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50 years of AHS — First grads return to their old stomping grounds

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Editor’s Note: Last week, we featured the history of Athens High School’s consolidation. Here is part two of our series, highlighting a reunion of those early consolidated students.

This story appears in the Sunday, July 14 newspaper on Page A1. 

In late June, a group of Bulldogs gathered to tour Athens High School and get acquainted with the building.

Only, they weren’t incoming freshmen — these were graduates from the Class of 1969 celebrating their 50th reunion. These students were the first to graduate from the new high school in The Plains. Fifty years later, many barely recognized the building as their old school — only the auditorium, gymnasium and library looked familiar.

Once movable walls of the English and Social Studies hallways are now locked in place. An open bay of lockers is now an airy atrium. Even the parking lots outside are a far cry from the gravel they all remembered. Indeed, Athens High School has changed a lot since it first opened.

The first year of classes here came a year after students from Athens, The Plains and Chauncey consolidated under one school. The first consolidated school year (1967-68) took place in Athens, where the current middle school is located. The promise of a new school in The Plains impacted many of the graduates far before the consolidation was even finalized.

Alumni offer memories

John Evans, who had previously attended the unconsolidated Athens High School, saw some hesitation among Athens community members about the change. The school was a convenient location for many living in Athens, though Evans had his own personal hesitations — his grandmother graduated from the original AHS building, and he took pride in being a generational student.

Students from The Plains and Chauncey had their fears, too. Paul Mullins previously attended The Plains High School, and remembered consolidation being a massive conversation at the time. Residents of The Plains and Chauncey were particularly worried about what would happen to their communities and their students if the schools ended up consolidating.

Mullins served on a committee called PAC (The Plains, Athens, Chauncey) — a group of student leaders from all three high schools who became responsible for building the consolidated school identity and bridging the gap between the three communities. Mullins remembered all the students in PAC being friendly, and all of them caring about their classmates being treated fairly at the new school.

Jan Hodson took a unique path to the new school. A native of Glouster, Hodson’s family moved to The Plains during her sophomore year because of fears Glouster High School would consolidate. As it turned out, Hodson studied one year at The Plains before it consolidated, too.

“I was worried about fitting in with all these people in Athens who I had always looked up to,” Hodson said at the 50th reunion. “I always saw Athens as above me and better than me. I had all the anxieties you have when you want to measure up.”

During those transitional years, students adjusted to being around lots of new people all at once. In particular, Evans noticed some hesitation for students to converse with classmates from other communities.

“It was not perfect and there was some culture wrangling going on,” Evans said. “It wasn’t so much like West Side Story, it was more a situation where the groups kind of tried to stay segregated because that was their comfort zone.”

For Hodson, she saw the new building as a learning opportunity on how to make the best out of an awkward and intimidating situation.

“I had to learn to walk into rooms where I knew nobody and start from scratch,” Hodson said. “I learned very quickly how to start conversations, how to ask people about themselves, and how to function socially and communicate. That’s carried me through lots of different situations through my life.”

School had progressive beginnings

The academic system at AHS was revolutionary at the time. The school used a system that separated students by ability rather than grade. The schedule involved use of a “mod” system — the day was broken into 15 minute modules and classes were scheduled during multiple modules. This meant students had maximum flexibility throughout the day.

Many students had free modules they could use to study or socialize.

The school offered new classes (for the time) such as photography, psychology and even swimming; one of the school’s early goals was to ensure every graduate would know how to swim.

One new program, Quest, allowed students to embark on independent study projects during their free modules, often with one-on-one guidance from faculty members.

In particular, 1969 graduate Evans found great success in his own Quest project. Evans was heavily interested in art, and during his senior year he set about creating a large metal sculpture that was financed through the Columbus and Southern Ohio Electric Co. Evans received help from his woodshop and art teachers, as well as an outside consultant, to make sure his sculpture was structurally correct. The hope was to place the finished sculpture in front of the electric company’s building.

Throughout the school year, Evans attended his few obligatory classes, worked on his sculpture or drove to Ohio University’s campus to take art history courses.

Evans did face some challenges during his project, and he recalled a few teachers who doubted the sculpture would actually be displayed. He met several times with the company’s president that school year, and eventually the piece was indeed completed and found a home at Columbus and Southern.

“When I started this idea of doing this big sculpture, quite frankly everyone I talked to poured water on it and said no one was gonna do that, that’s crazy,” Evans said. “Being a sculptor is a pretty unlikely way to get through life, but because I was able to dedicate time to it through that program, it made me think that maybe it is something I can do.”

Evans has accumulated decades of sculpting experience since graduating from AHS, and his work is featured in museums across the country. When he thinks back on the difficulties he had as a young artist in high school, the fact he has made his dream a reality is still surprises him.

“It’s hard for me to imagine I’m going to a 50-year high school reunion and I have actually managed to make a go of this idea of an art career,” Evans said. “It’s kind of shocking, in a way.”

The school’s unique classes also helped Joyce Mullins (Paul Mullins’ wife) get started on her chosen career path. Mullins greatly enjoyed many of her new classes, including a home economics Quest program where she and several other students designed and made their own dresses. A psychology class at the new school inspired her to later find a career in special education.

“One of the large group presentations was by the man who taught special education at our school and he made me believe it was what I wanted to do,” Mullins said. “Because of that opportunity to have that presentation, it kind of molded where I went with my career.”

Mullins returned to AHS as a special education teacher a few years after graduating.

The new AHS also allowed its students to explore extracurricular activities, particularly when it came to sports.

Janet Crossen was a cheerleader and participated in any athletic opportunity she could, though there were no organized girls’ sports at the time. Despite the limited opportunities, Crossen remembers that her gym teacher, Lois Wood, would set up games for girls to play basketball with other schools, complete with T-shirts that the girls would adorn with numbers made from electrical tape.

Meanwhile, Paul Mullins was a student athletic trainer who worked closely with the AHS sports teams. At the time, sports medicine was not as developed as it is today, and athletic training opportunities were slim. Still, as a high school student, he worked alongside OU trainers who visited the school.

“If a player was injured, the coach and doctor would stay on the sidelines and let me evaluate the injury,” Mullins remembered. “All the coaches and staff were behind us because we were working hard.”

Then and now

No matter what classes and activities they were involved with, AHS holds many memories and unique experiences for the ‘69 graduating class.

Joyce and Paul Mullins met each other their senior year, when Joyce introduced herself to Paul as he was playing three-dimensional tic-tac-toe during a module break. Joyce joined the game, despite not knowing how to play — it was just to talk to Paul, she now admits — and they started dating later that year. They have now been married for 47 years.

Crossen thinks back fondly about the school and being a part of the Athens community as a whole.

“I loved everything about growing up in Athens,” Crossen said. “Growing up in Athens was idyllic, it’s too bad everyone can’t have that experience.”

Others, like Hodson, simply enjoyed the new school and opportunities they had, despite an awkward learning curve.

“When I hear people say everyone hated high school, that’s not me,” Hodson said. “I loved every minute of it. Even when I look back and it was unnerving and I felt out of place, I just think about the funny things that happened, the people I met, the girlfriends I have that I’m still friends with. High school was wonderful.”

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