History: Remember the First Titans: Starting a School, Ending an Era

History: Remember the First Titans: Starting a School, Ending an Era

The T.C. Williams High School graduating class of 1967.

The T.C. Williams High School graduating class of 1967.

Although tens of thousands have graduated from T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria since it opened in 1965, only the very earliest classes know what it was like to start up the new high school, and how fast its innocence was to come undone.

The first class, which graduated in 1967, is celebrating its 50th anniversary on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 21 and 22, 2017 (details at www.tcwclassof1967.com). That class wants to remind all of us what it was like in the earliest days of TC, as it started a trajectory that spans a half a century, thousands of graduates, worldwide fame — and a lightning rip in the social order.

When TC began operations in 1965, the spirit of the age included uptight dress codes, short male hair, hall passes, cafeteria lunches, censored school publications, go go dances, sneaked underage beer, cigarette smoking on school property with parent permission, a smoldering war in Vietnam, and generally strong support of the policies of the U.S. government, which had set us on a course of prosperity unequaled in American history. The British Invasion was just starting to open things up in 1965 — at least as far as music and hair was concerned — with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the vanguard, but much more than hair was changing on the minds its growing length covered.

This innocent, post ‘50s/early ‘60s age crept along until the month that the TCW ‘67 class graduated. The old ways collapsed as if a switch had been thrown when the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco ignited the hippie era. Youth hair came down as fast as it could grow, the buttoned down dress codes unbuttoned, abused substances skipped from beer and tobacco to marijuana and LSD, bathing became optional for some and love — previously rationed — became free for almost all.

1967 was the year that the first Super Bowl was played, the Big Mac was cooked up, Aretha Franklin sought “Respect,” Elvis married Priscilla, “Hair” sprouted and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas wrote “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)” for his friend Scott McKenzie — who had attended George Washington High School in Alexandria with Phillips — who turned it into the Summer of Love anthem.

None were more amazed at the tectonic shifts than the TCW class of ‘67 who left for the novelty of college and jobs, trying to deal with the concurrent and much greater novelty of the social upheaval in the second half of the 20th century. Although that upheaval in the summer 1967 eclipsed the memory of the two first years of T.C. Williams High School for most, it is still important to remember that TC was a much different place when the class of ‘67 entered and when it left.

T.C. WILLIAMS, named for Alexandria School Superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams, was designed from the beginning to be exceptional. The $6 million building — a huge sum at the time — was state of the art, the first air-conditioned high school in Alexandria, and constructed surrounding two cores.

The first core was a gym, and integrated physical fitness into the center of the school rather than relegate it more traditionally to an outbuilding. The second core, the auditorium, was designed with acoustics mirroring the Lincoln Center in N.Y., and boasted an orchestra pit and electronic stage management. Because of its capacity and up to date design, it served for many years as the largest venue for performances — both academic and otherwise — in Alexandria, and hosted thousands of civic events, from orchestras and ballets to government meetings.

The staffing of the school was to be exceptional as well. The Alexandria School Board searched the state of Virginia for a top principal to head their new endeavor. They hired Harold Secord, principal of Jefferson Senior High in Roanoke to get things underway. He remained a well liked and respected TC principal for many years and stayed in Alexandria for the rest of his life. He is commemorated by Harold Secord Lane in Alexandria near Cameron Station.

That first class started school in an often noisy construction site. The school plant, innovatively designed by local architect Joseph H. Saunders (whose son was a member of the class of ‘67), took much longer to build than anticipated. It was cheaper for the contractor to pay the late fees than add more staff to finish on time. When it opened for school in September 1965, there were still workers everywhere and wet cement in the halls and stairwells that students had to cross on boards.

The student body was organized into three different halls, King, Braddock, and Quaker, each with its own dean, to create “schools within the school” and give a feeling of smaller size while keeping administrators closer to the students. Although their assigned hall gave students their guidance counselors and first line administrators, students took classes and moved freely throughout the school.

TC began without a senior class. No one wanted to move seniors from the other two Alexandria high schools, George Washington and Francis C. Hammond, for their last year in a new school. This arrangement gave the class of 1967 a gift rare and wonderful for any high schooler: they got to be the top class in their school two years in a row. For many of those in the class, this was the highlight of their academic careers, but one they gave up the next year to become the lowest rung of college or a workplace.

STARTING AT A NEW SCHOOL also meant that those first students got to launch many of the traditions of TC — such as naming the Titans, composing the student publications, penning the fight song, choreographing the prom at the Army-Navy Country Club, playing the Junior Senior Powder Puff football game, and gonging contestants at the Senior Talent Show — some of which survive to this day.

One planned tradition that never panned out was chronicled in a 2005 Washington Post article. In 1965 the students and the administration widely announced their intention to bury a time capsule to capture those beginning days for the future. However, the recollections of some students who witnessed the unresolved arguments about what music to include, coupled with the failure of the T.C. Williams original building demolition crews to find it in 2008, forced the conclusion that the capsule never made it past the discussion phase.

It is important to note that the 2000 Disney movie, ”Remember the Titans,” was not about the beginning of T.C. Williams. That movie was “based on a true story” of TC six years later in 1971, when Alexandria addressed racial imbalance in the three Alexandria high schools by making TC the senior high school and George Washington and Francis C. Hammond into 9th and 10th grade feeder schools.

While it’s not clear who said “If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there,” the first graduating class of T.C. Williams remembers the ‘60s until 1967, before everyone started doing the things that made them forget.