Memories of final goodbyes at Benham High still fresh after 60 years

Members+of+Benham+High+School%27s+last+senior+class+of+1961+are+pictured.

Members of Benham High School’s last senior class of 1961 are pictured.

By John Bond, Contributing Writer

Even though it has been nearly 60 years since it closed, I still find myself picturing the hallowed halls of Benham High School, hearing the chorus of “Cheer, Cheer for old Benham High” and recalling memories of that last year — 1961. The fall of 1960 marked the beginning of the final year of Benham High School as it had been announced it would be closed at the end of the school year. As we walked to school (there were no bus runs then), all of us knew it was the first day of the last year of Benham High School’s existence. My class would be Benham’s last to graduate.
Benham was a special place for those of us fortunate to grow up there. Parents took pride in how their homes looked, how their yards looked and in how their children behaved and treated others.
The street on which I lived had 35 children residing on it. When one game of baseball ended, I could go down the street and participate in another. Everyone was on a first name basis, and the parents on my street always knew and policed where each and every one of the 35 children were. Benham was a very close knit town and everybody looked out for the welfare of one another.
Benham High School was made unique by a community that valued education. No matter what the school event was, the town attended and supported its kids and their school. Students were expected to respect one another and to honor the school’s administration and teachers. Nearly all of the fathers of the Benham students were employed by the International Harvester Company in the local Benham coal mining operation. If a student misbehaved in class, his/her father was called out of the mines and had to come for a conference with the school’s principal. International Harvester, in turn, deducted that day’s wages from the father’s paycheck. Subsequently, that student received appropriate discipline from his/her father at home and was emphatically encouraged to refrain from misbehaving in class again. On my first day attending Benham High School, I walked on the grass on the way in to the school. I was immediately brought in to see the school principal and told that we never walk on the grass. While there, I was also told that you do not walk on the gymnasium floor. My homeroom teacher told me that we do not put locks on our lockers here because the school emphasizes honesty and respect for another’s property. The school’s teachers were very professional, demanding and caring, and they provided you with a solid foundation in reading, writing and math.
It was the 38th year since the school’s founding and, ironically, there were 38 graduating seniors. We were sad knowing our school was closing, but I was even more concerned for my friends who were freshmen, sophomores and juniors. They would be faced with having to choose between Cumberland High School and Lynch High School as to where they would finish their high school education.

John Bond is pictured during his senior year at Benham High School in 1960-1961. He went on to a long teaching and coaching career at Cumberland High School.

Typically, school years start with lots of anticipation and excitement with students glad to be back with their friends and classmates. It being the last year of the school’s existence was like a black cloud hanging over all of us. It caused us to embrace every day and there was a sense of urgency to not only enjoy being together but also show love and compassion for one another. The Class of ’61 was indeed a brotherhood in that each of us addressed one another by a nickname. We embraced the most important attribute that anyone could have, that being the ability to adapt and make the best of the situation.
The first week of school concentrated on class schedules, electing class officers, student council election, cheerleader election and the formation of school band and selection of majorettes. Clubs ranging from glee club, National Honor Society and Beta Club to the Benham Tiger club were organized. Our football team was in process of preparing for its upcoming season as well.

Benham High School’s administration and faculty impressively featured teachers from as far away as Texas and Illinois. One of its principals, after the school closed, went on to head the University of Kentucky’s School of Education, while a second principal became president of Union College. In math, we had the prestigious honor of being taught by Walter Dick, who was later inducted into the Kentucky Teachers Hall of Fame. We learned to become more than adequate writers from Ilene Croley, and she instilled in all of us a love for life and that every day is Christmas. It certainly seemed like Christmas to me every day that I was blessed to be in her class. She and Walter Dick are the epitome of teacher and what it means to be a teacher.

Walter Dick was a well-known teacher in the Tri-City area for many years, first at Benham High School and then at Cumberland High School.

As the school year passed, we had our halloween carnival, our Tom Thumb Wedding play, and we attended chapel every Wednesday in the adjacent Benham Methodist Church. Our second semester of the final year of Benham High School began with the announcement that there would not be a yearbook nor a senior trip due to lack of finances. Disappointed as we were, we adapted and vowed to make it a great year. Basketball season was wrapping up and we still had baseball and track seasons to complete. The days and time, like a vapor as the Bible tells us, passed so quickly and it was time for us to attend our last ever junior/senior prom. With the completion of the prom, we knew it was time to send out cards and invitations for our graduation ceremony.
On May 14, 1961, our senior class attended Baccalaureate service at Benham Methodist Church at which the guest speaker spoke on “Freedom in America.”
On May 17. 1961, the school’s last Senior Honor Night was held and was highlighted by presentation of awards in National Honor Society, Beta Club, perfect attendance, spelling, band, speech, commerce and Daughters of American Revolution.
On May 18, 1961, Benham High School Awards Day encompassed awards to spelling champions, grades 3-8, as well as awards in music, library, speech, best writing, home economics and industrial arts.
The long dreaded day of Benham’s last graduating class ceremony finally arrived on May 19, 1961. The commencement speaker was the Rev. Glenn Evans, who had earned his theology degree from Boston University. He delivered a powerful and emotional speech that, ironically, would be most beneficial to our nation at this time. He spoke on the fact there is a difference in right and wrong and there are consequences for every choice you make. Second, he told our class that we should love God and God has commanded us to love one another. Third, we must respect our elders, authority, our laws and God’s laws, and seek God’s justice in all things. Fourth, he said to be a critical thinker and do not accept things at face value. Lastly, he noted, God has a plan for your life and it is vital that you include God in all of your plans. Needless to say, he got a standing ovation from a standing room only audience.
As the “Halls of Benham” was performed,” 38 seniors marched out of Benham High School with the realization that not only were they prepared for the future, but also would carry with them the memories of their days at Benham High School. We were the last of the proud, illustrious Benham tradition — the end of an era. Both male and female graduates shed tears of sadness upon one another’s shoulders. It seems 1961 was one of the most selfless and compassionate years of our lives.

Ten years ago, the Class of ’61 had its 50-year reunion at the Benham School House Inn. It was an exhilarating honor to walk those hallowed halls again, going by our classrooms, hearing the sounds of laughter and feeling the closeness and pride of having been a Benham Tiger.
My memories of Benham High School are forever ingrained in my mind, my heart, my being.

 

Students are pictured at Benham High School in the final year of the school’s existence in 1960-1961.

 

Charles “Big Man” Davis coached football and basketball the last 16 years of Benham High School’s existence, from 1946 to 1961. He then coached five years at Loyall High School and closed his career at James A. Cawood High School.