Sidney Lanier Turns 100
Posted On:
Thursday, August 26, 2010
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100 yrs

For a century, the Poets have called Montgomery home.

Some of Montgomery's most fa­mous residents have passed through Sidney Lanier High School since it first opened its doors in the fall of 1910.

Zelda Sayre was a Poet shortly before she met F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hank Williams was a Poet until he quit school to pursue a musical ca­reer. Bart Starr led the Poets onto the field before leading the Green Bay Packers to multiple NFL championships.

On Saturday, more than 850 people are expected to gather at the Renaissance Montgomery Ho­tel & Spa at the Convention Center to celebrate the storied school's centennial.

Starr will be one of the featured speakers at the banquet, along with John Cochran, a Lanier grad­uate who is a reporter for ABC News and won an Emmy award when he worked for NBC News.


Lanier first opened its doors in 1910 on South McDonough Street, at the current site of Bal­dwin Arts and Academics Mag­net School.

The school was named for the famed Southern poet Sidney Lanier, who lived in Montgom­ery from 1866 to 1867.

The original school was the first public school in the city for both sexes and incorporated the existing boys' and girls' schools.

J.S. McCants took over as principal in 1917 and is credited with shaping Lanier's legacies in both academics and sports. He implemented new academic programs and also coached the football team, winning a state championship in 1920.

Construction of the late Goth­ic Revival building on South Court Street, where Lanier now sits, began in 1928.

The new school incorporated the students of Lanier and Montgomery County High School, and some contend the school's name was decided by a football game between the schools in 1928.

Lanier's new location opened in 1929 and quickly gained the nickname "The Million Dollar School." Students also would come to know the building as "The Castle."

Other well-known people who have graced the school's halls include Toni Tennille of Cap­tain & Tennille, opera singer Nell Rankin and George Wallace Jr.

It is also the alma mater of as­tronaut Kathryn Cordell Thorn­ton, Southern Poverty Law Cen­ter founder Morris Dees, film producer Broderick Johnson, former commandant of the U.S. Marines Carl Mundy, U.S. ap­peals court Judge Joel Dubina and many others.

Bill Joiner, a former Lanier basketball coach, said that ev­ery Lanier graduate could hold his or her head high.

"You don't have to be a big name to be proud of being from Lanier," Joiner said.

The Alabama Historical Soci­ety placed the school on the State Historic Register in 1988.

Lanier remained the only ma­jor public high school in Mont­gomery until Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1955. Lee was built to alleviate crowding at Lanier.

The school was integrated in 1964, beginning a shift in demo­graphics at the school.

Once all-white, the school is now predominately black. The most recent enrollment num­bers put Lanier at 1,182 stu­dents, with 1,175 black students, three white students and four classified as other.

Lanier through the years has won multiple sports champion­ships and also has received com­mendations for its academic achievements.

In 1957, Lanier was ranked one of the top seven high schools in the nation. In 1984, academics were in the spotlight again with the creation of Lanier Academic Motivational Program.

Sports dynasties

Lanier established legacies in both football and basketball in the 1960s, with coach Bobby Wil­son leading the Poets to the state championship in football in 1961, 1966, 1967 and 1968.

The Lee Generals, who had be­come Lanier's bitter cross-town rivals, won state football cham­pionships in 1960 and 1969.

The Lee-Lanier rivalry under­standably became legendary during that decade, and alumni talk about the excitement that spread through the city every year when the teams played.

One of the more memorable years was 1966, when No. 2-ranked Lanier beat No. 1-ranked Lee 10-0 in the final game of the regular season. Both teams advanced to the playoffs and ended up playing each other for the state championship. Lan­ier stopped a late General drive with an interception to preserve a 9-7 win.

It was the first year of the state high school playoffs, and it was the first high school game to be televised in Montgomery. It also started a three-year state championship run for the Poet football team.

Meanwhile, Joiner was help­ing to create a dynasty in bas­ketball at the same time, with the Poets winning state champi­onships in 1962, 1963, 1965 and 1967.

"During those years, we were winning in all sports," he said.

Joiner coached from 1961 to 1968. A 1949 graduate of Lanier, he is a member of the Legends of Lanier, the group that orga­nized this weekend's centennial celebration.

Joiner stressed that the cele­bration is not just about sports.

"From 1961 to 1968, Lanier High School was very much the dominant sports program in the state of Alabama, but that's not what we are celebrating," he said.

Joiner said he had great play­ers and that they were the ones who deserved the credit.

"The school won and the play­ers won. We had great players, an outstanding group of young men," he said.

Joiner said Lanier football games would draw an average of about 22,000 people to Cramton Bowl, and that Lanier-Lee games sold out to the capacity of about 25,000 within about a day.

"If you went to Lanier High School, you should be able to re­member some great times," Joiner said.


Lanier Academic Motivation­al Program was introduced in 1984, part of a federal magnet program to keep schools "viably integrated," said Mary George Jester, who helped create the program.

