Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Two men, one school, one gymnasium

      Since it opened in 1956, tucked into the west end of the school grounds in west Shreveport, the building simply has been known as the Fair Park High School gymnasium.
      That will change on the morning of Saturday, Dec. 12, when it is dedicated and becomes known as the "Clem Henderson/Ron Preston Gymnasium."
       It is a terrific honor and appropriate for two men -- so different and yet so alike -- who were such leaders at the old school on Greenwood Road.
Coach Henderson, at the 1963 state
championship celebration (photo from
The Shreveport Times)
      Clem Henderson was old-school, a 1930s teenager in Jennings, La., an early 1940s and late 1940s college student/athlete at Louisiana Tech, with a U.S. Marine stint in between that put him in the middle of World War II. He grew up in a segregated world, but near the end of his school administrative career dealt with an integrated Fair Park.
      Ronald Preston attended all-black schools in Shreveport and then Grambling State University and did his coaching in the more modern era. And one of his biggest boosters in the first decade of the 2000s was Clem Henderson.
      Here is one major accomplishment they have in common: They coached Fair Park basketball teams (Henderson -- 1963; Preston -- 2006) that put state championship trophies in the trophy case in the gym's foyer.
      It's much more than that. They each were at the school for more than 20 years (29 for Henderson, 22 for Preston), and coached a variety of sports. But even after they retired, they remained interested and involved. They loved their kids and the people at the school ... and they were role models.
Coach Ron Preston watching his Fair
Park Indians (photo from
The Shreveport Times)
      Thanks to the Caddo Parish School Board for approving the request for the name change. And thanks to Cathy Ridley Bonds (Class of '66), director of the FPHS Alumni Association, who submitted the nomination letter to the school board and provided it to us to borrow information for this piece.
      I learned of the gym dedication plans from old friend Dick Hicks, one of the star athletes (basketball starter, best pitcher in the state in baseball) in the Class of '65, which had its 50-year reunion in Shreveport this past weekend. Dick put me in touch with Cathy.
      I was around for the last 15 years of Coach Henderson's time at Fair Park; my connection was as a student/manager-statistician at another high school,   then as a sportswriter. I liked hanging around that FP gym.
      I saw his basketball teams play, up close, and the man took a liking to me and especially to my Dad because Clem Henderson, like Dad, experienced World War II -- in much different fashion.
     Because before he was Coach Clem, he was U.S. Marine Pvt. Clem, who was on Iwo Jima when U.S. forces, in a brutal battle, took over that island between Japan and the Philippine Islands, and the iconic flag-raising photo was taken. So he knew war and he could sense what Dad had been through in the concentration camps half a world away.
      Through the years at Fair Park and long afterward, knowing that Dad was quite the sports fan, they had a bond. In their later years, they were part of the coffee-club gatherings of former coaches and administrators and one old Dutchman on Friday mornings at the Southfield Grille.
       So that's a personal reflection on Coach Henderson, who let a manager from another school sit on the Fair Park bench during the 1964 Class AAA state championship game (it was not as good a result as the year before).
       I was like thousands of others -- Clem Henderson was a hero to me.
       I've always enjoyed the history of schools, seeing their locations, the campus and the facilities. That's at any level, from college to elementary.
       But I am very partial to the schools in Shreveport and -- forgive me, Woodlawn friends -- especially the two old-line public schools, Byrd (opened in 1926) and Fair Park (opened in 1928).
Since 1928 on Greenwood Road in Shreveport:
Fair Park High School
       I always thought, still think, their settings were majestic on two major roads in Shreveport -- Byrd on Line Avenue, Fair Park on Greenwood Road.
      If you were going to the Louisiana State Fairgrounds, or the State Fair, you could hardly miss Fair Park sitting there across the street, with its magnificent steeple. When you went in the main entrance, there was the distinctive Indian logo in the lobby.
      In our younger days, in the 1950s, '60s and into the '70s, we all knew so many people who had gone to school there, or to Byrd. We had so many friends from those places.
       I think of Fair Park and its great traditions. The one I liked best: the Big Indian, a student mascot dressed in full regalia, who at games (and pep rallies, I suppose) did the "Go Big Indians" dance as the school band played a Florida State-like chanting number.
      There was Round the Reservation week, before the annual game with Byrd -- on Thanksgiving Day, through the 1962 season -- when teepees were set up all over the Fair Park school grounds and there was Beat Byrd Day. 
      A couple of football traditions: For games at State Fair Stadium, the team simply walked from the school (the dressing room was on the lower level of the gym) and always was on the stadium's east side (the side closest to Fair Park). Normally that was the visitors' side, but not when teams played Fair Park.
      Another tradition for years: Student sections from the winner of the Byrd-Fair Park football game going to basketball matchups and chanting "Same Way Turkey Day" at the losing side.
      Fair Park had the Sequoyah (yearbook) and Pow Wow (school paper) and a Mardi Gras Gala and, through the early 1960s, an Honor Legion marching squad for girls (predecessor to a more conventional pep squad).
      There was a crack ROTC Rifle unit, and here's something else I liked: sharp-looking uniforms in every sport. The school colors (black, gold) mixed with white made for a neat combination.  
      About the gymnasiums: Many people in Shreveport-Bossier are aware of this -- the Byrd and Fair Park gyms were identical structures, same design, same interiors, dressing rooms and classrooms on a floor below the gym floor. If I remember correctly, the Caddo Parish School Board saved money this way, and the buildings opened the same year.
       Before that, high school basketball had been played in junior high gyms -- Fair Park at Lakeshore, Byrd at Broadmoor. And before that, I believe there was a basketball gym on the Fairgrounds.
       The Byrd and Fair Park gyms each seated about 2,200. When rivalries were hot and basketball thrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at times those gyms were packed full.
     Don't mean to slight anyone or criticize, but in terms of naming the Fair Park gym for Coach Henderson, I paraphrase Shreveport sportswriting legend Jerry Byrd's question concerning another situation: What took them so long?
       I was told that there was an earlier effort to have this approved, but it did not materialize. Don't know why, and it doesn't matter now. But I suppose after Caddo Parish football stadiums were named at Captain Shreve (Lee Hedges Stadium) and Northwood (Jerry Burton Stadium), the precedent was set.
       Wish this had happened before Coach Henderson's passing (on March 9 this year) at the ripe age of 92. He'd been out of coaching for 50 years, away from FP in an official capacity for 38.
        But I know his family -- widow Dr. Martha, sons Clem Jr., Charles and Dr. Jim -- appreciates the honor now. So do their many friends.
        (Next: Two success stories)


