 2, it was after hours, and No. 3 — I was with them.”

Ultimately, the 30 or so seniors involved got a three-day suspension, which they spent at Lake St. John, Byrne remembered. In the end, they didn’t receive zeros in those missed classes, and those three days were more of a vacation than a punishment.

Dr. Scott Galbreath Jr., class president and graduate in the class of 1942, said Martin taught him Latin, and she was pretty firm.

“Most of the teachers — they didn’t put up with a whole lot of junk,” Galbreath said.

He remembered the pain of getting paddled on an outstretched palm.

But in addition to commanding respect, Estes said there was an endearing quality about Martin, who Galbreath said had a nickname of Bugsy, for some reason or another.

“She was very thorough and very proper, but lovable,” Estes said.

Estes remembered Martin’s acceptance speech when, as student body president, he was honored to be the one to announce to her that the school board decided to name the building after her when it became the Margaret Martin Junior High in 1962.

“I thought, well she’s going to break down and cry and all that, but she got up to the microphone and made a great acceptance speech,” Estes said.

“(Martin) was always composed.”

After the building’s life as Natchez High and Margaret Martin Junior High, it has gone through several stages of disrepair and restoration. And a new effort to restore the building is under way.

A reunion barbecue for all those who attended school at that building is set for 7 to 10 p.m. Aug. 25 in the Margaret Martin cafeteria. The $25 cost of tickets will go toward the restoration of the iconic building.

In addition to Martin’s rules in the hallways and classrooms, many of the memories tied up in the building centered on athletics and social events, former students said.

“Man, Natchez High had some good football teams,” Galbreath said.
Basketball was big, too, he said.

“We were always in contention for the Big Eight conference championship,” Galbreath said.

Estes recalled as a child, how he watched the record-breaking Byrne play running back while Estes’ father covered the games as a sports reporter for The Democrat.

“It was the Tony Byrne show,” Estes said. “How many touchdowns is he going to run (at this game)?”

Billie Ann Foster, also a class of 1954 graduate, said the band was also quite competitive.

“We won the superiors,” she said, referring to a statewide competition with all of the other biggest schools in the state.

“In marching and sight reading, we did very well,” Foster said.

Foster played the flute, and she remembered how band director Frank Heard, who later opened Heard Music Co., could fix any instrument.

Reed and Foster said the annual sing-song competitions also made a mark on their high school memories.

For sing-song, each class would work together to coordinate a performance centered around a theme.

“It was a big thing,” Foster said. “School was off, and people came to watch.”
Themes of the class of 1954, which was a winner in multiple categories throughout high school, included South of the Border, a racetrack theme and barber shop.

Galbreath remembered juke joints on weekends in the early 1940s. Foster remembered dances in the cafeteria on Friday nights after football games in the mid 1950s. And Estes remembered taking dates in the early ’60s to the Monmouth Drive-In, which was located at what is now a concrete slab behind the Shell station near Monmouth Plantation.

Margaret Martin Building, which is now used mostly as a base for the Natchez Festival of Music, should be restored for his historic value as well as what it represents, Byrne said.

Byrne said the building is symbol of excellent times and education in that time period, and fundraising will help match a grant for the City of Natchez to improve the integrity of the structure.

“(It should be restored) for the memories more than anything,” Byrne said. “The good times, the bad times — it’s just a symbol to youth,” Byrne said.

Tours of the building will begin at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 25 before the reunion at 7 p.m.
Allen Brown, a 1961 graduate, will be catering the event, so reservations are required.

There will be a cash bar, music and a sock hop.

For more information, contact Byrne at 601-445-7175 or Rena Jean Schmieg at 601-446-8280.

Contact Mary Lessley at 601-442-4272 to order $12 Natchez High School reunion T-shirts. And tickets are available by calling Mary Robertson at 601-445-2210 or going through the festival’s website at