John Shearer: Reconnecting With Bright And Baylor Alma Maters Amid Joy And Somberness

  • Monday, October 2, 2023
  • John Shearer
Gathering at Bright were, from left, Janet Reeve, Cathy Morris, Herndon Elliott, John Shearer, Laura Shearer, Lucie Stephens Holland and Kathaleen Scott Hughes
Gathering at Bright were, from left, Janet Reeve, Cathy Morris, Herndon Elliott, John Shearer, Laura Shearer, Lucie Stephens Holland and Kathaleen Scott Hughes
photo by Deanna Luna

Within the last week or so, I have enjoyed a whirlwind of activities related to both my former elementary school alma mater, Bright School, and Baylor School, where I attended from the seventh through 12th grades.

Bright was kind to recognize me for some small volunteer work among other awards they gave out in connection with their Founder’s Week, and my Baylor class of 1978 had its 45-year reunion as part of the school’s Alumni Weekend.

While they were both quite enjoyable, they also had a tinge of sadness, especially of course the news that 2003 Baylor graduate Chris Wright was shot and killed in downtown Chattanooga while walking back to his car late at night.

Back in July, Bright School alumni affairs director Elizabeth Davis had kindly emailed me and said the school wanted to present me with the Jack McDonald Distinguished Service Award. I think it was mainly for helping my class plan its 50-year reunion back in 2022 and trying to stay connected periodically with classmates through an email group list I have.

As one who has chosen to enter professions like writing and college adjunct teaching, I am unfortunately not of the means to help either school a lot financially, as so many of my successful classmates at both schools have been. So, I have tried to find other ways to support them.

While I was excited and totally flattered and humbled to receive the award along with staff member and alum Emily Hon, who had been presented hers back during the school year, it did come with one small request. Would I mind speaking to the roughly 40 to 45 fifth graders on the day of the luncheon very briefly?

As one who dreads any kind of formal public speaking like Don Knotts’ character did in the classic movie, “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken,” I was admittedly a little nervous. That was enhanced knowing that a few school officials and invited guests of Distinguished Alumnus recipients Spencer McCallie and Herb Barks might also be in attendance.

Anyway, as last Monday, Sept. 25, approached, I got a little more nervous, despite regularly teaching a college adjunct journalism class informally and giving announcements in my Sunday school class. Of course, I also get nervous just anticipating going to the dentist or medical doctor or sometimes sitting in certain packed crowds.

Do any of you all have issues like that?

But to my relief, when my time came to speak after Spencer McCallie, the retired headmaster of McCallie, comfortably talked about some of his family connections to Bright and his memories of founder Mary Gardner Bright, I handled the roughly 5-to-10-minute talk OK.

I tried to connect to the students by asking them about their favorite foods or subjects or about playing sports at Bright while I shared my memories, and it turned out fine. That is, despite getting cotton mouth at one point near the end after taking a sip of my bottle of water before I started, with some of the water spilling on the front of my pants to add another bit of drama.

Afterward, we had a nice and delicious lunch under the pavilion with school head Kristin Watts, some other Bright officials, Mr. McCallie and his guests, and my guests and me. The school had encouraged me to invite some people, so classmates and old friends Herndon Elliott, Lucie Stephens Holland, and Kathaleen Scott Hughes kindly attended along with our sixth-grade teacher, Janet Reeve, and my sister, fellow Bright graduate Cathy Morris, and my wife, Laura.

I got to sit during the lunch with longtime civil rights advocate and public-school educator Franklin McCallie, and his wife, Tresa, and enjoyed that, although he jokingly said he was taken aback when I told the students I had gone to Baylor.

I was afraid they were going to have another presentation at the lunch, and I would have to make some brief remarks again, but to my pleasure, the announcement in the school’s theater before my talk was the main program.

Mr. McCallie had ably served as headmaster of McCallie for several years before his retirement in 1999 and had followed in the footsteps of his founding family, while fellow Distinguished Alumnus honoree Herb Barks was the headmaster at Baylor, also eventually following his father there. The latter was my headmaster.

Now close to 90, Dr. Barks has had some health issues that kept him from attending, although school head Ms. Watts said she had been able to visit with him and let him know of the award this summer.

Much in the spirit of a great orator, Dr. Barks has a natural way of inspiring and communicating in front of an audience, and he would have added a lot to the program, much more than my humble remarks. His absence to receive yet another piece of recognition for him added a tinge of sadness to the event, at least in my mind. But I am glad he was deservedly honored.

Since I have maybe received only one other award in my life since I was named Substitute with the Best Spirit at my Baylor football banquet my senior year, I tried to have fun with the award and have cherished it and even openly shared about it to some friends and family. I was given a nice Billy Parker print of Bright, and I am now proudly hanging it in our den.

And speaking of Baylor, I later in the week gathered with some Baylor classmates of long ago for our 45-year reunion. Although our class might not have shown it way back when we were graduating and we were somewhat disconnected with certain groups hanging more around each other, etc., as is typical of most high school senior classes, we have since become close collectively.