  1. Excellent article,

    Going back to 1931 many in our family graduated from FPHS including my parents...Fantastic article Nico!

  2. From Cathy Ridley Bonds: Your memory is correct. Fair Park has a beautiful mosaic tile Indian head on the floor in the main entry, donated by the Class of 1961. No one ever steps on the Indian (even before the rail was installed around it and when there were over 2,000 students at the school) .The brass rail was a gift from the Class of 1986. We also have a large, hand-carved standing Indian in a glass case in the main hall donated by the Class of 1963.
    Fair Park is on the National Register of Historic Places. It really is a beautiful building. The same architect built Byrd, Fair Park and the courthouse.
    Byrd is a beautiful school, too, but I think the location of Fair Park, on the large property, makes it extra special. You are correct, each school is special and the pride we have in our school and memories of our time there are a wonderful thing.

  3. From Tommy Youngblood: That's a good one. Actually I do remember the walks to the stadium; that was kinda cool in retrospect. Billy Gann's Dad was also on Iwo Jima. Wish I could have asked them a few things, but they probably wouldn't have said anything.

  4. An absolutely wonderful ar

    ticle,Nico! My grandmother lived on Edgar Street just out of the Fairgrounds. We always had Thanksgiving dinner there before the Byrd-Fair Park game. I loved that traditional game, even the horrid mum corsages! from Diana Ely

  5. From Wally Rugg: Another nice job, Nico. Thanks for the jog down memory lane. I can remember and appreciate the tradition of those old Shreveport schools -- Fair Park and Byrd -- from the perspective of one having played both basketball and baseball against them while attending Ouachita of Monroe. And yes, I remember facing those outstanding Clem Henderson teams from his state championship and runner-up seasons, as well as the 1965 team when Dick Hicks and I guarded each other on the court and faced each other on the baseball field. Other players I remember in addition to Dick (who graduated the same year I did in 1965) are Dick's older brother Roger, Jimmy Pruett and the great Charles Beasley. Great memories. But where did those 50 years go? Is time flying or what?

  6. From Joe Huffman: Thanks. Great article. You captured a significant portion of the backdrop of our time on Greenwood Road. Coach H. was a rare "diamond" among many who wore the title, coach. His was always w/a capital "C"!

  7. From Patrick Netherton: Great honor and long overdue. I grew up with tales of Clem Henderson from my father. Felt like I knew the man. Very happy for his family, especially son Jim Henderson.

  8. From Dr. Jim Henderson: Dad loved Fair Park as much as he loved basketball. We are so grateful his memory will be honored in this fashion.

  9. Thanks for this article. I knew Coach Clem and always had a great respect for him and what he had accomplished. He left quite a legacy here. I know he would be proud to have this recognition!

  10. I of course spent many nights and weekends in the now "Clem Henderson/Ron Preston Gymnasium" chasing Mr. Beasley all over the court to very little if any avail. Those games were incredibly competitive, and made for many of a bad or good next morning for all of us. Congratulations to Clem's family. This honor is well deserved. I last saw him at Scotty Robertson's funeral in Ruston, and visited with him for a while. A gentleman that I am proud to have known and played against his teams. Great memories.
    Syd Boone
    Byrd '63 (Same year Coach Henderson's squad won the State Championship).