Historical Reflections

James Foster Watkins, Class of 1955 and Math Teacher, Counselor, Coach 1959-65


                        Reflections on Baker High School over the Long Haul!
                   J. Foster Watkins, 1955 (Math Teacher, Counselor, Coach-1959-65)

My associations with Baker Elementary and High School go back to the very beginning. My parents moved us into “Newton D. Baker Village” in a unit right across the “ditch” from the school when it was being constructed in the early 1940s. I entered the first grade the first day the school opened in the fall of 1943, along with my two sisters, Sara (Class of 1950) and Louise (Class of 1954). My wife remembers her childhood in “Vivid Technicolor” unlike myself who depends primarily upon “repeated tales” over time. Apparently, I had trouble adjusting in school and found my way back across the “ditch” to go home unannounced. My younger sister was allowed to spend a couple of weeks with me until I outlived that early fear of and dislike of school. The school originally carried the name as Baker Village High School (BVHS) in keeping with its association with the housing complex for which it was named.

I have fleeting glimpses in my mind of my early teachers in the second, fourth and seventh grades for some reasons whom I recall as “caring and quite demanding” teachers. From the beginning, I lived with the high expectations set for me as both of my sisters were quite good students. I came to enjoy school in its fullest dimensions and looked forward to going to “high school” on the other side of the building. From the beginning the structure seemed huge to me as it was planned to handle the numbers which Fort Benning would eventually bring its way during the war effort and beyond. Somewhere along the way, the name became just Baker High School (BHS) in an effort to identify it with its larger service area.

Jumping way ahead, my love of schooling and working with students brought me back to BHS as a math teacher/counselor/coach after I graduated from Georgia Tech in 1959. I was there during the period of maximum student populations (1959-64) when we operated on double sessions that ran from 7:30 until 5:30 serving over 2800 students in grades 9-12. The elementary/middle school grades had been moved during my time at Tech.

My recollections and memories of my secondary school years at BHS are somewhat clearer than those referenced above from my elementary grades. Again with reference to individual teachers, coaches and administrators; I recall fondly being in pretty Ms. Greenhaw’s history class as a ninth grader along with Marvin Denny. Ms. Greenhaw became Mrs. Slaugher somewhere along the way as she married a local judge. Ms. Parker always stayed on my case and ensured that I took enough math classes to get into college if the opportunity presented itself. When that opportunity did come along with the scholarship offer from Tech, Mr. Reed taught me Chemistry at his home during the summer of 1955 that allowed my regular admissions to Georgia Tech. It was his strong preparation in Chemistry that really assisted me during my first quarters at Tech. I made an “A” in the three quarters of freshman Chemistry-a four credit hour course-that kept my early gpa above water.

As a student-athlete at Tech, I had obviously benefitted from some good high school coaching in football and basketball. Coach Screws (who later served many years as principal of Jordan High School), who also taught me history in the eleventh grade, was my line coach and had me prepared to play on both sides of the ball. Coach Ball had dealt with my disappointment when I did “not get a football uniform” during my ninth grade and was encouraged to “go back to the gym and concentrate on basketball with Coach Ball”. I did just that at the time, but did try again as a sophomore with a bit more success as Coach Wolf gave me a second chance. Coaches and athletic participation was a big part of my enjoyment of my high school years. I played everything that came around on the calendar and served as batboy in baseball when it was determined that I was never going to hit a curve ball.

Coach Ball brought a new optimism to the athletic program when he came to town from Bessemer, Alabama. He had an immediate impact on our football efforts in his work as an assistant coach and provided state championship leadership during our years in basketball and baseball. He also brought a past friendship with a former Georgia Tech football player from Bessemer who moved into the apartments that paralleled our football practice field. Johnny Vines, then serving a military assignment at the Post, was the primary reason that I had the opportunity to go to Tech on football scholarship. After breaking my hand in the first game of our senior year, I played again only in the last three games. Johnny moved in and saw those three games and got Coach Dodd to take me on his word that I might be able to play at Georgia Tech.

