From The Ridge - The McCallie Blog

A Spot on Main Street

Posted by Alumni Contributor on September 26, 2011


Thank you. Just thought you’d like to know that this is the same McCallie necktie I wore in 1976. Now if I could only say the same about my blue blazer.

A few weeks ago I received an email from the Alumni office’s Mitzi Smith, asking me to contact her. Being a sports writer, I assumed she wanted to know the latest on Georgia football coach Mark Richt’s shaky job security, since she’s a UGA grad and huge Bulldog fan. (By the way, Mitzi, your Dawgs are leading Ole Miss 24-7 near the end of the first half.)

But she instead asked if I would briefly address today’s luncheon on what it means to be a McCallie alumnus.

After making sure she understood that I’m a writer, not a speaker, I was assured that the school didn’t expect Shakespeare or the Gettysburg Address.

“Then you probably won’t be disappointed,” I replied.

However, this past Monday Mitzi also informed me that I would be the first alum in McCallie’s 106-year history to take on this assignment. And if you fail, she said gently, you might be the last. Talk about pressure.

Still, it is with great pride that I stand before you today, mostly because it is a tremendous honor to represent my class on the occasion of our 35th reunion.

Ah, 1976, our nation’s bicentennial, which has caused many of us to forever view ourselves as the Spirit of ’76.

After all, this was the summer of endless fireworks, tall ships in the harbors, and an Olympic gold medal winning performance by our U.S. men’s basketball team, which was coached by North Carolina legend Dean Smith, who also just happens to be the father of our class’s Scott Smith.

Praise without criticism is a lack of real interest, and the McCallie faculty has never been accused of that, either during our time as students or, in many cases, for the rest of our lives.

Thirty-five years later, Scott and his wife Kelli are seated a few feet from me, at least partly because their son Brian is a McCallie junior, one of 19 sons from our class to follow in their father’s footsteps. That’s surely as good an example as any of how much the class of ’76 enjoyed and appreciated its time here.

Of course, every alum gathered in this magnificent dining hall believes that his class is the best or most unique. And that’s as it should be.

But I would humbly argue that on at least three important points, our class stands alone.

For starters, we were the last to graduate from the old buildings -- North, Middle and South Halls.

Maybe McCallie picked that moment on the school’s timeline as a way to honor us, or maybe it chose that demolition and reconstruction as a way to put our class behind it, but we’re a part of history either way.

So, too, are the four state sports championships we won as seniors -- baseball, swimming, tennis and wrestling all adding trophies to the Blue Tornado hardware collection.

Finally, we’re the class that spawned the “E-team,” that infamous gang of 11 who decided to dump a little Tidy-Bowl into the Girls Preparatory School fountain late one evening, then leave a pointed message written in blue food dye for GPS’s few misguided Baylor supporters.

Headmaster Spencer McCallie III -- who came to power our junior year -- didn’t necessarily find humor in that exercise. He sentenced the group to an extended stay in E-class and more than a few bullring laps. But it certainly added to our legacy.

Ironically, those old buildings, though full of charm, history and memories, were also an initial obstacle to me coming here.

In the spring of 1974, my parents were pretty much fed up with me and with good reason. Having moved from my hometown of Hopkinsville, Ky., (population 24,000), to Birmingham, Ala., in junior high, I had done nothing but whine about that uprooting ever since.

In a last-ditch effort to appease me, they asked if I would consider boarding school. A few weeks later, in one of the most serendipitous moments of my life, I ran into an old friend from Hoptown while standing on Disneyworld’s Main Street during spring break. He was now going to McCallie and said I should, too.

Three weeks later, on a Tuesday, my parents and I took a tour of the campus and met with administrators. The grass was calf-high that day, the dorms and academic buildings a bit disheveled, the food mediocre.

My mother -- the world’s biggest cleanliness freak -- turned to my father as we headed home and said, “I don’t know if I can send my son here.”

My father replied, “Don’t judge this school by its looks. Judge it by what they do here, and they do great things inside these walls.”

Three days later I was riding a Greyhound bus back to Chattanooga for something called McCallie Weekend. Magically, the grounds looked like Augusta National, we were served shrimp and steak for Saturday dinner and Whirlwind enchanted us inside the Chapel.

I was hooked.

Two springs later, I designed the posters and backdrop for Whirlwind. Thirty-five years later, my mother -- who went to work two years earlier than she had planned in order to cover the cost of McCallie as well as the money she had intended to earn for college tuition for my sister and me -- still contributes to the Sustaining Fund.

But to return to point -- and Mitzi, my editors should have told you I sometimes detour from the intended subject -- what DOES it mean to be a McCallie grad?

On a casual level, it’s feeling that pride swell in your chest at the same time a smile crosses your face as you see our current students rig PVC pipes to their cars or trucks and pull giant bed sheets painted with big, blue Ms through town on reunion weekends such as this.

It’s understanding that nationally-known figures such as Ted Turner, Olan Mills, Pat Robertson, Howard Baker and Bill Brock all walked this campus before our class.

It’s knowing that Robertson’s son, Gordon, who pretty much dominates the 700 Club television time his father once ruled, was a classmate.

It’s seeing Pulitzer Prize-winning author and former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham’s latest opus on the best-seller list and knowing he’s a McCallie grad, class of 1987, which always gets me to thinking, nobody that young can be that smart, but he is.

