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Dunedin High celebrates a historic half-century

DUNEDIN

The boxy dresses and saddle shoes are gone. The building is larger. But the camaraderie and "Falcon Pride" remain the same.

Fifty years after Dunedin High opened its doors, past and present staff and students are celebrating the anniversary and remembering.

"We created a lot of traditions. We had to decide on the class ring and the mascot," said 1962 graduate Bill Keck. "We were very close-knit, and I know it made a great foundation for me."

Many former students have pledged to return for anniversary festivities that are scheduled throughout this school year. Principal Reuben Hepburn said the celebration is a chance to look backward and forward.

"It gives me a chance to showcase all the wonderful things we've done over the last 50 years," he said. "Also, this is very much an opportunity to re-establish that connection we had with the community when they first opened the doors in 1961."

Class of 1962

Staring into the mirror at the brand new beige dress she'll wear for this year's homecoming, 66-year-old Jody Keck, Dunedin High's first homecoming queen, felt almost like a teen again. But much has changed since her 1962 graduation.

"Students today can't even imagine a life without texting or doing homework on computers," she said. "Our whole social life was at school."

Spending so much time together made the students and staff such a close-knit group, said Jody and her husband, Bill, also 66.

"It was a nice, safe group of people that we'd known almost all our lives," Jody said.

The Kecks attribute that closeness partly to students and teachers spending the first two years of high school in the former Dunedin Junior High while the high school was built.

Media reports from 1961 show Dunedin High opened that fall with 767 sophomores, juniors and seniors. (Alumni say a freshman class wasn't added until the 1970s.) Local students had previously attended either Clearwater or Tarpon Springs high schools, said the Kecks, who were seniors when Dunedin High opened.

Fast forward 50 years and the Kecks hardly recognize Dunedin High. Gone are the open-air hallways. Students sport multicolored hair. The school has athletic fields, no longer needing to play football at Clearwater High or baseball at the city stadium. There's also:

• Security. "Now when I pull up and see two sheriff's vehicles, I'm surprised. Our security was the assistant principal and his daggone paddle and the fear he would call our parents," Jody said.

• Desegregation. "We didn't have diversity," Jody said. School district records show Dunedin High was the first county school to admit an African-American student after the all-black Pinellas Junior/Senior High School closed in 1968. Nearly 300 black students enrolled at Dunedin.

Baseball team captain Bill and cheerleader and homecoming queen Jody went to college, married other people, had children and divorced. They reunited years later at class reunions and married almost 12 years ago. At this year's Sept. 30 homecoming game, Bill will escort Jody down the field at halftime.

The 1970s

Former Dunedin Mayor Bob Hackworth loves recalling his days at Dunedin High. The 1973 graduate played baseball his senior year with former Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, who "we always knew was going to be in baseball."

Hackworth's favorite subjects were American history and civics. He now realizes those courses instilled in him an "appreciation" for government that manifested itself later in life.

Hackworth's 14-year-old daughter enrolled at Dunedin High as a freshman this year. His 11-year-old son is next.

"I love that my kids are going to Dunedin High and Dunedin Middle, because that's important to me," said Hackworth, 56. "I want to make sure they have the same opportunities I had."

Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong transferred from Clearwater High in 1975 to join Dunedin's winning baseball team his senior year. The move threw him into the fray of a long-standing sports rivalry between his new and former schools.

Butterflies fluttered in the pitcher's stomach the night he faced his former-classmates-turned-arch-rivals in a game that would determine the conference champion. Thirteen innings later, Armstrong said, a "huge crowd" watched as Dunedin beat Clearwater 3-2.

"I lived with all those (Clearwater) kids and now I'm playing against them with the bad guys," said a chuckling Armstrong, 54. Then he added: "The better team won."

The 1980s

By the decade of the '80s, the student body was as close-knit as the one two decades before.

"The same kids you went to elementary and middle school with, you went to high school with too. So it was truly a hometown-type school," said Dunedin City Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski, a 1983 grad.

Students today raise an eyebrow when they hear it was tradition in the early 1980s to eat lunch under the trees in an area in front of the school called "Senior Park." There were weekend bonfire parties on the Dunedin Causeway, alumni say.

But Bujalski says she was most proud of Dunedin High's Scottish heritage and its band that included bagpipers: "We were one of the only local schools that had band members who wore kilts, which made us very unique," she said.

