In 1957 Dr. James Gray was one of 57 students to graduate from Grove High School.
Dr. Gray left Grove that year to find his way through the world but he would return some forty years later and today he sits as a member of the Grove School System Board of Education.
In the time between, Dr. Gray finished his education, culminating with a doctorate from the University of Arkansas in 1971, and worked for years as a superintendent of schools. Dr. Gray spent eleven years as the superintendent of the Topeka, KS school system and twelve years as the superintendent of the Norman, OK school system.
Upon his return to Grove Dr. Gray began to help with the passing of a school bond issue. The end result of that bond drive is the Grove Early Childhood Development Center that sits on the elementary campus today. Working on the bond issue inspired Dr. Gray to become more involved with the Grove school system and in 2005 he accepted an appointed position on the school board.
“We (school board) are trying to put together a good strategic plan and implement it,” Dr. Gray said. “We want to keep attracting top-notch teachers here to compliment the ones we already have. We can have one of the best school systems in the state.”
Those types of thoughts were a long way off in 1956 when Gray was suiting up for his senior year of Ridgerunner football. The city today is barely recognizable compared to the community of fifty years ago. The Ridgerunner football program is one constant.
For the 1956-57 season Paul Davis was the Ridgerunner head football coach.
“He was a really good coach, I thought,” said Dr. Gray. “He was really low-key. He didn’t yell, rant, or rave or anything like that on the sideline. But you knew when you didn’t do something right- you knew it by the way he looked at you.”
“You just wanted to play good for him because he was a good coach and inspired people to do the right thing,” Gray added. “I always wanted to play as hard as I could for him.”
Like today, the Jay Bulldogs figured heavily into the Ridgerunners’ season.
“Our big rival then, of course, was Jay. That was the biggest one we had,” said Dr. Gray. “We always had a pretty good run-in with Commerce and Picher. When I was there we also had a good one with Wyandotte because one year they whipped us pretty good. So the next year we whipped them pretty good. Against them we wanted to score all the points we could score, you know, run it up.”
That ’56-’57 team compiled a 9-1 record and was lead by a name familiar to anyone involved in Ridgerunner athletics.
“Jimmy Beauchamp was the leader of the team,” Dr. Gray said. “He was our quarterback and he did an outstanding job. Of course when he left he signed a baseball contract with the St Louis Cardinals for $50,000, which was a lot of money in those days.”
Some aspects of the Ridgerunner program from those days would seem completely alien to the athletes of today.
“We never had any conditioning for playing sports like they have today. Weight rooms and stuff like that, we never had any of it,” Dr. Gray said. “You just went in there, put your uniform on and went out and played. All we did to get in shape was wind sprints. We’d run wind sprints until we fell down.”
The Ridgerunners of Dr. Gray’s day had their own social routines after practice or games.
“After practice we’d go down to Earl Rhode’s Drug Store,” Dr. Gray said. “It was right next to where the Police Station is today. It was a full-service soda fountain. There used to be a movie theater next to it, too. I think it cost five cents to get in for a movie. They didn’t monitor those movies very well because there was so much noise, you couldn’t even watch the movie because people were talking and yelling. And the guy that owned the theater he was trying to grab people and throw them out the front door! But we always had a good time.”
School life for the GHS students of the ‘50s had some other unique twists.
“There was a drive-in called the Ridgerunner where Jack and Jill’s (Day Care) is now. If you didn’t eat in the cafeteria then that’s where you went to eat,” said Dr. Gray. “They served hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff. But if you were really hungry you could get more food at the cafeteria for your money than you could there. So the days when I was really hungry I’d eat in the cafeteria because they’d serve you and if they had any food left they’d let you go through a second time. But the Ridgerunner always had a big crowd down there. Usually there wasn’t any space to eat inside so we’d just take our food and go outside and sit on the ground and eat there.”
The 1950’s were a time when The Rebel character was molded into the American psyche. The Ridgerunner football program had their own Rebel come to school for one season in the late ‘50s.
“We had this kid named ‘L.D.’ Cantrell, and he moved in, and he was a big kid,” said Dr. Gray. “And he was fast. He was really, really fast. Coach Davis saw him standing around in front of the school one day and asked him if he was there to catch the bus. And L.D. said, no, I don’t catch a bus. So Coach asked him, where do you live? And L.D. said, oh, about seven miles outside of Grove. And Coach asked, well how do you get home? And L.D. said, I run. So Coach figured L.D. might be pretty good for the football team.”
“So Coach told him to come on out,” Dr. Gray continued. “But L.D. never could learn the plays. But man could he run; it’d take four guys to tackle him. So Coach would put L.D. in the backfield and he’d tell us, ‘Now you guys, just tell him where to run, don’t tell him the play, just tell him to run between James and Joe after he gets handed the ball.’ And that’s how he learned the plays because he never did learn the playbook! L.D. told coach, I can’t run those plays, and coach told him, don’t worry about it, just run wherever those guys tell you to run. Other (opposing) players would ask, where did you get this guy? And we’d say ‘he just moved in one day.’ He played one year for us and then left.”
But there’s more to the L.D. story, a part that’s almost inconceivable today.
“L.D. would go into Rhode’s and he’d buy a pack of cigarettes,” Dr. Gray laughed. “Coach Davis came in there and saw it and he said, ‘Are you smoking L.D.?’ And L.D. said, ‘Well, yeah, I’ve been smoking since I was seven!’ And Coach told him ‘Well you can’t play football if you’re going to smoke!’ And L.D. said, ‘Well, I guess I can’t play football!’ But Coach never did kick him off the team! L.D. moved over to Arkansas, we heard, and he made All State. Or that’s what we were told.”
Reminiscing about the good old days can be a lot of fun but Dr. Gray, and the other members of the school board, are always looking forward in a bid to improve the Grove schools.
“We have the location, and we have a lot of resources from people in the community; resources that we need to utilize,” Dr. Gray said. “If we can bring together a team, the community and the schools, then we can make Grove one of the best school systems in the state.”
“We have a lot of people in the community who are very well educated in physics, and mathematics, for instance, who could be great assets for our schools,” said Dr. Gray. “There are a lot of smart people here who would be willing to help the schools if we give them the chance.”
Fifty years from today the Grove community and the Grove schools will look as different as the contemporary models do to those of fifty years ago. For the Grove products of today their future, and their legacy, is all in front of them, just as it was for one GHS graduate back in 1957.