We had 100 graduates in our Class of 1955. Personally, I have always thought of it as the “Best of Baker”, but I am sure others will argue that point. Our class has been “held together” by a group of “Local Lions” who have made our class reunions over the years such special events. While not mentioning everyone by name, I am aware that Sylvia Booth Crawford, Peggy Culpepper, Georgia Lou Green Wise and Marvin Mills are four with staying power in that planning group. These get-togethers have been well attended over the years and have provided opportunities to bring back the “past” in meaningful ways and to update cherished friendships. It continues to amaze me how real friends can meet, not having seen each other in five or ten years, and it seems like “just yesterday” that we embraced and visited.

There was some discussion that the 55th Reunion of 2010 might have been the last one. The less than positive response when that possibility was floated, I for one hopes, put those thoughts to bed. I look forward to another good gathering of the old crowd in 2015 and pledge my individual support and efforts to make it happen. Of course, we are all saddened by the loss of our classmates over time as we were at the last event in the passing of Sue Yawn Lewis and Larry Chestnut rather close to the event’s date. Larry had made his reservations and had planned to join the group for the first time from his new home Florida. Reflecting again on a personal note, Larry and I were “study buddies” over the years. He made Foster a much better student than he would have been otherwise. We were all pleased that Alvie and their daughter were able to be among the group and had the opportunity to reflect on how much Sue was valued and loved by so many.

I have been involved to a degree with the quarterly “Luncheons” that Ish Nazario and others have coordinated as a means of keeping the “BHS Spirit Alive and Well”. I had the “challenge” of teaching and coaching “Ishmo” in the early 60s. He was about as hard charging back then as he is in his leadership role with us now. I have been encouraged to see the range of years represented at those gatherings. Henry Hicks, the fullback that I blocked for on Friday nights and University of Alabama football foe when Tech used to play a bit even with those folks, and I try to get down from Atlanta when we can. We always go by to bring Coach Ball along to the events as a high degree of participants are former athletes who had the opportunity to play for Coach Ball. All of us old athletes are pleased to see those former cheerleaders, majorettes and band members in attendance as well. I encourage those of you who may not have taken advantage of these events to consider adding them to your “social calendar” along the way. You will find them to be rewarding and positive experiences.

I noted earlier that it was my pleasure to work at BHS for five years early in my career as a professional educator. Those five years remain the highlight of my employment experiences from the standpoint of being meaningfully involved with and touching the lives of so many young people. Janice and I never pass up an opportunity, if possible, to make the reunion events of those five classes. We will do so as long as we stay on the invitation lists!

After working at BHS for those five years, I returned to school at Auburn with the career goal of possibly replacing Dr. Kirby as principal. That is a misuse of the word—replacing—as no one could replace Dr. Kirby. He was an educator well ahead of his times and moved BHS forward in the academic arena to a level not expected by many in Columbus. I recall with a smile, the story he told when Dr. Shaw, then superintendent of education in the county system, tried to move him to Columbus High School. He responded: “Dr. Shaw, I will gladly be principal of both schools, but I am not leaving BHS.” He had been “bitten” by the Baker Spirit in a very short period of time.

I am sure those alumni who knew Mr. Boyles,as the “Principal of the Place”, have similar thoughts about him and his multiple “imprints” on students along the way. I have really admired his staying power with reunions and luncheons as they occur. He rarely misses anything about BHS that draws a crowd. While on the subject of principals, it should be noted that this is another area in which BHS is unique. I was a student under the first principal, Mr. E. W. Cook and a close friend of his only son. Janice and I bought their home which backed on Victory Circle as our first residence after his untimely death. I believe I am correct that Dr. Kirby and Mr. Boyles were the second and third principals of the school, respectively, somewhat amazing if one knows anything about the tenure of principals at large high schools these days.
I have found it a bit difficult to reflect on BHS without letting things spill over too much into Foster’s personal associations and feelings about the place. I recognize such, but do not apologize for it, as much of what Foster has had the opportunity to do in life can be traced back to BHS and the impact that his multiple involvements with it and its people have had on his life. In a manner not unlike, Dr. Kirby’s response to Dr. Shaw, I responded to Dr. Shaw when he questioned me about why I wanted to go back to BHS and not to Columbus High School where they also had a teaching/coaching vacancy: “Dr. Shaw, I have been against those people on the “HILL” for so long, that I do not think, I could ever be for them”!

