Class of '49 recalls the way we were

February 20, 2000|By Gregory Kane

THE COLONEL couldn't find his hat, the black felt number with the red feather tucked into the band. But he didn't have to look far. Phyllis Chandler Green, his classmate of all those years ago, plunked it down on his head for him.

Thus was Col. James Pennington ready to leave Frederick Douglass High School. Less than an hour before, he and Green, joined by Naomi J. Myers, had eaten lunch in the cafeteria. Earlier, the three 1949 Douglass graduates had attended a Hall of Fame assembly in which their entire class was inducted. After lunch, they went to the office of Sedonia Williamson, head of the school's social studies department, to reminisce about their days at Douglass.

The school, now on Gwynns Falls Parkway across from Mondawmin Mall, was at Gilmor and Calhoun streets in their day.

"It was clean and small, and everybody made us behave like ladies and gentlemen," Green recalled. Myers remembered that some teachers wouldn't admit young men to class unless they wore ties.

What changes 50 years have wrought. Today, teachers must struggle to get young men to pull their pants up over their butts. Where only teachers or principals walked school hallways in days past, now police walk the corridors of some schools.

"We didn't have police walking around the school," Green said. "We had Mr. Gillis. He was tall, he was big, and he was stern. If Gillis took you to the office, you were in trouble."

Who was this Mr. Gillis? The principal of Douglass? A stern vice principal or faculty member with a passion for Spartan discipline?

Nope. Gillis was the school custodian. But he had enough juice -- and enough concern for the education of Douglass' students -- that he could administer discipline just as effectively as a principal or teacher. And he had the respect of every student in the school.

It was that history, that legacy, that brought Green, Myers and Pennington back to Douglass Thursday for the Hall of Fame induction. They came despite two people being shot outside the school the week before. No hooligan was going to ruin this induction or prevent the presentation of the Class of 1949's trophy.

And a lovely trophy it is. A gold duck, with wings fully spread, sits atop a wooden platform. In gold letters on a black plate reads the inscription: "Frederick Douglass High School Class of 1949." Below that is another wooden platform with black plates on four sides bearing the names, in gold letters, of all 193 members of the Class of '49.

Myers donated the plastic case that houses the trophy.

Green was Phyllis La Verne Chandler then. The middle name comes from a French actress her father liked. Myers was still Naomi Joan Myers. The colonel, four years before his Army days, was just James Rudolph Pennington, a mischievous kid (Myers called him a "devil") who wrote the lyrics to the class song. Also inscribed on the trophy is the name of Herman Williams Jr., now Baltimore's fire chief.

They hail from an era when almost everybody -- parents, teachers, civic leaders, students, custodians -- valued education.

"School was a place for business," Green said, "and the business was getting an education." She remembered the time she told her father she wanted to be an actress.

"Your grandfather is turning over in his grave," Green's father told her. He advised her to learn a vocation and consider acting an avocation. She asked him what an avocation was.

"That's what dictionaries are for," her father told her. A couple of weeks later, thinking her father had forgotten the conversation, Green was stunned when he came up to her and asked, "Have you learned what an avocation is yet?"

Myers' father had only a fifth-grade education, but he stressed homework before recreation. The lesson wasn't lost on Myers. She passes it down. She has her 7-year-old granddaughter do homework first. Then she gets a snack.

"Parents today are not as involved," Pennington said of the difference between education today and in 1949. "Then, parental involvement was the hallmark of education."

They traded jests, gibes and jokes before they departed, these three alumni pushing 70 who laughed and kidded as though they were still teens. Then Green slapped the hat on Pennington's head and they all headed toward the door, leaving a bemused reporter standing behind them pining for days and values long since gone.

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