It’s knowing my South Hutch roommate and fellow prefect Houston Hunt -- possibly the nicest and best person I’ve ever known -- is one of McCallie’s newest board members.

It’s also our class’s Zach Wamp -- once our day student council president -- serving eight terms in the U.S. Congress before an unsuccessful run for governor last year. (A sidenote: I was the boarding council president opposite Zach. Apparently you can only advance your political career so far by promising later curfews and more television time to underclassmen.)

On a far more personal note, for the Spirit of '76, it’s Klein Time. Bobby Klein was still one of our best and brightest when last we gathered here five years ago. Arriving from his adult home of Port St. Lucie, Fla., he brought his wonderful wife Susie and charming sons Ethan and Peyton along for the weekend, the four of them cheering another McCallie football victory over Baylor inside Finley Stadium.

And, yes, Peyton is named for who you think he is.

But less than two years later on Memorial Day of 2008, Bobby Klein drowned off the coast of Florida while performing the single most heroic act in the history of our class. His sons caught in a violent undertow, Bobby swam out to save them. The boys survived, Bobby did not.

In our collective grief, our class’s chief cheerleader, Rusty Scott, decided we should gather for lunch at least once a month to honor Bobby’s memory. We’d call it Klein Time. Sometimes it’s four or five of us. Sometimes 12 or 14, but it’s now lasted more than three years, which seems remarkable to all who hear of it.

As our class celebrated Reunion No. 30 five years ago, our Paul Gamble asked the question, “What did McCallie do to make us love it so?’

There are as many answers to that question as there are McCallie grads, for no two people will view their time here quite the same.

But Spirit of ‘76er Joe McFalls provided one reason a couple of nights ago at our Thursday night class party. His daughter Kaycee is currently in the Honors College at Alabama after graduating near the top of her class at a highly-respected private high school in that state.

But she rarely enjoyed her time there because her outstanding academic work was never praised nearly as much as the school’s athletes.

Always, it means never having to say you’re sorry about your alma mater. Not once has anyone who’s considering sending a son here asked me about my experience that I haven’t said, “It’s the best thing you’ll ever do for your son. It’s the best money you’ll ever spend. You’ll never regret it.”

Said Joe, “That’s one thing I always remember about McCallie. Yes, the athletes were recognized, but Spence the Third would lead the same cheers for the Math team or the Debate team. If you did something well, the school always saluted you for it.”

And when you fell short, they always called you on it.

One of the best days of my life here was when Skinny Jimmy Henderson gave me a perfect grade on the first 500-word theme I wrote for his composition class.

Conversely, one of the worst days was when Cleve Latham -- who began his remarkable Creative Writing class during our senior year -- gave me a low C for a lame story I wrote about feeling like a three-legged chicken after a particularly embarrassing moment in my life.

Praise without criticism is a lack of real interest, and the McCallie faculty has never been accused of that, either during our time as students or, in many cases, for the rest of our lives.

Or don’t you think it’s somewhat remarkable that our class’s Rob Taylor still grills steaks at least once a month with retired faculty giants such as Miles McNiff and Steve George, who is expected to drop by our class party tonight.

What does it mean to be a McCallie alum?

It means any time you come to a home football game, you’ll see Rusty working the chain gang, still willing and ready to do anything for the Blue Tornado.

On these wonderful reunion weekends, it also means our own Groovy Greg Goodwin, in all his sartorial splendor -- including, in his words, “My Arts and Crafts Gators hat, complete with orange and blue plumes” -- creating good-time memories we’ll never forget.

Always, it means never having to say you’re sorry about your alma mater. Not once has anyone who’s considering sending a son here asked me about my experience that I haven’t said, “It’s the best thing you’ll ever do for your son. It’s the best money you’ll ever spend. You’ll never regret it.”

Everyone in this room can probably agree these are difficult times on all fronts. To walk through any “Big Box” department store is to see a nation adrift, seemingly on the verge of drowning in a septic sea of super-sized fries, maxed-out credit cards, tattoos, reality TV, divide-to-conquer politics, lottery tickets, video games and Internet sleaze.

To slightly alter a line from Animal House, it’s as if the masses have adopted the motto, “Yes, I’m fat, lazy and stupid. What’s it to you?”

But not here. To enter this campus is to return to a world where our school’s four cornerstones -- Honor, Truth, Duty and "Man’s Chief End is to Glorify God and to Enjoy Him Forever" -- remain unbreakable and unshakeable.

Yes, we’ve changed, as all things must to survive. We now offer Chinese as not just a menu choice in this dining hall, but also as a language. We’ve gone decidedly green. We’re about to have almost as many boarders as day students.

But on the big points, the things that shape our character and our values, McCallie remains stubbornly -- and thankfully -- steadfast to its ideals and standards.

Or as my wife has noted on more than one occasion, “You can always tell the McCallie boys in church. They’re the ones with the perfect manners and imperfect hair.”

Two years ago, my mother-in-law having treated my wife, two young daughters and me to a week at Disneyworld, I ushered them to the exact spot on Main Street where my childhood friend first told me about this grand school.

“This is the spot that changed my life,” I said.

And that, for me anyway, is what it most means to be a McCallie alumnus.

Mr. Wiedmer, a veteran reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, was one of two alumni speakers at this year's Reunion Weekend.

Topics: alumni, Alumni News, boys, education, First Person, Posts from the Ridge

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