Smyrna High ‘Rock’ School holds Untold Memories

The Daily News Journal, Susan Harber, February 11, 2019

Judy Johns Rogers, mother of author, is pictured 3rd from left with classmates at Smyrna High School in 1952.

A generation of history within the walls of the Old Rock School in one article is unfeasible to behold. Thus, we will touch on bare highlights of a Smyrna school that originated some of the sharpest and most keen business minds and honorable adults in the greatest society of our county. There were joys, sorrows, romances, and large dreams for future within the hallways of the inaugural Smyrna High on Dudley Street. Old Rock School stood on the site of our state-of-art and present-day Smyrna Library. Stay nigh in a two-part series, as we explore the ascension of our own prominent Smyrna High on Bulldog Lane that is deep-rooted in a rich history of education, erudition and traditions.

My grandparents Emily Randolph and Glendon Johns graduated from Smyrna High in 1931 and 1933. Glendon was an older graduate only because of a lack of transportation from his home in Old Jefferson. As with Spring Creek near Glendon’s farm, flash floods in creek beds deterred some students from arriving safely to school. Glendon’s cousins Rufus and Frank Johns Sr boarded in town with no available bus. Emily grew up in Nashville yet moved to Smyrna at age 13 and had a big time at Smyrna High. She was in the Senior play and cultivated lifelong friends.

My mother Judith Johns Rogers also thrived at Smyrna High (’54) and has many endearing memories. Judy was an officer in several clubs and a class officer, cheerleader, annual editor, Salutatorian and ‘Best All-Around’ and prospered on the whole scene. She is also a ‘best all-around mom.’ The Beta Club was a large achievement for students in her time. One of her hardest curriculum courses was Latin, of which she relates continues as a mainstay with her writing and language skills today. Ann Sanford was her excellent Latin teacher. Judy’s greatest talent was learning to sew on a high level through Home Economics. The treasures she has stitched and designed over 60 years as gifts is quite extraordinary.

Private schools formed in Smyrna as early as 1850. William Jarrett gave five prime acres for Smyrna Fitting School. Smyrna High, initially a private school, was organized in 1894 as an outgrowth of Smyrna Fitting School. By 1910, the private school closed; and the Rutherford County Board acquired the former property of Smyrna Fitting School. Thus, Smyrna High was officially organized and open to public education. Edwin Hoover served as early principal from 1912-1916.

Additions were made to the building in 1912. Yet, new construction began in 1919; and the frame building was replaced by a modern stone and frame structure (1921) that could better serve both elementary and high school. The building was acquired through strong efforts of local Smyrna resident and activist Dr. J.S. Lowry and the backing of the county board. Nile Yearwood was contractor to rebuild the school with a stone wall.

The principal of the new high school was Edward Howe from Smyrna Fitting School. He remained with the school of elementary and high school classes through 1916.

The first graduates (1921) of the stone building included Jane Bennett, Neil Bennett, Frank Elam, Hal Gooch, Mary Gresham, Linnie Heath, Jessie Lee, Ellis McGowan, Mitchell McGowan, Lucille Mason, Laura Peebles, Ellen Posey, Ernest Robertson, Nimrod Thompson, Margaret Ward and Labon White.

The physical structure of the 1921 school was U-shaped with an Auditorium between two wings. Four elementary classrooms were on the West wing, and six high school rooms were situated on the East wing. The early school encompassed a Music room, Library, as well as Science, Home Economics, and Agricultural Departments. In 1927, a gym was erected as a barn by the dexterity of Agriculture students.

Tragically, fire destroyed the school in March 1932; and classes were held in churches and vacant houses until 1933.

Even though the original stone building burned, the authentic stones were reused in a replacement building in 1933 for $60,000.

In 1936, two classrooms were constructed in a growing school. The high school was remodeled in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. Moreover, in 1942, enrollment sharply increased with the expansion of Sewart Air Force Base and an essential need for more classes and cafeteria. Five classrooms were built in 1955; and two classrooms, offices and cafeteria were added in 1957. The gym was remodeled in 1963 as the school flourished. In 1962, there were 90 graduates in record number.

Each principal for this burgeoning school had their own personality and leadership style. From 1920-1927, Lacy Elrod served as principal. Lacy’s son Dr. Parker Elrod was my dad Paul Rogers’ best friend in Hickman County. Lacy’s grandson is Dr. Burton Elrod, a well-known orthopedic physician in Nashville.

Key principals in the stone building included Ray Harris (1934-1935), Jesse Richardson (1935-1936), J.E. McCrary (1937-1942), W.F. Bennett (1942-1944), R.J. Donnell (1944-1947), J.J. McWilliams (1948-1960), David Youree (1958-1964) and Dan Odom (1964-1976).

In 1959, David Youree was principal of elementary grades still meeting in Rock School after the high school relocated to Hazelwood Drive that served grades 7-12. Principal Ray Donnell was respected and known for his solid leadership, as well as sharp attire and polished shoes. J.J. McWilliams, principal and football coach, held the longest tenure until his sudden death. Principal McWilliams followed students to the new Hazelwood School. He was a bachelor and tough-minded as a disciplinarian with students; yet, his positive influence and leadership of ‘right and wrong choices’ forged a definite and constructive difference in students’ young lives.

With Smyrna High developing into an optimal academic facility, times were exceedingly moving forward for education. In part 2, we will visit the inner walls of an early Smyrna High in a beloved stone building and retrace olden memories.

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