First in an occasional series.
Helen Mulrennan Young remembers a time when a train depot, grocery store, post office and one beloved school made up the center of town near Moon Avenue and Victoria Street.
The 90-year-old graduated from Brandon High School in 1942, just seven years after her family got its first indoor bathroom and five years before they got electricity.
"It was a lot different than it is today, my goodness," said Young, the youngest of eight children of Joseph and May Sarah Mulrennan, all of whom graduated from Brandon High School. "I have very good memories. School was great."
As the school counts down to its 100th anniversary celebration on March 1, forerunners like Young, Dick Stowers and Mary "Lulu" Noriega Denham, who helped shape the tradition of BHS, recall a simpler time of dress codes, respect, trains and snow.
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In 1914, the approximately 500 residents of Brandon thought they needed one school to educate all the children in town so they constructed the Brandon Grade School, now McLane Middle School — named for E.F. McLane, who was Brandon's principal from 1930-1964. It was the third school in the area, but the first to group grades one through eight.
Ten years later, there were just four teachers for 46 students, and eight graduates. In 1928, Helen's brothers Joseph and John graduated with 14 other students.
It was that intimate setting that Young remembers as the foundation to her education.
"All that bullying that goes on today, to me, it's almost like living in a different world," said Young, whose great uncle John Mulrennan came from Ireland at the beginning of the Civil War. He homesteaded 160 acres in 1874 around the area where the road and middle school bear the Mulrennan name today.
"There was more respect shown then," Young said of her school years. "The young people today are not being taught respect. I couldn't even wear slacks. You didn't go to school showing everything you have."
Young played clarinet in Brandon's first band, when music teacher Sarah Tyler was hired for the 1938-39 school year. After graduation, at least three of her classmates went off to fight in World War II, while she got married to her first husband, Harold Powell, eight months after leaving Brandon.
She also spent 25 years in Miami with second husband, Elwood Young, returning to the area in 1995. She now lives in Valrico with her son, Jim Powell, a 1965 Brandon High graduate.
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Richard Alan "Dick" Stowers had 94 people in his 1947 graduating class including notable local names such as Lillian Falkenburg, Betty J. Gornto, Elizabeth King and Ruth Virginia Miller. He was born and raised in Hillsborough County and had his future foreshadowed a bit when he used the house that John Brandon's son, James Henry, built in 1876 (now State Road 60) as his bus stop from the time he was 16 to 18 years old.
Stowers was supposed to attend Hillsborough High School because he lived on his own in a Tampa funeral home where he worked. But he thought the school was too big, so every morning he rode the 7 a.m. Tamiami Trail Bus from Union Station to Brandon where he got off at the Brandon homestead he would later purchase, in 1960, to operate at his own funeral home before retiring in 1997.
"I had a love affair with the old Brandon house," said Stowers, who still owns the land. "I lived in the woods and these woods are full. I can't believe what a privilege it has been to witness it all. It has been one thing after another. I can remember when there were no fences for cows."
Principal McLane let him out 15 minutes early every day so he could flag down a train to head back to Tampa.
"Those were the days of discipline, no foolishness and I was glad to be a part of it," Stowers said from his summer home in Maggie Valley, N.C., where he has taken his wife, Raymetta, for the past 26 years.
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By 1954, elementary students were moved to the new Yates Elementary and four years later middle school students were moved to Horace Mann Junior High. During a population boom in 1957-58, the school truly became Brandon High School, catering to ninth through 12th grades.
About that same time, Justo "Bill" Noriega and his wife, Marie, moved from Ybor City to Brandon in 1954 and opened Bill's Prescription Center in 1956. Four of their five children attended Brandon High, including Lulu (1977), William (1979), Albert (1980) and Felicia (1981), while John went to Tampa Catholic.
The Noriega children were among the first to attend the current high school, which was constructed in 1972, as cow pastures began to give way to strip malls and 2,549 students showed up for the first year in air-conditioned, carpeted classrooms. Lulu credited Peggy Hill, who taught leadership, as an inspiration to her life — teaching her how to handle problems and groups of people.
"It was a very large school and we were on double sessions," said Lulu, who attended the first session so she could swim for the Eagles in the afternoon. "It snowed my senior year. That was a really big deal."
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More than 60 people have dedicated a quarter century or more of their lives toiling at Brandon High School in the name of education. At the top of the list are four who have given more than 40 years of Eagles service.
Raymond McCoy, class of 1954, taught driver's ed for 42 years until 2000. John Jelsovsky, class of 1952, taught math and science for 40 years until 1996. After graduating from Brandon in 1936, Annie Belle Akins Thorp became a librarian through 1975.
Peggy M. Osborn taught English, speech, journalism and drama from 1953-1989 and then, after retiring, volunteered another decade in the English department. Her husband, Rod, was a dean and assistant principal and their sons are both Eagles: Tim, class of 1976, and Jamey, class of 1978.
She penned the following memory for the "Brandon High School alumni directory, 1924-2005," which documents much of Brandon High School's history:
"My classroom was one half of a building behind the main school," she wrote, "The band director gave me 15 minutes to start my class before his band blasted off in the other half of the building."
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Helen Mulrennan Young beams when she reflects on the simpler times of Brandon High. She is proud of her lifetime membership in the Brandon High School alumni association. The entire Mulrennan family has bricks with their names on them in the McLane Middle School courtyard. The pride endures.
"I lived for school," she said. "There was excellence."
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]