Lanett High School Class of 1970 presents check for field house rebuild

Published 11:47 am Saturday, August 21, 2021

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LANETT — Lanett High School has gotten a generous donation in its Rise From the Ashes campaign. At halftime of Friday’s home football game with Georgiana, representatives from the LHS Class of 1970 presented Principal Bryant Lumpkin with a check in the amount of $3,504.04 to help build back the Lanett High weight room and coaches’ offices that were lost in a fire earlier this year.

The class had planned to have a 50th reunion in 2020 but decided to wait due to Covid. They instead had a 50-plus-one reunion this past June and began a fundraiser to help their alma mater recover from this setback. Approximately $1,400 of the money was raided in an auction and another $350 from the Panthers With Passion organization.

A number of 1970 LHS alumni were in attendance at Friday’s game.

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The Class of 1970 was the first fully integrated class at Lanett High. At the end of the 1968-69 school year federal court action closed the city’s African-American school, Lanier High. The students attending the school transferred to Lanett High that fall. Prior to the start of school, students were urged to have a smooth transition and to avoid individual conflict. Principal L.B. Sykes and Coach James Hardy spoke to the black students, and Principal W.O. Lance and Coach Dan Washburn talked to the white students.

The Fifty-Plus-One Reunion took place in early June at Lakeview Cabin. For many, it was eerily reminiscent of graduation night. The 1970 ceremony was to have taken place at Jennings Field.

The Lanett Kroger store is in that location today. Moments before its was to start, a heavy thunderstorm rolled in, and the program was hastily moved to the Lanett High auditorium. Most of the graduates got soaked in the fast-moving storm. Some of their black gowns were dripping wet when they received their diplomas from Mr. Lance and Superintendent John Tom Greene.

Rain was again falling when the alumni arrived for this year’s reunion at Lakeview.

“It’s just like graduation, isn’t it?” Patsy (Wyatt) McKenzie asked Arthur Bennett, the class president.

“I’m seeing people today I haven’t seen in over 50 years,” Bennett said. “I am thankful to be here and thankful to see all of you here.”

Bennett is a retired school administrator and lives in Little Rock, Arkansas today. He’s well known in the local area for his success as a football coach, first at Lanett High and later on at Springwood School.

Dan Washburn was a special guest at the event. He said that the Class of 1970 was one of his favorite classes, largely because of the smooth transition to being a fully integrated school.

The Lanier students coming over helped Lanett High do something that hasn’t happened very often since Valley High opened in 1939. Lanett had more graduates than Valley that year, 119 to 116. Valley went back ahead the next year when Rehobeth consolidated with them. They also won a state championship in football, something the school hasn’t done since.

Bennett said that one of the black students in the class, Jerome Mitchell, is one of the best people he’s ever met.

“Two years before we fully integrated, he started showing up to watch our football practices,” he said. “One of our coaches (Jim Gaither) went over to talk to him. The next day he was in a uniform and practiced with us.”

Mitchell not only played with the Panthers he was really, really good as a defensive lineman. Gather nicknamed him Buck because he played with the same tenacity of all-pro lineman Buck Buchanan, then with the Kansas City Chief. He was a teammate of two Lanett guys, Bobby Hunt and David Hill.

Mitchell was a fun person to be around. He was always smiling and cutting up and never met a stranger. He was at the reunion and sat at a table with three of his former Lanier friends, Rogers Reed, Aaron Andrews and Arthur Walker.

Bennett said a big factor in that year’s smooth transition was the fact Lanier High brought over some really good athlete to join a host of good ones already at Lanett. The Panthers excelled in athletics that year.

“Buck, you have been my friend for many years,” Bennett said. “You taught me lessons I never forgot. I congratulate you on what you went through to be the first black player at Lanett High.”

Bennett said he had always sympathized with the Lanier High students who came over to Lanett High. “I can’t imagine what it was like to have your school closed down,” he said. “I’ve always liked to think we had that smooth transition because y’all brought over so many good athletes.”

That remark got a round of laughter.

Bennett missed most of his senior year in football due to a knee injury suffered in practice. He did come back to play about half of the basketball season.

“I’m still limping around today because of that day in practice,” he said jokingly.

The on-again, off-again reunion took place thanks in large measure to the persistence of Patsy McKenzie, Reba Sanders and Carol Reaves.

Many Class of 1970 alumni keep up with their classmates on the Lanett High Class of 1970 Facebook page.

Shirleye Greenwood talked about Panthers With Passion and its goals. “It’s good to be together again after 51 years,” she said. “A lot of people don’t live that long.”

In recognizing class vice president Mick Bradshaw, Bennett said he’s the one who should have been class president.

“People felt sorry for me because I was injured,” he joked.

Bradshaw said he was just glad to be alive and with former classmates. “Nine months ago I had to have heart surgery,” he said. “I had 90 percent blockages in all major arteries. I knew going in that if I found myself face to face with Jesus when I woke up that would be all right, but the surgery went well. I was back home in four days. I am so glad to be here today and to be with all of you.”

“We have had a great life,” said 1970 alumnus Phil Jones. “We have been blessed.  I grew up near the Overhead Bridge in Lanett. I played basketball with John T. Woody and he was like family to me. I want to say a special thank you today to any of you who served in the military, in law enforcement or religion.”

During a “What do your remember?” session, Tim Procise got some hearty laughter when he said he’d never forget being sent to the cloak room by seventh grade science teacher LaRue Wilson when he had trouble naming all the planets in the solar system.