Chowan Bulldogs share memories

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Class of 80' alumnus Kim Ober Ullom talks to her daughter Laura Ullom about photography -- a critical component to any reunion.

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By Miles Layton

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

When living legends gathered Saturday for the Chowan High School's multi-class reunion, there were stories to be told for sure.

But there was a question that needed to answered about why that experience echoes an eternity within the minds of all alumni, teachers and staff as they shared memories. What makes this school special because that answer relates to why attend the reunion.

Alumni pride and being connected to classmates does not exist in all places, perhaps more often in bigger cities where students attending larger schools are nothing but numbers.

For many decades, CHS educated generations of students who not only transformed their community maybe because they didn't need to ruby slippers needed to know “There's no place like home.”

To check out a video about CHS produced by Hannah Banana Photography of Tyner, go to: https://youtu.be/V6wzBhszVYM

A starting point for this journey in search of truth began with the oldest alumnus to attend the reunion, Eleanor Evans Byrum, a member of the graduating Class of ’42 when 37 seniors received diplomas.

“As far as I know, there are only two who are still living,” said Byrum, 92, of Tyner.

Byrum grew up in that iconic two-story white farm house known by many in Rocky Hock as Jasper Evans' homeplace. Surrounded by sprawling fields of corn or cotton then as now, the kids in this stretch of land didn't have it easy. That's why folks like Byrum grew up with strong values.

Prior to attending CHS, Byrum along with her brothers, sisters and the kids in her class walked about a mile away along dirt roads to Gum Pond School, where seven grades of students were taught in one classroom. When the time came to go to high school, Byrum's pedal power took a back seat to riding a school bus.

“When I first started going to Chowan High School, I loved riding the bus because my first seven years of school, we walked to school,” she said. “That was a real treat to be able to ride the bus.”

One trip in particular stands out in Byrum's mind all these years later when she fell out of the bus. By coincidence or perhaps guided by God's hand, the CHS Reunion book opened to the page where Byrum tells the tale of her fall from the middle seat at the back of the bus.

“As the bus driver pulled out on the Route 32, it caused me to lean against the back door,” she said. “The door opened and I fell onto the rock driveway with another bus close behind us. Both drivers stopped, jumped out and asked if I was hurt – no injuries, just a few bruises. I thank God that He was protecting me as He always does and continues to bless me each day.”

After graduating from CHS, Byrum earned a secretarial degree from Coastal Business College in Norfolk before she returned to Edenton to work at Chowan County's Department of Public Welfare, a forerunner to the county's Department of Social Services. Byrum was married to Leon for 55 years and they raised a family. Though Leon died in 2005, the family left a lasting legacy as the proud parents of mother three children, five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild – five generations.

“I've been in Chowan County my whole life,” she said. “It's the greatest. I wouldn't trade it for anything or any other county.”

Faith is important to Byrum.

“I still go to Rocky Hock Baptist Church where Pastor James Horton preaches,” she said. “I've been sick recently and unable to attend church, but I really missed all that. God has been good to me and blessed me.”

Elmira Miller Ward, another alumnae from the Greatest Generation, came over to Byrum's table to say hello. There were 19 members of Ward's graduating class in 1947.

“It was wonderful,” said Ward, 90, of Tyner. “We had a good time there. We did everything together. We were close-knit and stayed together.”

After graduation, Ward married George, now deceased, and they raised a family in Chowan County. Many of Ward's friends and neighbors attended the reunion.

“I've gotten to talk with a lot of people and see where they are living now,” she said. “It is really nice to be here. I wasn't coming until my son-in-law said to me, 'You have to go because you may be one of the oldest ones from your class – you should do it.' And I came. Of the 19 who graduated with me, we have maybe seven left. I asked them if they would come. I'm the one that came. I'm here by myself from my class, but it's nice to be here with all these people.”

Principals with principles

Fast forward a few decades to 1979 when Steve Evans earned his diploma. He attended Pitt Community College, worked at the Newport News Shipyard and for the federal government in Norfolk. He married a Virginia girl known to many as White Oak Principal Sheila Evans. They raised a family in Rocky Hock – God's country. During Evans' days at CHS, he was known by many as BMOC – Big Man on Campus – because he was an active student as an athlete who played baseball and basketball, as well being a member of the Drama Club and the school's formidable chapter of the Future Farmers of America.

“I've never moved – been here all my life,” Evans said. “I've worked in Virginia for 36 years and I'm getting ready to retire next month, but I've lived in Rocky Hock – a good place to live. Chowan High School has always been 'it' you know.”

When Evans saw his high school principal Gilliam Underwood in the crowd, he had to say hello.

The two men greeted each other with a handshake and talked old stories before Evans introduced the Chowan Herald to Underwood, who had a long career in education that stretched back to the late 1950s. Still sharp as a tack, Evans shared his reasons for attending the reunion.

“I came out here today to see such a fabulous group of people,” Underwood said. “These are the best people in the world. You can go all over the world if you want to, but the best people you will find live in Chowan County and Rocky Hock. If you live in Rocky Hock, you live in God's country. Working – these were the best years of my life.”

Underwood smiled when he recognized Willie Koonce, a longtime coach for Chowan County schools.

