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Forever South

In 1968, South High School graduated its last class. Thirty-five years following the controversial shutdown decision, former students reflect on the distinct, permeative South High experience.

By Curt Wozniak

William Kilgore’s South High School classmates remember him as a quiet leader — hence the nickname “Sir William.”

“He didn’t always have a lot to say,” recalled Janice Noel, who graduated with Kilgore from South in 1968, “but when he spoke, people listened.” To find out why, see Kilgore’s response to the broad, open-ended question: “What was it like to be part of South’s last graduating class at a time when the nation was changing so much?” Kilgore, who works as a production tech with GM, responded simply, eloquently: “It was like a gap in time.”

Kilgore confessed he didn’t coin that phrase. “This was something I could relate to, an idea based on the healing of the country during that time,” he said. But it certainly works well to sum up a decade of social change capped off by one of the most controversial decisions the Grand Rapids Board of Education ever made.

“It was like a gap in time” to be part of
South’s last graduating class at a time when
the nation was changing so much.
— William Kilgore

The pep rallies and football games from the fall of 1967 easily could have been overshadowed by the Tet offensive in Vietnam, launched in January of ’68, and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April. The exhilaration of graduation could have been cut short by a summer marked by Robert Kennedy’s assassination and the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But when members of South High’s class of ’68 (and their adopted classmates from ’69) get together — as they will Aug. 8 and 9 for their 35th reunion — their repartee doesn’t sound like an American history lecture. They sound like 17-year-olds again …

Hanging out at Joppe’s …

Eating onion burgers at Friendly’s …

Stocking up on butterscotch Lifesavers (or Mars bars, if you happen to be soul singer and former South Trojan, Al Green) at the school store …

And they reminisce about an educational experience that a dozen sparkling new West Side schools couldn’t touch.

* * *

In the 1930s, South became the crown jewel of Grand Rapids Public Schools, turning out exceptional graduates and counting Gerald Ford among its alumni. Boasting an excellent faculty, a diverse student body and successful athletic teams, South was “it,” recalled Noel, the Grand Rapids Public Library children’s specialist known as “Miss Janice” to thousands of young library patrons. “Growing up as children, that was the school you wanted to go to,” she added.

By the 1960s, Grand Rapids was tightly segregated residentially, with most of GR’s African-American population falling into the South High district. According to 1968 newspaper accounts, Superintendent Jay L. Pylman and the board hoped that closing South as a high school and busing its students, 58 percent of whom were African-American, to the city’s remaining high schools would foster a new era of integration. While the merit of this decision — which closed the only truly integrated high school in the city at the time — has been debated for decades, its effects are pretty clear.

To South High alumni, taking away their alma mater helped strengthen an already special bond. To the South High neighborhood, closing the neighborhood school inflicted deep wounds that are still not fully healed. And to members of South’s “lost classes,” finishing high school at another school instead of graduating in the navy blue and red of South High meant unrest, riots and police-escorted buses reminiscent of Little Rock in 1957.

* * *

Deborah Jones jokes that she’s led a nomadic life since graduating from South in 1968. Today she’s back home in Grand Rapids, working as a district trainer for Home Depot, but that is a fairly recent development. Jones spent the past seven years working as a writer and public speaker in Atlanta, and the previous 13 in California. Just because it meant traveling from far-flung regions of the country, however, don’t think Jones ever used distance as an excuse to miss a class reunion. In fact, Jones kept her South High affiliation close to her heart, even in the most unlikely places.

“There was just this camaraderie
that we had as students
that still remained in our adult lives.”
— Deborah Jones

The year was 1996. Jones had just moved to Atlanta. She was still settling into the area and had not yet met many people. That fact made the strong sense of recognition that came over her one day in the Laundromat feel even more out of place. Then it hit her.

“Didn’t you go to South High School?” Jones asked a woman who was folding clothes nearby.
Incredulously, the woman answered, “Yes.” And even though she graduated six years ahead of Jones, even though their only real connection was through Jones’ older cousins’ South yearbooks, the two women clicked.

“The thing was, the link was not, ‘Are you from Grand Rapids?’” Jones recalled. “To me, the link that was more important was that we were both from South.”

Jones says the pride she feels for her high school has not faded. When pressed that it might have something to do with her status as a member of South’s last graduating class, she disagrees. “It’s not just from my graduating year; I’m talking about people that I’ve run into in the years since I’ve been out of school that talk about that same thing,” she said. “There was just this camaraderie that we had as students that still remained in our adult lives.”