By that time, the neighbor­hood around Lanier was majori­ty black, and there were fewer and fewer white students on its rolls. The idea was that the pro­gram would draw some of the best students from all parts of the city.

"It was a really new concept at that time," said Jester, who taught at Lanier in the 1970s be­fore returning as an administra­tor.

LAMP was not, however, a "gifted" program, she said.

"It was for academically tal­ented and highly motivated stu­dents," she said.

Jester created the program with the help of Wiley Cutts, the principal at the time.

We put into it what we could to make it successful," Jester said.

In 1999, LAMP left Lanier and became Loveless Academic Magnet Program High School. The move allowed the school to admit more students and add such things as an independent athletic program.

LAMP is routinely named among the country's best schools by magazines such as Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.

There are a number of highly successful graduates of LAMP, who were there when it still was part of Lanier.

"Kids (LAMP educators) saw who had potential have gone out and really developed that poten­tial," Jester said.

LAMP graduates include noted scientists, writers, televi­sion producers and business leaders.

Lanier through the years

There have been many changes at Lanier throughout its 100 years, from no longer be­ing the only high school in the city to integration to the cre­ation of LAMP. Here are some of the memories Lanier graduates have of the school:

Rosemarie Porter, class of 1944

Rosemarie Porter said what she remembers most about Lan­ier are the people and the dances after the football games.

There were sororities at the school then, and Porter was the president of hers, Nu Beta Chi.

The classes were smaller then, and even though it was a large school, it was a friendly environment. "You knew just about everybody," she said.

Football games -- as they would be for years to come -- were "the biggest thing in town."

Porter now lives in Millbrook after having lived 18 different places since leaving Lanier.

Emory Folmar, class of 1948

Former Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar graduated from Lanier in 1948.

At that time, it was the only high school in the city, which Folmar said gave him the oppor­tunity to meet people from ev­ery part of the city.

"There were folks from all over town, and it was wonder­ful," said Folmar, who is now the administrator of the Alaba­ma Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.

Folmar was captain of the football team, and also was on the track team. He said Lanier football games were huge in Montgomery at the time.

And it wasn't just a football game. "It was a city event," he said.

Even though there were more than 2,000 students at Lanier when Folmar attended, he said there was also a special close­ness.

"There was a cohesiveness and a family situation at Lanier I doubt could be repeated," he said.

Dean Cobb, class of 1960

Dean Cobb said what he re­members most about Lanier is pitching for the baseball team.

Cobb said his catcher was Tommy Neville, who also played football and went on to be a star in the NFL.

Cobb lived at Maxwell Air Force Base, but unlike some military kids who only stayed for a couple of years, Cobb was in Montgomery long enough to make a lot of friends. "I was one of the lucky ones," he said.

Cobb said he remembers what an intense rivalry existed be­tween Lee and Lanier in foot­ball. Even though Lee did not even exist until 1955, it did not take long for the two schools to become the fiercest of rivals, he said.

"It was like the (Chicago) Bears and the (Green Bay) Pack­ers. I mean, they hated each oth­er," he said.

Cobb now lives in Stockton, Calif., but he said he looks back fondly on his days in Montgom­ery.

"I just have a lot of pleasant memories of the kids I grew up with there," he said.

Maggie Bowden, class of 1968

Maggie Bowden attended Lan­ier shortly after the school be­gan to integrate.

Bowden said she felt bad for the black students because there were so few of them in such a large school.

Integration itself seemed to happen without much fanfare, Bowden said.

"It all happened kind of quiet­ly when it came down to it," she said.

And it was a more innocent time for high school students, Bowden said.

"I graduated from high school having never had a drink, which I understand is impossi­ble these days," she said.

Bowden worked on the North Tower, Lanier's literary maga­zine. Inside the actual, physical North Tower was a small room that had a special feature that the rest of the school did not -- air conditioning.

Bowden said the room be­came an oasis for her where she could work on the maga­zine.

Overall, Bowden said her memories of Lanier are posi­tive.

"It was just big and bustling and fun," she said.

Bowden attended Vanderbilt University after graduating and still lives in Nashville, Tenn.

Brenda Smith Franklin, class of 1970

Brenda Smith Franklin was among the first black students to attend Lanier after integra­tion. About 26 other black stu­dents graduated with her, Franklin said.

Her parents had decided to send her to the school because they felt she would receive the best education there, she said.

"Lanier was considered one of the better schools," she said.

Franklin found the atmos­phere at Lanier to be less than welcoming. White students were not used to going to school with blacks, she said.

"We were in their school. They did not want us there," she said.

At the same time, Franklin said it was a great experience for her because it opened her to a different culture and a differ­ent way of viewing things. "It gave me a sense that my world was not the beginning and the end," she said.

It was a learning experience for some teachers as well, Franklin said.

"I think it opened the eyes of a lot of teachers that there were smart black students," she said.

