Saturday, September 22, 2007

Central makes headlines

Jerry Gaudet sends this article from the Observer:

(PS....If anyone knows of a good photographer who's looking for a job, please send the Observer his telephone number.-Ed)

Charlotte Observer 9 22 07 by Gary O'Brien

Every time Patsy Kinsey stops at Kings Drive and Elizabeth Avenue near uptown, the new view there sends her time traveling.

Back to the late 1950s, when she was Patsy Barnett leading cheers for the Wildcats of dear old Central High School.

Or bunny-hopping to The Square uptown after pep rallies and painting "GO CENTRAL" on the terrazzo floors before a football game at Memorial Stadium.

Kinsey, now a Charlotte City Council member, graduated with Central's last class in 1959. Soon the school's striking stuccoed facade was covered up in reddish-orange brick as the building became the launching pad of what would evolve into Central Piedmont Community College.

Now, after prodding from Central alumni, CPCC has peeled off the brick -- "diseased skin," as Kinsey calls it -- returned the building's name to Central High and restored its front in a city quick to tear down.

On Sept. 30, as part of the Central High School Legacy Campaign, hundreds of graduates from multiple classes are expected to gather to rededicate the school.

"It's a part of Charlotte that we had the good sense to save," Kinsey said. "I love that building. I think it's gorgeous. It's just my old high school -- once again."

`A civic statement'

When Central opened in 1923, it wasn't central, but on the southeast edge of Charlotte where the well-to-do were building grand homes in the Elizabeth neighborhood.The school, Charlotte's first high school with a 12th grade, was once the city's centerpiece.

"In those years, high schools were the identifying landmarks of any community," said Jack Claiborne, Central class of 1950, author, local historian and former Observer editor. "Central was built to be a civic statement."

For years, the auditorium was a community center. When the famed came to town, they'd perform there.

It was where out-of-town symphonies performed. Edgar Guest, the "People's Poet," and escape artist Harry Houdini drew sell-out crowds in the 1920s.

Kinsey's late mother, Lorena, was in Central's orchestra in the early 1930s, when composer and conductor John Philip Sousa came to Charlotte and directed the student musicians.

Central graduated remarkable musicians, such as dance band leaders Hal Kemp, John Scott Trotter and Johnny Long.

It nurtured great athletes. Floyd "Chunk" Simmons, class of 1942, won two bronze medals in the 1948 and '52 Olympic decathlon. In 1962, Jim Beatty, class of '53, became the first man to run an indoor mile under four minutes.

Central turned out brainy students, too.

"Academically, it was known as one of the finest high schools in the state," said retired English and speech teacher Gilbert Ballance, who came to Central in 1948. "I felt so fortunate to be on the faculty there."

Home to other schools

By the late 1950s, Charlotte was suburbanizing and, in 1959 after the last graduation, Central students and most of the faculty were sent to a newly built Garinger High.

Yet the building remained, spawning two new schools. Charlotte College, which would become UNC Charlotte, began there as night classes for former GIs just after World War II. So did Central Industrial Education Center, a largely white junior college. In 1963, it merged with mostly black Mecklenburg College (once Carver College) and CPCC was born.

About that time the old high school was covered up by the orange bricks. And the building was named the Garinger Building after Charlotte educator Elmer Garinger.

But the old Centralites never forgot their school.

In 2001, a group of graduates decided they needed to preserve its legacy and started the Legacy Campaign to raise scholarship money for CPCC students. To date, the alumni have pitched in more than $375,000.

They also appealed to CPCC President Tony Zeiss to rename the building Central High, and expose the original facade.

"Our hearts were still there on Elizabeth Avenue and Kings Drive," said Beatty, who's co-chairing the Legacy Campaign with Kinsey. "To go by that great education building and not see the name on it all these years was devastating for a lot of us."

Zeiss agreed to the renaming and the restoration, using $2 million from state bonds. But removing the brick, architects found the old facade in poor condition. So they used old drawings to duplicate the creamy gray stucco front.

"It's as near exact as we could get it," said Bronald Johnson, an architect for Little & Associates of Charlotte.

To those who once roamed Central High, it's like a relic unearthed.

"When that brick went up, a lot of people felt dispossessed," Claiborne said. "Now the building looks better than it ever did. We have our high school back."

Want to Go?

The Sept. 30 rededication of Central High School will be from 1 to 4 p.m., beginning with a program and then a luncheon across Elizabeth Avenue in the Central High Legacy Garden dedicated last year. Tours of the building will run from 2:30 to 4 p.m. To contribute to the Central High Legacy Campaign, call Reade Baker or Brenda Lea at CPCC at 704-330-6869.

Famous Centralites

Hal Kemp: Band leader who organized his first dance band at Central called the Merrymakers. His big start began at UNC Chapel Hill, then he went worldwide with his music. He appeared in four movies as a band leader.

John Scott Trotter: Bing Crosby's longtime music director. Launched his career as pianist and arranger in Kemp's band in Chapel Hill. He scored the music for Crosby's movie "Pennies From Heaven."

Johnny Long: Raised in Newell in northeast Mecklenburg County, Long spent 12th grade at Central and went to Duke, where he launched his dance band career. His orchestras were popular among the hotel ballroom crowds.

Ann Wynn: Sang with the Fred Waring Singers on radio and TV starting in the 1930s.

Herschel Johnson: U.S. ambassador to Brazil and other countries in the 1940s.

George Ivey Jr.: Retail executive who expanded the department stores his grandfather started throughout the Carolinas and Florida. In the 1990s, they were bought by the Dillard's chain.

Floyd "Chunk" Simmons: Football and track star who won bronze medals in the 1948 and 1952 Olympic decathlon.

Jim Beatty: In 1962, became first in the world to run an indoor mile under four minutes.

Charles Kuralt: CBS correspondent and anchorman whose "On the Road" series and Sunday morning show made him a beloved figure on television.

Charleen Swansea: Editor, writer and documentary filmmaker.

Jim Babb: Charlotte broadcast executive.

Sarah Parker: Chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court. Went to Central for two years and graduated from Garinger High.