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More than 100 years old, Austin campus sparks sharp memories

Michael Barnes
Austin American-Statesman
Renovations are almost complete on the Rio Grande Street campus that has served as a junior high school, high school and community college. Austin readers remember all sorts of adventures in this educational palace.

All spruced up, it looks like a European palace, not a community college, much less a high school or a junior high school. Yet the grand building, built in 1916, played all those roles on Rio Grande Street, where exterior renovations were just completed and a grand reopening is expected soon.

On land designated for an “academy” in the 1839 plan of Austin, the Rio Grande campus first served as a junior high school in 1916. In 1925, it switched roles with “Old Red,” a 1900 brick structure on the other side of downtown where the First Baptist Church now rises. So “Old Red” became Allan Junior High, named after early Austin educator, John T. Allan, and the Rio Grande campus became Austin High, which had begun classes back in 1881 in part of what is now the unused Pease Elementary building.

From 1925 to 1975, Austin High thrived on Rio Grande Street, then moved to modern lakeside quarters on what was then called Town Lake, now Lady Bird Lake.

At that point, the palace that had hosted some college night classes became an Austin Community College campus. Established in 1972, ACC first opened its doors in 1973 at the old L.C. Anderson High School campus, once segregated for the city’s Black students in East Austin.

Over the years, the Rio Grande buildings have been rearranged and rearranged. The old gym, for instance, across West Street — a tunnel reputedly once connected it to the main body of the campus — was itself renovated not long ago. The campus was also home to a lot of stage activity back when the Austin theater scene, always in need of more spaces, had even fewer venues.

As with many such buildings, the Rio Grande campus is packed with memories. For those who attended Austin High there — some have the misplaced recollection that it was “the only high school in town,” completely omitting East Austin’s Anderson and some private high schools — it was definitely where, for decades, most white and Hispanic teenagers attended. Integration among white and Black students and educators, which had begun in the Austin school district in the 1950s, had reached Austin High’s student body by 1967.

We’ve collected some piquant memories about the campus from social media, but we want your anecdotes, too, especially if they involved the kind of adventures that young people almost inevitably encounter. Send them to mbarnes@statesman.com for future articles.

Tens of thousands of students have passed through these portals, including generations of Austin High alumni.

Glenda Hunt Black: I graduated in 1960, my brother, John Hunt, in 1958, and my mom, Mabelle Cornelia Harn Hunt, in 1919.

Mom played a violin solo at her graduation. She was second in her class — not first, because the girl she tied with took Latin and she took Spanish. (Latin was considered a higher-status language in traditional schools.) She never got over being treated unfairly! The Austin High she attended was later the Allan Junior High that burned down and was where First Baptist Church is now.

I remember singing in mixed (boys and girls) choir with Emma Virginia Dechard. We met at lunchtime — before or after. It was hot on the third-floor, West Avenue side of the building. We worked selling all kinds of stuff to raise money and finally bought an air conditioner that went on top of the school only to have them air condition the entire building a few years later and, I guess, scrapping our contribution!

W.T. “Bill” Williams: I attended high school there from 1948 to 1952. I remember sitting in the auditorium before classes began, listening to Johnny Ray's "Cry," singing in Emma Virginia's choir, master singers, Madrigal singers and radio singers — the last three after 5 p.m. in a small limestone house to the north of the main buildings — always getting the wrong answers for quantitative and qualitative analysis in Ms. Weiser's chemistry class, the slogan streamers we put on our shirts before football, the 14 to 20 bus caravans to football games. Also when I was the student aide to Dorothy Flury's biology class, the formaldehyde odor coming from the crock pots.

Victoria Martin Hampton: We lived down the street at 809 W. 12th St., and all my sisters and brothers attended school there in the ‘50s-‘60s. My husband taught in the community college the first year when it became the college! My husband, Gary Hampton, was dean of work force education for 35 years before retiring!

Scotty Sayers: My home from 1967 to 1970. Classic architecture. Love the renovation taking place. Many stories. And everyone that attended Austin High School in that historic building has a few. And just think of the people that went through that school. Probably 10,000-plus in that building alone.

Carol Hickey: I was in the last freshman high school class there and the first sophomore class at the new Austin High School. I remember running track that year and hanging out on the field and under the bleachers — that’s all I’m gonna say.