Franklin recalled a time when one of the black students brought a copy of Ebony to school and left it in the library. School officials confiscated the magazine immediately because it was considered "radical," she said.

"Ebony was no different than Life, but they confiscated it," she said.

Franklin, who recently re­turned to Montgomery from her current home in Carlsbad, Calif., said racial issues appear to remain at Montgomery high schools today.

She pointed out that Lanier, Lee, George Washington Carv­er and Jefferson Davis high schools are all predominately black.

The city's white students, meanwhile, continue to fill the rolls at private schools.

The lack of diversity is poor preparation for the real world, Franklin said.

"What are they going to ac­complish by going to predomi­nately white schools? They are still going to have to graduate and go out into the world," she said.

Arthur Baylor, class of 1974

Montgomery Police Chief Ar­thur Baylor remembers what a large school Lanier was at the time.

For instance, only juniors and seniors could drive to school be­cause there were not enough parking places to accommodate sophomores, Baylor said.

"They used to have two pep rallies be cause it wasn't big enough to hold everybody," he said.

Baylor graduated from "Sid­ney L" along with several other people who would serve the city in one way or another, includ­ing recently deceased City Councilman Willie Cook and former Police Chief John Wil­son.

Baylor, the city's first black police chief, said he did not re­member race ever being an is­sue when he went to school at Lanier.

"My memories of Lanier were all positive," he said.

Baylor was a member of the ROTC, and he said he attended quite a few football and basket­ball games during his time there.

Baylor has been nominated as U.S. Marshal for the Middle Dis­trict of Alabama. The nomi­nation is pending confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

Jana Morgan Bailey, class of 1979

Jana Morgan Bailey estimat­ed that by the time she gradu­ated, the school was about 60 to 65 percent black.

Bailey said white and black students generally got along and that most students shared a sense of pride in the school.

"There was a lot of school spirit. Everybody still went to the football games and pep ral­lies," Bailey said, adding that she never missed a football game during her entire time at Lanier.

Bailey moved away from Montgomery and later re­turned. She said it seemed that things had changed.

"I think a lot of it had to do with there being so many pri­vate schools," she said.

Bailey said there were a lot of benefits to having a mixed school population that many students today are missing.

"I think the diversity is what helped us all grow individually and also as a group," she said.

There also was a high stan­dard of education at Lanier, she said.

"There were teachers who were there who still had the old style of teaching. We were there to learn," Bailey said.

Ravi Howard, class of 1992

Ravi Howard worked on Lan­ier's literary magazine, North Tower while he attended LAMP.

Howard is now an award-winning writer, and he credits LAMP with helping lay the foundation for his success.

"It was a good mix of aca­demics and professional devel­opment as well," said Howard, whose novel "Like Trees, Walk­ing" won the 2001 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award.

Howard lives in Mobile and is working on his second novel, which he said he hoped to com­plete soon.

Howard said the encourage­ment of English teachers when he turned in short stories for class assignments helped sus­tain him as a writer. He contin­ued to keep in touch with those teachers after he graduated.

"It is good to be a part of that kind of community, to still be in contact," he said.

While Howard has not re­turned for a class reunion, he said he has reconnected with many classmates through so­cial networking websites.

Making those kinds of con­tacts is a good thing to do, Howard said.

"It reminds us how impor­tant it is to stay in touch with people we grew up with," he said.

Brent Capell, class of 1993

Brent Capell credits LAMP with preparing him for college and his current job as a nuclear physicist.

"The classes were tough, but at the same time I don't think I realized how good of a base it was until I got to college," said Capell, who lives in Pittsburgh and works with Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory.

Like many others, Capell lists attending football games among his memories of Lanier, but he said other activities opened a lot of doors for him.

"I participated in a number of scholastic events through LAMP. It gave me a lot of oppor­tunities to meet a lot of people I wouldn't otherwise meet," he said.

Capell was not the first in his family to graduate from Lanier. His grandparents also gradu­ated from the school, he said.

He said he still tells people about going to a high school whose mascot is the Poets.

"I think people are amazed by that," he said.

Marquez Williams said his fa­vorite part of attending Lanier was taking part in sports.

Williams played football, baseball and wrestled for the school. He was a wide receiver and outside linebacker in foot­ball and a right fielder in base­ball, but he excelled in wres­tling.

At Lanier, he had a lot of good teachers, he said.

One that Williams said stood out was Mr. Myers, who taught English.

"He took the time out, not just in school, but also on weekends, we would shoot ball. And in school if we needed any help, he would help us out," Williams said.


Sidney Lanier High School will have its centennial celebration Saturday with an open house, a reception and a banquet. Football legend Bart Starr will be the keynote speaker, and award-winning journalist John Cochran will be the emcee.

10 a.m. to noon: Open house at Sidney Lanier High School. There is no charge, and everyone is welcome.

6:15 p.m.: Reception at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center

7 p.m.: Banquet at the Renaissance

Marquez Williams, class of 2009

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