My high school alma mater starts something like this. In the midst of rolling hills, beneath the Southland sky, stands my alma mater true, dear old Cherokee High.

Well, all of that is going to soon change, with the announcement that the Cherokee County School District has purchased land for a new Cherokee High School, and a decision Thursday night to move forward with plans to either repurpose or sell the old high school where I graduated 50 years ago.

Those years have flown by, and one constant has remained, the high school itself where I had so many happy memories and where I and thousands of other students found our way from childhood to the brink of being adults.

I think most of us look back on those four years of high school as good ones, with teachers and educators who cared, and an environment dedicated to helping each student find his or her way to a sure life path.

That is not to say every memory is perfect and every student was completely successful, but I think for the most part, Cherokee High School has for all its 64 years done its best.

Even after all these years, I can still close my eyes and see the long halls off the main entrance area, the lunchroom, and the old gymnasium and auditorium that hold so many reminisces of good times.

And the wonderful thing was that little had changed since 1956 when the school was completed, and a new era of education was ushered in for our county.

Up until that time, two of the high schools in the county were Canton High, a part of the Canton Independent School System, which was located in what is now the Canton City Hall, and Reinhardt Institute, a preparatory school at Reinhardt College.

The two were consolidated into Cherokee High School by act of the Georgia General Assembly.

The third high school in 1956 was the Ralph Bunche School, which served the Black population and was later merged into Cherokee High School in 1967 under the state mandated federal integration program.

Interestingly, Cherokee High has had only 10 principals in all these years, Hal W. Clements (1956-58), Jim H. Jordan (1958-1966), Dr. Edwin R. Casey (1966-1990), J. Rick Ingram (1990-1995), Susan Padgett-Harrison (1996-1999), William J. Sebring (1999 – 2006), Pam Biser (2006-2010), Debra Murdock (2010 – 2015) and Todd Miller from 2015 to 2019 and Rodney Larotta who became principal this year.

The school was designed by the prestigious Atlanta architectural firm of Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild and Paschal. The Barnes in the list of partners refers to Miller Barnes of Woodstock, and father of my classmate Cathie Barnes Price.

Classrooms and offices opened and the class of 1956-1957 was the first to graduate, I believe. But the auditorium and gym were not complete for another year, and the old ones in downtown Canton were still in use for the first year or two.

The football field was completed in 1958, and named in memory of student Tommy Baker, who died the year before from polio.

From the time the school opened its doors, it built a reputation of excellence in academics, and of course, athletics. A tradition of school spirit was quickly established.

In 1963, Squat, the school’s mascot for many years, appeared for the first time in the pages of the school newspaper, The Chieftain, as a cartoon character.

The same year, the first totem pole was erected on the front lawn of the school, a reminder of our county’s Native American heritage.

In those early years, the school had about 800 students and 50 teachers. The school served every corner of the county, and long lines of school buses would flow in each morning with students from communities far flung across the county such as Waleska, Free Home, Oak Grove, and Avery.

Somehow, that seemed to make our county smaller, more understandable. We had a respect for everyone, a coming together of a divergent population.

By the time I graduated in 1970, there were more than 2,000 students crowding the hallways, and in 1975, with upwards of 2,300 students, a new high school named Etowah opened in the south of the county.

But for me those halcyon days of innocence of the 1960s were magical times of pep rallies, sock hops, driving through the Burger Chief to see and be seen with friends from every part of the county.

They were times of forming lifelong friendships and sharing memories that would last a lifetime.

Of learning enough to set me on my way to college at Furman University and eventually to graduating from UGA.

Life was far from perfect when I was in high school but looking back those days seem pretty good.

In looking through the pages of our annual, Sequoyah, I found a fitting epitaph.

“The Odyssey never really ends…for in the beginning is an end and in the end is a beginning…We have lost yesterday without really being sure where to find tomorrow, while even today is slipping through our fingers.”

I know it is time for a new high school for today’s students, and I hope it is as wonderful for our community as Cherokee has been.

I also hope that indeed this fond old building on the banks of the Etowah River amidst the rolling hills finds a new life and purpose.

Our alma mater ends, “Cherokee, Cherokee, home of the red and white, onward, onward Cherokee, home of the Warrior might.”

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Rebecca Johnston is a native of Cherokee County and a retired managing editor of The Cherokee Tribune.

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