By STEVEN NALLEY
It has been one year and 21 days since a powerful tornado ravaged the East Webster High School campus.
Like the Class of 2011 before them, the Class of 2012 will graduate on the school’s intact football field, giving students one last taste of home after completing their coursework on the Wood College campus, Webster County School District Superintendent Jack Treloar said. It gives the graduates a taste of home, he said, but all the students are hungry to come back to campus as they knew it before April 27, 2011.
“It’s sad for the graduates,” Treloar said. “They will actually have gone to Wood College for this entire school year. We will have another group of graduates next year who will also complete their education at Wood College. (Graduation on the football field is) the best thing we can offer them.”
It’s been a long wait, but the wait is almost halfway over.
Staff from EWHS, WCSDS and Panola Construction Company held a groundbreaking ceremony for new facilities on the EWHS campus Friday which drew crowds of alumni, students, teachers and community members.
By August 2013, Treloar said Panola is expected to complete the first phase, a new academic facility with a cafeteria and auditorium. After the tornado, the student body adopted the slogan “Bigger, Better, Stronger,” and Treloar said the new facilities will reflect that slogan.
For instance, Treloar said he estimated the new auditorium will have about 500 seats; the old one had about 400. He said there are also elements reminiscent of the original campus.
“You’ll notice the archway coming into the new school; that is a direct reflection of what we lost coming into the old school,” Treloar said. “The resilience of our community, our student body, is second to none, and it certainly is reflected in this building. We can’t thank this community enough. Our insurance company stepped in, FEMA stepped in, people have stepped up to the plate. Our legislators have gotten involved. It is a total community project.”
A second phase will add in a larger gymnasium and a new field house, Treloar said, but bidding has not yet begun on this phase, so its completion date is undetermined. He said he hopes for the second phase to take as little as 18 months and no more than two years to complete.
Gary Bailey, an architect working with Panola Construction, addressed audiences at the groundbreaking said he felt privileged to be part of the event. He has worked on school buildings across the state, he said, and the EWHS community’s pride stands out to him.
“There’s plenty of places that have more money; there’s people that have more kids, that have more things in their community, but no one has more pride than Webster County schools,” Bailey said. “You love your kids, you love your teachers, you love your administrators and you do great things in public education. I want to commend you for doing what you do for children every day.”
Bill Brand, EWHS principal, also spoke at the groundbreaking, and he said he was grateful to Treloar and the school board for their hard work on bringing the project to fruition and the students for enduring life away from the campus with which they grew up.
“When we complete this new facility, we will provide our student body with a state-of-the-art environment to be in, both athletically and, most importantly, academically,” Brand said. “When we look to the future of this site, this is also a time to look back on the year and not forget April 27. It will never be forgotten, and neither will the buildings that were here before. Some of us were taught here, and we will definitely feel the loss of these buildings and these facilities we did have, but it’s much more than just the buildings that were here. Our school is not defined by our buildings or our location or what we lost. It’s defined by our community and the willingness to pitch in and help and the pride of being an East Webster Wolverine.”
One teacher with fond memories of the lost facilities is Charlotte Ray. She taught at EWHS for 35 years, she said, and she attended the school in her own youth during her father’s 30-year coaching career with the school.
“I have taught just about everybody here, and I went to school with their parents,” Ray said. “After being so disappointed when we saw it destroyed, we thought our lives were over, but now we’ve got a new beginning, and it’s going to be the most beautiful campus in north Mississippi.”