Stratford’s 1st graduating class returns for reunion

From atop Coleman Hill, a baker’s dozen of Stratford Academy’s first graduates gazed toward 1962’s bustling downtown Macon.

They smiled for a class photo 50 years ago on the grounds of the old Overlook mansion now known as the Woodruff House.

As part of their 50th reunion, more than half of the members of the “Original 13” will march with Saturday’s 2012 graduates.

Kathleen “Kam” Hatcher Cook of Musella will be one of them.

“We are disappointed more of us are unable to attend, but can’t wait to see those who are coming,” Cook said in an e-mail. “It will be just like we saw each other yesterday.”

When the school first opened in 1960, 117 students and 35 faculty members filled the historic home.

There were no seventh or twelfth grades that first year, but Loyd “Buster” Black, the 1962 salutatorian, remembers the close quarters of 12 separate grades in that house.

“Our students did not know just how to adjust to the confusion of so many students of different ages in so little space,” Black said in an e-mail. “The calm and good-natured spirit of so many of the students in the new environment helped us settle into a routine.

“I really think the necessity of so many ages having to work together in so little space in those early days created the attitude that led to the idea of ‘the Stratford family’ which has developed over the years since and is so strong today,” said Black, who has an office in Brooks, a small community between Peachtree City and Griffin.

The first floor of the school housed second through fifth grades, with sixth and first grades on opposite wings. High school classes were on the second floor.

In 1973, the last year before the school moved to Peake Road, more than 1,000 students overflowed on the small campus now owned by Mercer University.

Current ninth-graders visit the Woodruff House each year for a tradition called “Immersion Day” that teaches a quick history lesson inside the old 1836 house.

Cook’s daughter, Kathleen Medlin of the class of 1988, is now the director of institutional advancement for Stratford.

It’s hard for her to fathom how hundreds of students were going up and down the spiral staircase in the old house every day.

“From talking to the old teachers, nobody ever fell. Nobody was pushed. It was all organized,” Medlin said. “That’s really amazing to me.”

Charter faculty member Sue Hill, wife of first headmaster Joe B. Hill, chronicled a bit of the history for the school’s 50th anniversary publication in 2010.

Hill tells of a group of concerned parents appealing to her husband for advice when he was the principal of Joseph N. Neel Elementary.

They were dissatisfied with the level of education available in Bibb County’s public school system that was segregated by race and gender. They wanted to better prepare their children for college, Medlin said.

On May 14, 1960, the Macon Independent School Association was incorporated with an office at the old Lanier hotel before the board bought the beautiful colonial estate.

Joe Hill and other faculty members took a hands-on approach to renovations. They painted, paved the parking lot and did carpentry work.

The name Stratford pays homage to the homes of William Shakespeare and Robert E. Lee to reflect literary and Southern heritage.

The class of 1962 marched to “Dixie,” not the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance.”

“It was played in subdued cadence and did not have a Rebel yell,” Sue Hill wrote in her history.

Cook was the first graduate to return to teach at the school and loved taking her classes outside in warm weather.

Lessons she learned under Joe B. Hill and other teachers surpassed those she was taught in college, she said.

She still thinks about her days under the massive magnolias or in the gazebo. Her two years as a Stratford student were the best years of her life.

“Stratford gave me faith in myself. Stratford taught me to think for myself. Stratford made me the person I am today.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.