Sharon Boles concurs. An alumna from the class of ’62, Boles (née Sharon Reidmiller) is a membership/claims specialist for the Mental Health & Recovery Services Board in Zanesville, Ohio. And while she shares Jones’ sense of nostalgia for her high school days, she attributes it to the unique mix of coming of age in the 1960s and coming of age at South. “I feel that students no longer have such a strong bond today,” Boles said. “My brothers and sisters that did not get to go to South missed a sense of oneness that’s been fading with each passing year.”

That’s not all that has been fading in the old South High neighborhood. Melvin Atkins, longtime Grand Rapids educator and current GRPS executive director of activities and services, said the South High neighborhood is still getting over the school’s closure. “It really affected the community,” said Atkins, who graduated from South in 1968. “Working in the school system for as long as I have, I can say that it really took years for kids who live in that neighborhood to regain their self-esteem.”

“It really took years for kids
who live in that neighborhood
to regain their self-esteem.”
— Melvin Atkins

* * *

Rarities collectors swarm online swap shops for anomalies with the intensity of the magazine editor who scanned this page for typos. To these folks, a mint-condition front page from the Nov. 3, 1948, Chicago Daily Tribune, with its infamous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline, would be worth a small fortune.
But for Monique Marie Ciofu (née Timmer), her South High ’69 class ring would be worth a lot more if there were less novelty attached to it and more truth.

After South closed, Ciofu was bused to Union High School, where she graduated in 1969. She purchased her class ring during her junior year, before the board of education announced its master plan. “So there I was, with my most prized and expensive possession: a memento from a school that didn’t exist anymore,” Ciofu said sadly.

Ciofu recalled not being able to afford another class ring after switching schools, but as she reminisced about her senior year at Union, it became clear that such a token would hardly be cherished as much as her ring from South.

“My senior year was a disaster,” Ciofu said. “It was difficult trying to make friends and participate in school events when you lived clear on the other side of town.”

Ciofu’s story is shared by many members of South’s “lost classes” (’69-’71). For her African-American classmates, the picture was even bleaker. Kathy A. Bracey was also bused to Union, where she graduated in 1969. Today, Bracey is a GRPS reading specialist and a 28-year teaching veteran, but she admits that it took her 20 years before she could step inside Union again after graduation. She describes her year there, characterized by riots that started the first week of school, as “horrible.”

“My first year at Union was the first time in my life that I had ever been ashamed of being white,” said Terri T. Mileski (née Timmer), Ciofu’s younger sister. Mileski graduated from Union in 1970; today she’s a teacher in Escanaba.

Mileski continued, “African-American kids I had known since kindergarten were all of a sudden being treated as if they were monsters from another planet. The hatred expressed by many of the white students and adults was reprehensible.”

* * *

While it would be a hard case to make that South High was a utopia through the late 1960s, it generally was free of the kind of racial tensions that existed elsewhere in Grand Rapids — and around the nation — at the time. It was certainly free from the types of large-scale riots that took place at Union in the fall of 1968. If you were there, you know the reason why.

“Kids at South were unique because of the fact that we had a variety of white and black exposure coming into our lives at the time,” William Kilgore mused. “It’s all about exposure. That’s how you learn how to treat people.” And when the official news (rumors had circulated as early as Kilgore’s junior year) of South’s demise was announced to students in the spring of ’68, it galvanized white and black students alike.

“White kids fought just as hard to save the school,” Janice Noel recalled. “It brought us closer together.”
Ultimately, efforts to save the high school failed and South was converted into a middle school for the 1968-’69 school year. It functioned in that capacity until 1979. Today, the building still stands on Hall Street SE just a block off South Division Avenue. It has housed the Grand Rapids Job Corps Center since the early 1980s.

But to alumni, it will always be South High School.

“We’ll always have a lot of memories because we still see that building standing there,” Marge Wilson said. “To this day I still say ‘Why?’ I just keep thinking, why aren’t other kids being given the same opportunities we had?”

Wilson, known to fellow members of the South High class of ’57 as Marge Winters, owns Marge’s Donut Den, 1751 28th St. SW. Members of the South High Varsity Club still meet regularly at her shop.

“Most people look back at their high school years and either dwell on the negative or make it seem better than it really was,” Terri Mileski added. “South High was cool. Any memory I have doesn’t have to be improved upon with time, and anything negative that happened has faded away because it was insignificant to the whole South High experience.” GR

Curt Wozniak is the Grand Rapids Magazine staff writer.

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