Paula Gilbert: It was still a high school when I first walked its halls on a visit to Austin before my move here. Great theater spaces and classrooms are in that building. Rehearsals, performances and classes in the Rio Grande building were memorable.

Ricky Austin: In 1977, I used to live across 12th Street. Late nights, we would slide down the big two story fire escape ramps. A security guard gave us tips on using a carpet piece or fabric to maximize our speeds down. Great fun.

Darcie Jane Fromholz: I moved here in ‘85 and did a year or so at ACC before transferring to the University of Texas. For a kid fresh off the potato truck from Alaska, the class size — and the intelligence and engagement of the teachers — really set me up for success as I moved over to the Forty Acres.

Marianne Fox Dorman: I took some college prerequisites there. I was young but because the ceilings were so high I couldn’t hear a thing. I would arrive very early so I could get a seat in the front.

Nikki Zook: They say that, for some events, you never forget where you were. On Sept. 11, I was in English Comp II on that campus. Unusually, the TV was on before class started. I cried through the entire class.

By the 1970s, the Rio Grande campus was employed for night classes through new Austin Community College. It later became the school's main campus, before the HQ moved to Highland Mall.

Ben Wear (former Statesman reporter):  Even before I became a student there, I had been going to parts of the Austin High complex since I was a little boy growing up in Tarrytown — going to football games at House Park as early as 1961, and basketball games in the old gym across West Avenue from the main two school buildings, from about 1963 onward. 

Back when I attended (class of '71), Austin High just had three grades. Ninth graders still went to junior high. Busing orders had yet to be implemented in Austin, but the school was still thoroughly integrated, drawing Black and Hispanic students from both Clarksville, who had gone to O. Henry, and the Kealing and Martin junior high districts east of Interstate 35.

Specific memories? When our football team was scheduled to play Reagan in 1969 my junior year, we had just one loss and they were undefeated (7-1 vs 8-0), with Reagan coming off two straight state championships. So the game was moved to Memorial Stadium and more than 20,000 attended. Big game, in other words.

That morning, a pretty insane pep rally was held in that basketball gym on West Avenue. The cheerleaders introduced the "Na-Na" song during the pep rally — "Na na, na na na na, hey hey, Austin High," etc. — and we just spilled out of the gym in a huge snaking line, singing that refrain over and over. The line moved across West Avenue into the main building and virtually the whole school population, about 1,400, spent the next half hour or so moving through the school, singing the song. It was thrilling. And the teachers just sat back and let it happen.

We won the game that night, and won district, by the way.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.

Hall of Honor

Some of the distinguished Austin High graduates from the Rio Grande campus

Capt. John Earl Bergstrom (’25):  World War II Hero, namesake for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport

John Kenneth Threadgill (’27) musician, restaurateur  

Homer Thornberry (’27): public official, federal judge, U.S. Supreme Court nominee

Bob Eckhardt (’29): U.S. Congressman, cartoonist 

Zachary Scott (’31) stage and film actor, theater namesake

John Henry Faulk (‘32): humorist, TV and radio star, First Amendment activist

Walter Benson (’34): ace golfer, World War II veteran, horse breeder, publisher

Idanell “Nellie” Brill Connally (’35): first lady of Texas

Liz Carpenter (‘38) journalist, activist, White House staff member

Frank McBee (’38): engineer, co-founder of Tracor

Sue Brandt McBee (’40) philanthropist, preservationist, columnist

Richard “Cactus” Pryor (’42): TV and radio personality, columnist, emcee

George Christian (’44): political advisor, author, White House staff member

Mary Pearl Williams (’44): judge, community leader

Jacquelyn McGee (’46): professional educator, principal of new Austin High

Carlos Valdez (’47): philanthropist, mentor 

Bob Armstrong (‘49): attorney, public official, environmentalist

Frank Cooksey (’51): mayor of Austin, public servant 

Carole Keeton (’57): mayor of Austin, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts 

Raymond “Ray” Culp (’59) professional baseball player

Paul B. Ragsdale (’62) state Representative, 1973-1986

Lloyd Doggett (’64): associate judge of Supreme Court of Texas, U.S. Congressman

Connie Kirk (’67) professional singer

Ben Crenshaw (’70) professional golfer

Scott Sayers (’70) businessman, civic leader

Robert Schenkkan Jr. (’71) actor, screenwriter, Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright

Mark Rose (’71) former director of LCRA

Hoover Alexander ('72) owner and chef of Hoover's Cooking