For a group of Booker T. Washington High School graduates, last week's AXA Liberty Bowl game was a footnote to the brunch and reunion a few hours earlier.
The guest of honor was Colorado State University president and chancellor Albert Yates, BTW Class of 1959. The speakers included Mayor Willie Herenton, Class of '58, and Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, Class of '59. The current BTW principal, Elsie Bailey, Class of '59, was there. So were classmates Andrew Love of the Memphis Horns and half a dozen others who made their marks in law, education, and business.
They came to the Adam's Mark Hotel to surprise Yates, who is retiring this year, and to celebrate how far they had come from hard times in South Memphis at the end of an era. Three months after they graduated, Memphis State University was integrated. In 1960, attorneys Benjamin Hooks and Thurgood Marshall filed a lawsuit, Northcross v. Memphis Board of Education. In 1961, 13 first-graders desegregated the Memphis City Schools.
The speeches were heartfelt and upbeat, drawing enough tears from Yates, Herenton, and everyone else to mop the floor. If there was a dry eye in the house, trumpet player Rudy Williams, Class of '60, took care of that when he brought the morning to a close by entering the back of the room playing a medley of the Warrior alma mater and Auld Lang Syne.
"So many pearls and diamonds from such hard times," marveled Willie Bates, Class of '59, owner of the New Four Way Grill. "There had to be some kind of bond for us to go off in so many different directions and all hit the target."
To Yates and Bailey, the bond was BTW principal Blair Hunt, who retired the year they graduated. He constantly told them "you are somebody" and urged them to live up to the school's motto, "We lead and others follow."
"He had a tremendous impact on our lives," said Yates. "More than anything, we looked up to him and respected him, wanted to please him, and also stood very much in awe -- even in fear -- of him. He was a figure bigger than life. He believed in us. He and a few teachers did more to mold our aspirations and character than anyone."
Yates, one of seven children, grew up near the corner of Third and Beale, where his parents owned a greasy spoon called the Yates Good Eats Cafe. In high school, he and Bailey worked the 3-to-11 shift at John Gaston Hospital, now The Med. Yates was an orderly; Bailey, a garbageman. One of their jobs was hauling trash and afterbirth from the maternity ward to the incinerator. The money they made enabled them to buy nice clothes, have them tailored on Beale Street, and become leaders in social clubs called the Counts and the Marquettes.
"School kids and adults interacted socially in the clubs," said Bailey. "That kind of experience helped us carry ourselves with a sense of pride and refinement not enforced by adults. That was the kind of bond we had."
None of them was an angel. Herenton was a fighter and was once arrested on a bogus charge. Yates was expelled from school in the 11th grade and had to scramble the next year to complete all his credits and graduate with his class.
"Yates was smart," said Herenton. "He excelled at all the hard subjects. I was a guy who did well in school, but Albert Yates, man, he was brilliant."
After a stint in the Navy, Yates enrolled at Memphis State University, graduating magna cum laude in 1965 in chemistry and math. He earned a doctorate from the University of Indiana in theoretical chemical physics. He was a college administrator at the University of Cincinnati and Washington State University before being named president of Colorado State in 1990. His career in higher education culminated with his being named Citizen of the West last year.
It all came back to Yates when he walked into the Liberty Bowl brunch and was surprised to see so many people he had not seen in over 40 years. He thanked them, introduced them to his Colorado State colleagues, and talked about old times and the mayor of Memphis who once fought Yates' older brother and gave the eulogy at his funeral two years ago.
He didn't say anything about all of his accomplishments, but Herenton and Bailey did that for him. Each of them tried to speak to the people of Memphis and the people of Colorado, filling in the biographical gaps and fleshing out the résumés with stories about South Memphis. Herenton thanked the trustees and the people of Colorado for giving Yates a chance to lead. Bailey said their success should be an inspiration to Memphis and especially kids growing up in tough times in Foote Homes and Claiborne Homes and attending BTW today.
Too bad there wasn't a single camera or reporter there to record it. We write about all the crime and underachievement, all the failing schools, then we miss a story like this.
Remember the Warriors.