A Warrior legacy
As Henrico H.S. turns 50, alumni recall proud tradition
On opening day Sept. 4, 1962, tenth-grader Lee Good Hanchey was one of 1,167 students at the brand new Henrico High School, where she needed 23 units to graduate and racial diversity was practically non-existent. Teams and clubs had yet to be formed, traditions yet to be made.
“It was a clean brand new campus and very different looking from the older high schools with lots of new things to be part of,” Hanchey recalled recently. “I thought it was a very exciting place to be.”
Hanchey would go on to teach at the school she loved from 1979-2009, pioneering and guiding the Center for the Arts, helping to lead and define Warrior spirit.
This year, Henrico High School celebrates its 50th anniversary with a “Warrior Jubilee.” Hanchey, other former and current teachers and administrators, and alumni gathered around a conference table at the school last month to talk about what they’ve seen change and plans for the school’s future.
Warrior Spirit begins
The summer before the school opened in 1962, students were brought together from rival middle schools, Brookland and Fairfield, to decide the colors (green, gold and white) and pick the mascot (the Warrior). Pregame bonfires the Thursdays before homecoming were the norm and helped build unity in the newly formed community, Hanchey said.
“It was a lot of fun to gather out there and celebrate as a group, but I can’t imagine doing that today, but it was a lot of fun,” she said.
Even into the 1970s, every Friday during all sports seasons – not just football season – there was a pep rally, said Judy Whytley Ganzert, who taught at Henrico from 1974-1989.
Hanchey said that the pep rallies she attended as a student were different from those she saw as a teacher, because the whole school community was really involved.
“I remember everybody cheered, because everybody knew the cheers – they were taught the cheers,” Hanchey said. “It was a big deal – it created a tremendous amount of school spirit. It wasn’t a disengagement from school.”
Judy Ganzert fondly remembered the massive homecoming parades that would start at Azalea Mall, go through the small field, and end with two laps around the track surrounding the football field.
“The kids would spend forever dreaming up their themes and their plans and rigging their trucks, and the girls who were on homecoming court got the convertibles and rode in the convertibles,” she said. “The homecoming court would be dropped off at the main gate and the princesses would go up and sit in their little seats.”
Tom Jeremiah, the school’s director of student activities and a multi-sport coach who came to Henrico in 1985 to teach English, said that while the parades still take place, they don’t occur on the track anymore. Principal Ron Rodriguez said, with a laugh, that there are no plans to bring the bonfires back.
Curriculum and culture change
Coach, physical education and drivers’ education teacher Bo Ellett, who worked at Henrico for 38 years and retired in 2006, said that when he started at the school, there were just 12 students who weren’t white. “The changes were really gradual,” Ellett said.
Hanchey had looked forward to the newly desegregated school system when she started as a student but said that it wasn’t until she was a teacher that she saw the biggest demographic shift, particularly after the International Baccalaureate program came to the school in 1995 and the Center for the Arts in 1990.
“What I really, really loved as a teacher here was that we had kind of a mini United Nations,” Hanchey said. “We had students from every conceivable country, and it’s just a great place to teach because you have lots of different kinds of students come to this school to study.
“It made this school – and this school was already a welcoming place, the students very accepting of other people and of their talents and of their abilities, and I love that about Henrico High School.”
Ellet said that when the school added the IB program, it made him a better teacher. It also brought in different viewpoints about activities, Jeremiah said, and diversified the types of clubs the school offered.
As of 2011, the student population was 72 percent African-American, nine percent Asian, 15 percent white, three percent Hispanic and two percent other, Rodriguez said, with 47 percent of the student’s families living at the poverty level.
In 2009, Newsweek magazine ranked the school as No. 929 of its list of the top 1,500 U.S. high schools – the only Henrico County school to make the list.
“When you look at that [poverty rate] and turn and look at the success rate and the achievement level we get at Henrico High School, it’s still very high. We’re very proud of that,” said Ganzert, who left Henrico in 1989 to become the specialist for social studies for Henrico County Public Schools.
Expectations and support
Sometime in the last half-century, the attitudes of some alumni toward the school changed and multi-generational attendance and support waned.
“Lee and I, in working on the 50th, are trying our hardest to change some alumni thinking about what Henrico is today,” said Lynette Riddell Metzger, class of ‘72. “Unfortunately, some people say, ‘I don’t want to go back to that school; I don’t want to be on that campus for a football game.’ We’re like, ‘What?’ Lee and I don’t get it, but we’re trying to understand.”
That’s also Jeremiah’s greatest frustration.
“Somebody whose child is going to another school, they come and look at the trophies and say, ‘I graduated from here, I did this, I did that. Why come back?’” he said.
Hanchey said she’d heard the same thing when she was advocating for the Center for the Arts. People would say, “It’s dangerous there.” She’d respond, “‘If it’s dangerous, why am I still teaching there now? I would not be working for a place that’s dangerous.’ The biggest thing was that once I got them onto campus and they saw the programs, they were sold about how wonderful this school is.”
Attitudes already are changing for the better, Rodriguez said. Metzger is determined that the anniversary celebration – to be held on campus for all alumni – will be the chance to prove to everyone what a great place it is.
“If we can just get them here, I told them it’s like the movie ‘Field of Dreams,’” Metzger said. “I’m looking at Lee like, ‘If we plan this they will come. Right?’”
The event will feature walking tours, speeches and performances by distinguished alumni (including noted author David Baldacci), opportunities to get involved in pre-game activities, a 5K run benefiting Henrico athletics, recognition of alumni, faculty and administration and catered events. Students will be helping with many of the events.
Some familiar sights
The meeting place for many a student break, for parent pick-up and emblem of school spirit always was the stately Warrior head mounted in front of a small wall at the front of the campus, said Metzger. “It still is,” Rodriguez said.
“Over the years, it was always having paint thrown on it. When we played Hermitage it would be painted blue or red,” Metzger said. “It was always a target for rivalries.”
The original head – designed by Henry “Chuck” Richardson, one of the original three black students at the school who later became a Richmond City Councilman – was blown up years ago. All that remained was a piece of metal rebar, Ganzert said, but the spot remained a popular meeting place for nearly another decade.
Nobody ever discovered who blew the head up, but its void did present an excellent learning opportunity for the students at the then-new Center for the Arts to design a new Warrior, Hanchey said.
Among other things that haven’t changed: No one likes inclement weather at this outdoor campus.
“I used to say, ‘You’ll love Henrico High School – it’s like being at Kings Dominion with a water ride. You will get wet,’” Hanchey said.
Last month, the Henrico County School Board approved a $23-million, three-year renovation budget that will change the way foot traffic flows around the campus. Improvements will include combining the auditorium main office and gym in one locale, Rodriguez said. These and other improvements will help create a more secure campus and force everybody to centralize.
“That is going to be so cool,” Ellett said.
The renovation, however, will not impact the Warrior head, which will remain in its “sacred” location as a beacon of school spirit, Rodriguez said.
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