While it was not obvious to me during my student days, it became very clear later in life to me, that the city/county leadership did not operate back then from a level playing field for BHS when compared to other high schools, especially CHS. Regrettably, not much may have changed over the years. CHS was restored after the fire and still sits high on the hill, but BHS will eventually stand no more except in the minds of those of us who love it so much. I am very appreciative of John Crimmel and other leaders of the Baker Alumni Association for their multiple efforts to keep a place in the “History Books of Muscogee County and Fort Benning, Georgia” for Baker High School. His regular communications with the Lions from the past indicate that working relationships with current county personnel seem to be open and supportive of his yeoman efforts to do so.

It should be apparent from my comments in the reflections on BHS shared in the previous section, that Coach James A. Ball was a key player in Foster’s development as an athlete. He came along at the right time for him and for many other student-athletes who played the several sports that he coached. One of the quarterly luncheons at the Golden Corral coordinated by Ish Nazario in the spring of 2013, was scheduled close to Coach Ball’s 90th birthday. An opportunity to participate in a gift for the Coach resulted in his being presented the latest in large screen TVs for his sun porch where he spends a lot of time. John and Delores Drew make a hugh birthday cake available for those who stayed for cake and ice cream after the meeting. I prepared a special note about Coach Ball that was shared with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. It and the more comprehensive reflections on BHS will be included in the book about BHS overtime that is in process now with leadership from the BHS Alumni Association.

                   
Reflections on Coach James A. (Bubba) Ball on his 90th Birthday

These reflections come from one who was a ninth grader when Coach Ball appeared on the scene at Baker High School in the fall of 1951. As I recall the history of his arrival, he came after a tour in the Navy mixed with some opportunities to play minor league baseball, the sport of his first love. His hometown of Bessemer, Alabama where he was a multiple sports standout in high school subsequently played a major role in my personal life that will be touched on later.

My first recollection of Coach Ball in P.E. classes was that he spoke rather slowly with an Alabama accent. From the beginning, it was apparent that his idea of physical education “was much more than throwing the ball out there and letting us play”. He brought an organized and focused approach to his teaching responsibilities that those who played for him across the several sports came to understand and appreciate.

As a ninth grader who was encouraged by my sisters to play sports, I had gone out for football that fall but failed to receive a uniform. I was encouraged by the football coaches because of my size to go back to the gym and play basketball with Coach Ball. I did so that fall and winter with some degree of success, but tried again and was successful in starting football as well during the subsequent spring practice. I am sure that Coach Ball played a role in encouraging the football coaches to give me a chance to play.

Coach Ball and his family played a major role in my life as my family lived right around the corner from them. If a “second family” is a viable concept, the Balls were my “second family”. Rather than riding the bus, I was picked up by Bobby Chaney and Coach Ball in bobby’s pickup truck and carried to school. Henry Hicks and I usually road in the back of the truck except when the weather forced us to “squeeze” into the cab.

From an athletic perspective, I played football and basketball and participated to a limited degree in track with varying degrees of success. The Bessemer connection mentioned earlier played a key role in the opportunity for me to go to
Georgia Tech. Johnny Vines, one of Coach Ball’s high school teammates had subsequently played at Tech. He moved into the apartments that paralleled our practice field and took an interest in Coach Ball and his player. An injury limited me to four games in my senior year, the first one and the last three, but Coach Dodd took me on Mr. Vines’ recommendation alone. The opportunity to go to Georgia Tech on a football scholarship, which I believe became a possibility because of Coach Ball’s arrival and his encouragement to me as a student athlete, was a life-changing event for me.

Coach Ball and a new principal, Dr. Fred Kirby, brought challenging expectations to BHS at the time, both academically and athletically. During their time at the institution, the academic performance of BHS students individually, and athletically in team sports, competed at a very competitive levels in the Bi-City, in Region1-AA and at the state levels. When Coach Sam Roberts retired in California and showed up at BHS, the institution won state championships in baseball, basketball and tract. In football, the Lions had the school’s best year ever finishing 8-1-1 in the difficult Region 1-AA with the only loss to Valdosta. During that period, Coach Ball was the head coach of basketball and football and assisted Coach Bill Screws with baseball and Dr. Kirby and Coach Lee Forehand with tennis. Academically, the number of national merit scholars at BHS began to compare favorably with numbers from the high school on the hill. Then superintendent, Dr. William Henry Shaw, tried unsuccessfully to move Dr. Kirby to CHS as principal. More of the officers’ children from Fort Benning started getting off those army green busses that stopped on Victory Drive. One who did so, Newt Gingrich, is stirring the waters politically at this time.

