Local

Boys’ High Alumni Remember Early Atlanta Public School

Boys' High alumnus Tommy Tillman holds up an old jersey from the high school. It closed in 1947.
Boys' High alumnus Tommy Tillman holds up an old jersey from the high school. It closed in 1947.

Listen to the audio story.

Boys’ High was one of Atlanta’s first public high schools.

It closed almost 70 years ago, in 1947, and became Grady High School. But the students who attended Boys’ High never forgot it, even as some approach a hundred years old.

The alumni gathered recently for a reunion, including all of the classes that are left. The earliest graduating year among the more than hundred men who came out was 1935. The last group to walk the campus of Boys’ High finished in 1949, after two years at Grady.

“There’s a bond among Boys’ High people,” said Tommy Tillman, class of ‘48. “If you haven’t been to school there, you just don’t understand it. There’s never been a high school anywhere in the world like Boys’ High. And there will never be another one.”

The all-boy, white school’s purpose was to send men to universities, and that was rare back then. The faculty were a rare breed too, alumni say. Harsh at times, but dedicated.

Ben O’Callaghan, class of ‘44, still remembers the chemistry teacher.

“He was a good German fella. He actually had a rock on his desk. If your answer was just a stupid answer. He would say, ‘Why, boy! I’m gonna hit you with this rock,'” Callaghan said.

When asked if the teacher ever hit anyone, Callaghan said “no … but he threatened.”

If the faculty asked for discipline, they got a lot of chaos in return. Just about every man has a story, like that time when they threw a match in a pencil sharpener.

In Larry Hailey’s day, they played a dangerous prank on teachers.

“We had potbelly stoves to heat the portables. Well some of the guys got to thinking, you know, what would happen if we took some ammunition and threw it in the fire. Well we did that and then a few minutes it got hot and it began firing around. And there was absolute chaos in the room,” said Hailey, laughing.

The antics weren’t limited to the classroom. Boys’ High shared its grounds with an all-boy technical school, Tech High.

“There was a white line,” said Tommy Thompson, class of ‘44. “If you got across that white line you in Tech High, you on the other side you in Boys’ High. And course, we made friends with each other until we got ready to play the annual game and then both sides became enemies. You didn’t cross that line then.”

“We had a big hill over in Piedmont Park where the golf course is,” said Bob Cunningham, class of ‘46. “Boys’ High would sneak over there at night and write these big letters on the hill, ‘To hell with Tech High.’ Then they’d come back the next day and erase the letters and write ‘To hell with Boys’ High.’ That’s about as bad as the language got between the two schools.”

Where were the girls through all of this? Well, they were at Girls’ High. The boys did find ways to see them, though, Hailey said.

“Several of us would get in a car and race over to girls high school, pick up the girls, bring them back to the Varsity, eat a little something, race ‘em back to Girls High and drive like crazy back to Boys’ High before we were late for the next period,” Hailey said. “That was a lot of fun.”

In the background, World War II weighed on the minds of many students, like Hugh Cates, class of ’46.

“On the bulletin boards we had the names of all of the former students who was in the service, along with the faculty. Then we had another list of those boys and faculty members that had been killed. So I thought I was going to go into the service and probably be killed,” Casey said.

It was a different time, the alumni said. When air conditioning meant opening windows. And streetcars crisscrossed Atlanta, not interstates.

The time made Boys’ High possible, said former congressman Elliot Levitas, class of ‘48.

“It was right after the Depression,” said Levitas. “The faculty was made up of people who were normally in other fields. And then the boys who came here, they just didn’t go to school. They came to be with each other.”

Atlanta grew with men like Levitas. Other students started companies or became doctors.

But today, fewer are around. Tillman said more than a hundred Boys’ High alumni have died since the reunion two years ago.

“As of yesterday, we still had 437 on our rolls. The Grim Reaper has taken a great toll on our classes and it’s not gonna get better. They’re not making any more of us,” said Tillman.

Their closest heirs are at Grady, the coed school that replaced theirs. The alumni are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to its students. They say it’s to keep the Boys’ High spirit going.

Before the reunion comes to a close, the men stand up to sing. It was one of the old songs from Boys’ High.

As the singing ends, one man shouts, “To hell with Tech High!”