Classmate Gregory Brady, now a well-known Dunedin businessman, played French horn in the Highlander marching band and worked several jobs through a high school work training program — activities he credits with sparking his "cultural growth" and giving him a foundation to run his businesses.

Several students from the 1980s have found fame, including 1983 grad Lari White, who became a country music star, and Crawford Ker, a 1980 graduate who played professional football. Ker also opened Largo-based WingHouse, a chain of 20 restaurants employing 2,000 and grossing $50 million in sales annually.

The 1990s

It was graduation day. Principal John McLay knew there was a chance he might never see the students again, but there was no way he could forget them. Not after, one by one, each student who crossed the stage handed McLay a marble.

"They did that to see if I could load my hand up and not shake their hand," recalled McLay, 71. "But I just put it in my pocket."

McLay, Dunedin's principal from 1989 to 1992, reckons some parents are still angry that he effectively canceled 1991's rained-out graduation.

"There was no indoor location, so they just went inside to collect diplomas and had their after-graduation party," he said. "They thought that was neat, that they were the only students that ever happened to."

McLay said his tenure at Dunedin High was full of memorable moments created by involved parents — "The community was highly involved. The most I've ever seen," he says. — caring staff members — "They wanted to be a part of the school and they were." — and polite students —"Their parents expected them to behave and they did."

Gary Burney, a 1990 graduate, says teachers who served as role models helped make his high school experience special. Burney also credits one teacher, Randy Lightfoot, with helping students sort through the tragedy that struck in 1987.

In November of that year, two teens were killed in a car accident after a football game. A month later, a student whose car flipped off the road died over Christmas break.

"(Lightfoot) really helped us get through those times," Burney said. "Anyone knew they could go to him for help."

Burney said he looked forward to going to school every day.

"We always had a good time — black, white, green, it didn't matter what color you were. Everybody got along with everybody," said Burney, 38. "That's the thing you remember most — not the math and reading, but the relationships."

Class of 2012

Flipping through photos from Dunedin High's early years transported 17-year-old yearbook staffer Jabilayh Asante to another era. The beehive updos. The pristine clothing. Boys playing basketball in "vintage" short-shorts.

"Their yearbook looks perfect," Asante said. "Everything just looks like it was made on TV."

She and her friends Joe Nash and Eryn Nickisher, seniors who are months from their graduation, said they would love to meet those former students during this year's events.

"It brings history into our school," Asante said. "We want to meet them, ask questions."

The students discussed how different their class is from the ones that came before them. One example: In decades past, students were together from grade school through graduation, but Class of 2012 students say they have seen friends come and go as new schools were built and magnet programs created.

The students applauded how hands-on the school's alumni have been in planning the anniversary events. Roughly 60 alumni, elected officials and school staffers even held a "welcome back" pep rally the first day of school.

"I don't know if it's (because of) the 50th anniversary, but it seems everybody is more involved this year — the teachers and everyone," Nickisher said.

They feel a special kinship with the Class of 1962, members of which will "shake our hands at graduation, so it's almost like we're graduating with them," Nash said.

The trio said it's disconcerting to know they'll leave behind the security of their family, friends and teachers when the school year ends. But seeing the Class of 1962 and other alumni has helped lessen their fears.

"It's nice to know that even though it's scary to move on, that the class 50 years ago who moved on can still come back," Nash said, pausing to look at his friends. "That's very comforting."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

DHS 50th Anniversary Celebration

Dunedin High principal Reuben Hepburn wants former band members, football players, cheerleaders and other alumni to contact him at (727) 469-4100, ext. 2007, or hepburnr@pcsb.org to participate in homecoming. Other anniversary events will include:

Sept. 6: 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting to commemorate DHS's Sept. 5, 1961, opening

Sept. 30: 5 p.m. tailgate party; 7 p.m. homecoming football game.

Oct. 22: Dunedin Falcon Family Fun Run, 7:30 p.m., Dunedin Causeway. Race after-party at Island Outpost, 466 Causeway Blvd.

Nov. 25: Alumni homecoming dance in DHS gym.

Nov. 26: Alumni pub crawl in downtown Dunedin

May 25-26: DHS Class of 1962 50th reunion

To loan memorabilia for two displays cases at Dunedin High, call the Dunedin Historical Society at (727) 736-1176.

Dunedin High celebrates a historic half-century 09/03/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 3, 2011 3:32pm]

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