My associations with Coach Ball have continued over the years and this letter could go on endlessly. I try to get by to see him when I pass through Columbus. The quarterly meeting of BHS alumni at the Golden Corral that have been spearheaded by Ish Nazario, Class of 1961, have provided an avenue for those of us from the past to touch bases on a regular basis. It was my good fortune for five years to teach math, work in guidance and coach at BHS following my graduation from Tech in 1959. I left BHS to do further graduate work at Auburn with the full intentions of hopefully returning in the future as principal. My employment opportunities never turned in that direction and Oscar Boyles served most effectively in trying to fill the large tracks left by Dr. Kirby. It was with deep feelings of joy and appreciation that the BHS quarterly meeting group acknowledged his service shortly before his recent passing. We anticipate Coach Ball being with us for a long time as that group of appreciative former students and athletes will take note of his 90th birthday on March 19. We have tried to keep the event secret so as to surprise Coach Ball as the day’s activities wind down.

I hope this note from a very appreciative former student-athlete who benefitted greatly from Coach Ball’s influence will be used in his hometown paper on his 90th birthday. There will be many in attendance who could write similar letters in reflecting on the role that Coach Ball played in their lives as well. It is submitted on behalf of us all.

Sincerely,

J. Foster Watkins
Baker High School
Class of 1955, Faculty Member 1959-64

 

Reflections on Dr. Fred Kirby—Second Principal of BHS

 

It became clear on the ride back to Atlanta that I may have "participated" to much in the banter of the evening. Needless to say, I enjoyed it and am most appreciative of the kind things said about Foster as teacher/coach and the multiple references made to the other coaches with whom I had the opportunity to work. Let me add that as reflected by those of you in attendance last evening and my recollections of the many we have lost from this world as their pictures and names were shared on the screen, we had a great group of young people with whom to work. 

 

On the way home, Janice brought up a missing name from the evening's exchanges that surprised her, but not necessarily me. No one mentioned Dr. Fred KIrby, the real "principal of the place called BHS, during my five years after I returned from GT and turned down Dr. Shaw's efforts to get me to go to CHS. 

Not unlike the impact of Coach Ball and Coach Davis, both of whom brought histories of being used to winning and brought such to BHS, Dr. Kirby changed the academic environment dramatically. Under his leadership, BHS soon began to have more National Merit Scholars than CHS and those "officer's children" like the referenced "Newt" started getting off the military bus at the "first stop". 

 

Dr. Kirby was a bit laid back as a leader and was never interested in any personal credit for the growing success at BHS. Over time, he hired good teachers and other staff members. He challenged each of us to become the "best that we might be" and supported us individually and as a collected group of growing professional educators. The best example is the latitude that he gave to Oscar Boyles in is side of the place--referenced in painful (paddle) and positive (sock hops) last Saturday evening. Another story I could have told was about Dr. Shaw's efforts to move Dr. Kirby to CHS as principal. Dr. Kirby responded that "he would be glad to be principal of both schools but his primary office would remain at BHS!" As one who has had a career of more than 55 years in education, I am very comfortable in saying to all of us that Dr. KIrby was "years ahead of his times as a professional educator".

 

Some time ago at Ish's request, I recorded some of my reflections under the title of "BHS over the Long Haul" that were to be included in a book of history about BHS that was in process by the leadership of the BHS Alumni Association. I am sending those reflections to Ish on a separate e-mail.

 

Let me add in closing our personal appreciation for all of you "locals" who made the evening become one that will live long in our memories of BHS. I was saddened that Jimmy Payne could not be with us because of his health condition. We need to keep all of our group with personal challenges in our thoughts and prayer. 

 

With deep appreciation for the "Best Five Years" in my career as "Coach" at BHS,

 

Foster