“There are a lot of memories, a lot of memories,” Koonce said. “When I started coaching, it was Chowan High School and when I finished coaching, it was Chowan Middle School. That was a transition from coaching varsity and junior varsity to middle school teams.”

Koonce greeted the man who hired him in 1976 – both men would serve as principals during their long careers as educators. They talked names, places and teams – the best times. But being as this was a rare opportunity to corner two principals, this Watch DOGS' volunteer (see page A6) thought back to his own experience being around White Oak Elementary students, thus the question had to be asked about what each man thought was best about being a principal so as to learn more about being an educator.

Apparently, the men laughed as they agreed when they said the best part about being a principal is not “busting” kids who misbehave.

“The best part about being a principal is that you get to build a better relationship with kids,” said Koonce, who was attending the reunion with wife Gloria, a respected educator at White Oak Elementary. “You see them on a different level than in the classroom where they are trying to understand the content of the subject material. Being a principal, you get to see them outside the classroom and can develop a different relationship with them.”

Underwood added, “The best part was going into each and every classroom, observing the kids and how they respond to the teachers and their instructional approach. Among the kids, that's where you learn what's going on in the schools.”

Class of 1967 alumnus Rob Boyce had a long career as a teacher and administrator for Chowan County Schools. While working at Chowan High School, Boyce taught health and physical education, coached basketball and baseball as well as a tour of duty as assistant principal.

As to being a student turned alumnus who goes back to his alma mater to teach, Boyce had good memories.

“It was fun,” he said. “I was young then and it was all really good. As a student, we had a really good basketball team my senior when we made it to the second round of the state playoffs. We had a great time and certainly that was a memorable time for us. Beating Edenton in high school was a big deal for us. When I was coaching baseball, we beat Edenton so that was a good time. We were the smaller of the two schools so any time we did well it was a a big deal for us.”

Later, Boyce served as principal at John A. Holmes before going to work as assistant superintendent for the school system before he retired in 2009. Moments after hugging Laverna Copeland, a respected member of the faculty, Boyce explained why it was important to attend the reunion.

“I'm here tonight to celebrate with the Chowan Bulldogs all of our years of togetherness,” he said. “Small school, rural school – everybody knew each other. Everybody loved each other; focus of the community. I just wanted to be a part of that.”

Hoops’ stars

Since CHS had more than its fair share of trophies won over the years, the story demanded an athlete's perspective. The small school earned respect for its basketball and baseball teams and Kevin Cooke was a part of that success.

“I wanted to come back to see some of my old schoolmates, teammates at the reunion and to enjoy the people I went to school with,” said Cooke, Class of 1980 – the high school's last graduating class. “We were a close-knit group of students – black and white – racism was not even a word. We really liked to be around one another. Sports was a main emphasis. We had the FFA. We had basketball, baseball – no football until my senior year when they allowed the students from Chowan to go to Edenton to play.”

After graduation, Cooke attended Pitt Community College and East Carolina University before landing a job at the shipyards in Newport News. For the past 27 years, Cooke has worked for the state's Ferry division – a top job for this Bulldogs' alumnus.

“The best part about being a Bulldog is wearing those school colors -- maroon and gold – on game day,” said Cooke, who dressed in school colors for the reunion. “Game nights, we were proud. We knew basketball. One of the great feats we had was beating Northeastern, a 4A school. We beat them 83-69.”

Class of 1980 alumnus Victor Freeman was a 6' 3” tall point guard for the school's top hoops team – District Runner-up who were defeated in the eastern finals by the Pantego Warriors who were state champions two years in a row.

“Comradery – that was best part about playing from Chowan,” Freeman said. “We were a close team. We loved playing with each other.”

Cooke recalled that he was only white player on the team.

“No one ever said anything to me about white or black,” he said. “There was no racism whatsoever – not toward me or any one of my friends.”

And could the white boy play?

Freeman didn't miss a beat when he answered, “Oh yeah! I thought he was lot like Larry Bird (Boston Celtics legend).”

After graduation, Freeman served in the Air Force before becoming a corrections officer within prison systems in North Carolina and Nevada. In fact, Freeman flew in from Las Vegas to attend the reunion.

“I haven't seen these people in 20 to 30 years – I had to come,” he said. “I think this reunion is great because you get to see a lot of people that you went to school with some of the people were a class ahead of you and behind you.”

After Arnold Sanford Jr., Class of 1980, joined his hoops teammates for a photo, he shared a touching memory that illustrates what makes CHS alumni special.

“For me, the best experience, my most memorable moment, was the support I got from classmates and faculty during a time of need and loss for me after my father died in 1978,” he said.

After graduation, Sanford attended college in Atlanta before earning top jobs with a grocery company and later an industrial supply company.

“I think my time at Chowan High School helped instill in me the values that I have today,” he said. “I was originally born in Brooklyn and moved to Edenton when I was 9-years-old, so I got to spend nine years in the city and nine years in the country. I would not have learned certain ethics or certain qualities had I not moved to the country. I actually enjoyed my experience here. I feel like all children should see both sides of it – the city and country. I learned a good work ethic.”

Does Sanford miss his time in high school – a natural question for anyone attending a reunion.

Sanford smiled and said, “I miss the people I went to school with – I do – but I wouldn't want to do high school again.”