A story in the Winston-Salem Journal this morning refers to “historic” R.J. Reynolds High School and mentions that the school is 90 years old this year. Not many high schools make it to that age, at least as still-operating schools, or make it to the National Register of Historic Places. No doubt most of us remain haunted by high school, for better or for worse, but there’s something about Reynolds High School that gets — and stays — under your skin.
Even in this era, 46 years after I graduated, I find myself driving by the school when I’m in the area, to see if it has changed (not much) and if the cherry trees are still there. It always feels a little crazy to be so drawn to a place, given how miserable I was there. But anyone who went to Reynolds will understand. We were constantly reminded how privileged we were to go to Reynolds (even though it is a public high school) and the word “tradition” was heard almost daily. My readers in Britain, where schools are hundreds and hundreds of years old, will think this funny. But we Americans, of course, measure our history on a shorter scale.
In these parts, if you went to Reynolds High School, you leave it on your resume no matter your age or other achievements. One of North Carolina’s senators, Richard Burr, graduated from Reynolds in 1974, and this fact is mentioned on his Wikipedia page.
The school does have an interesting history. It was partly tobacco money that paid for the school and its rather grand auditorium. Katherine Smith Reynolds, widow of R.J. Reynolds, donated land for the auditorium in 1918. The school opened in 1923, the auditorium in 1924. One of the traditions of the school is that the ghost of Katherine Smith Reynolds still haunts the auditorium. And in fact it is the auditorium which haunts me to this day, more than the school. The auditorium seemed as grand to me then as Carnegie Hall does today, and it was similarly a temple of music. Winston-Salem, partly because of cultural advantages handed down by its Moravian settlers, and partly because of the patronage of old money (Hanes, Reynolds, and Gray), punched above its weight musically. I even had the stage to myself once in 1966, when I gave an organ performance during the annual Key Club Follies. The orchestral and choral music I heard in that auditorium were critical to my early music education. My high school music theory class sometimes met on the stage, when we needed access to the big Steinway.
But of all the music that haunts me from that era, it’s one thing in particular that stands out — the school hymn, “Her Portals Tall and Wide.” It was written in 1933 by a student whom the older teachers remembered, B.C. Dunford Jr. It was generally sung a capella in clear four-part harmony by the school chorus, with the chorus located in the upper balcony for the best acoustical effect, and always with the lights dimmed. Sometimes the members of the chorus held candles. It was more than a tradition; it was a sacred ritutal. This hymn is always mentioned in histories and reminiscences, but I am unable to find a single recording of it. I must put that to rights and record it at the organ. No doubt the current chorus teacher (I hope they still have chorus teachers) could provide me with the score.
P.S. to the current principal: The fourth floor was still used in the 1960s. I had Spanish classes up there.