In fact, we are now known as the special class at Baylor for leading in number of annual fund donors to the school, having several classmates serve on the board of trustees, including recent chairman Ryan Crimmins, etc. Many have become quite successful, particularly in the business, financial and development/construction realms, and I realize I trail most of them in the financial comfort category due to my professions of choice.

But none of that seems to matter to everyone, and I never really hear that brought up at reunions. We are always too busy catching up with each other in a positive and supportive way and feel a brotherhood of wanting to wish each other well at this point in our lives due to our shared and mostly positive experiences as teenagers.

So, it was in that spirit that we gathered for a class tailgate in a parking lot across Dodds Avenue from the entrance to McCallie before the McCallie-Baylor football game last Friday night. Maybe a good 25 or 30 attended out of a class now numbering in about the low 90s due to several unfortunate deaths, so that was a good number for a reunion, we felt. A few had also taken part in the school’s alumni golf tournament the day before at the McLemore Club.

We had heard about the tragic shooting the night before that claimed the life of younger Baylor alum Chris Wright and that has been making top news in the days since, and that no doubt cast a slightly somber pall over the gathering.

That was compassionately brought up a little while later by the McCallie chaplain or spiritual director during the pregame prayer before the football game between No. 1 McCallie and No. 2 Baylor I saw amid one of the biggest crowds I had seen for a game between the two schools. My friend, Kurt Schmissrauter, who did not go to Baylor but knows some of the classmates, went with me. As a result, I was able to keep my streak alive of attending every Baylor-McCallie game dating to 1986 – when Kurt and I also went to the game at McCallie.

It looked like the 2023 game could have gone either way. And I actually thought my alma mater would win when the Red Raiders had a four-point lead over McCallie about midway through the fourth quarter. That was when the McCallie quarterback appeared to fumble in the end zone and a Baylor player recovered inside the 5-yard line after looking like he might scoop and score.

But then the officials said the quarterback had simply thrown an incompletion, but it was still fourth down for McCallie, and the Blue Tornado had to punt from their end zone, which still seemed good.

However, the Baylor player tried to field a bouncing long punt, which coaches usually discourage except in unusual situations, but he could not secure it after touching it. As a result, the McCallie player pounced on it. Suddenly, the momentum shifted greatly amid the roaring McCallie faithful, and the Big Blue under the highly successful coach Ralph Potter would win, 34-31.

The niceties of the reunion had quickly disappeared as I disappointedly walked back with Kurt to his car amid the loud booming of McCallie’s Fourth of July-like postgame fireworks celebration.

I said hello and goodbye to a few classmates briefly as we were getting in the car, and I went home and hit the pillow hard over the loss, even though I have learned not to take Baylor losses, even against McCallie, overly hard.

The next day, I got up and, after going somewhere to take some pictures related to one of my stories I was writing, I went over to the Baylor alumni luncheon. I was to meet an old friend from another class, Charlie Franck, who was driving up from Atlanta, but he was running late. So, I got in line thinking I would have to eat by myself, since a lot of my classmates were not attending the lunch.

But there in line was friendly classmate Jack Hooten, who lives in Virginia now and has enjoyed a career in nursing and formerly was in the military. We had a delightful time catching up with each other and later walked over and saw the new dorm, Howalt Hall, which was expanded onto the old Lupton Annex classroom building.

That night, after watching on TV my Georgia Bulldogs survive against a gritty and determined and revamped Auburn Tigers on the road, I went to the Saturday night alumni gathering for many of the classes at the Baylor indoor tennis facility.

The class of 1973 celebrating its 50-year reunion met at the dining hall area along with those who graduated before that. And I understand the school at the last minute moved the Class of 2003 reunion to the wrestling facility so they could support each other more privately in the somber moment and remember their recently deceased classmate, Mr. Wright.

Our class had a special section in the tennis facility, and it was fun catching up with everyone again as I tried to take a few pictures of some classmates to send out to everyone. Besides all the great classmates from Chattanooga or nearby I might see fairly regularly, I enjoyed catching up with Mark Grigsby of the Dallas area, who, unlike the rest of us, has managed to keep his body frame as slender as when we were in school.

And our standout fullback Bill Healey had come all the way from the United Arab Emirates for the reunion. Despite his work in the international financial sector and having lived in London and elsewhere, it was just like old times. We were all back together as Baylor classmates, and I enjoyed it, even though I was probably once one of the quieter and shier members of the class, or I usually spent time more with neighborhood or church youth friends on weekends.

I also tried to follow the No. 1 rule of attending reunions – include in the conversation and banter the spouses and dates not connected to the school, especially your own!

My wife, Laura, kindly attended the Saturday evening event for almost two hours before we gently slipped back into the present from the past.

It was a great time of reminiscing, although we wondered where a small number of lost and missing classmates were.

And I realized my classmates and I will soon get another reminder that we are not getting any younger, because the next formal reunion of our class will be our 50th.

Oops! But with the hopeful good fortune of our creator, many of us will once again gather to reminisce and remember happy times, and – most of all – be there to support each other.

* * *

Baylor Class of 1978 at McCallie football game tailgate gathering in connection with 45-year reunion
Baylor Class of 1978 at McCallie football game tailgate gathering in connection with 45-year reunion photo by
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