An all-American homecoming Grimsley’s homecoming rain
On a cool and damp Thursday afternoon the Grimsley marching band goes through the paces of their halftime routine. The drumline kicks a staccato beat and the girls on the color guard manipulate their flags. The cheerleaders comprise the right flank of the formation, marching in time, and the ROTC kids stand facing each other in parallel lines through the center with their swords drawn and raised, making from them a processional tunnel. With a gesture from the field marshal, the horns snap to playing position and the tubas start to blow.
Boom-boom. Bum boom-boom. Bum boom-boom. Bum boom-boom.
It’s the opening strains of ‘“My Girl,’” the ditty made famous by the Temptations in 1965, the year Dee Dee Zane reigned as Grimsley Senior High School’s Homecoming Queen. It’s a romantic song, a song of loyalty and endearment, and even when it’s pounded out by a marching band it still evokes feelings of love.
And there is, indeed, sunshine on this cloudy day ‘— it’s the day before homecoming weekend kicks off with a football game against North Forsyth tomorrow and the big dance at the Marriott on Saturday night. And the halftime drill they’re running includes the Homecoming Queen pageantry, wherein this year’s winner will be revealed.
The candidates for queen stride with their dates two by two underneath the tunnel of raised swords and the soccer players running the bleachers stop to watch. The chosen couples queue in pairs in front of the band as the last strains of the tune play out.
At halftime tomorrow night the winner and the runners-up plan to cruise the field seated atop the back seats of donated convertibles, but for now at the rehearsal everyone is on their feet.
Jasna Musanovic moves along the line, alternating between a brisk walk and a loping jog, making sure the positions are right, calculating last-minute synchronizations between the end of the music and the beginning of the presentation itself, hoping against hope that the clouds will part before gametime tomorrow night and that all this rehearsing won’t be for naught.
‘“We started planning this before school got out last year,’” says Jasna, Grimsley’s senior student body youth recreation chairman. ‘“It’s challenging to get everybody together and actually do something.’”
After the drill the contestants gather around Jasna and Kara Koehler, Grimsley’s youthful specialized education teacher and co-sponsor of the student council. Jasna addresses the kids.
‘“The two runner-ups are gonna get a half dozen roses,’” she says as the Whirlies football team takes the field behind her in their practice green uniforms. Grunts echo among the bleachers as the team goes through their calisthenics. The soccer guys turn laps around the track.
There’s a brunch for the nominees and their parents at the school the next morning, Jasna says.
‘“Make sure you’re all there by nine o’clock.’”
A guy on the periphery of the crowd has a question.
‘“Can we change clothes after halftime?’”
The concept of ‘homecoming’ as an American tradition has its roots in the small towns scattered throughout the country that as far back as the 1800s would annually welcome back those who had left in a days-long festival of events and parties. The idea spread to the Ivy Leagues in the late 1800s when alumni in droves began flocking to the annual Harvard-Yale football game, though the term ‘homecoming’ was not applied to the match.
Around the turn of the 20th century colleges in the Midwest began celebrating homecoming as a way to generate excitement for football games. There is some controversy here: while Indiana University held the first event called ‘home coming’ in 1908, the University of Missouri goes on the books as having held the first ‘official’ homecoming in 1911, strictly because Mizzoo made theirs an annual tradition; the Hoosiers didn’t hold one every year until 1915.
Trouble in the heartland for sure.
Grimsley High School started celebrating homecoming in January 1930 and, according to Peter Byrd, unofficial Grimsley historian and member of the Class of ’74, they were one of the first in the state to do so.
Byrd spoke by telephone from his home in Washington, DC.
‘“The deal was that when they started it, it was in January,’” he says. ‘“January 1930 was interesting because that was the first time they were on Westover Terrace. [Before that] they had been down on Spring Street, about where the public library is today.’”
In 1930 the school’s name was officially changed to Greensboro Senior High School.
In Byrd’s ‘“History of Grimsley’” which he updates annually in the Grimsley Alumni Directory, he writes:
‘“Homecoming, begun in January, 1930, was held each year at the very end of the Christmas holiday to allow as many alumni as possible to attend. Activities centered around an assembly program featuring GHS grads and an alumni luncheon.’”
Byrd says, ‘“It didn’t start out as being tied to football games. It changed in the early fifties. Our first Homecoming Queen was elected in 1953. Actually there were two of them that year.’”
Their names were Kay Wrenn and Becky Schweistris, and Kay would go on to win the title of Homecoming Queen again the next year.
‘“I would love to know what happened in 1953 when they decided to go to the fall,’” Byrd says.
Of the new fall homecoming celebration in 1953, Byrd writes:
‘“New activities included a project-building competition between the service clubs (with the displays placed on the front lawn of the main building reflecting the homecoming theme selected each year), the homecoming court, with the announcement of the queen at halftime of the game, and the dance held for many years in the girls gym.’”
He says, ‘“At some point a few years back they moved it to the main gym.’”
The rain catches a halogen glow as it passes under the lights on Friday night. It’s not quite a storm ‘— no lightning or thunder and no breeze sweeps the field ‘— but it’s enough to keep all but the most dedicated alumni, gung-ho parents and spirit-crazed students away from the homecoming football game against the North Forsyth Vikings.
The Grimsley cheering squad has not fully accepted the fact that it is going to get wet tonight, and they huddle on the track in slickers and ponchos. The members of the marching band can’t quite believe they’re out here either, as they assemble beneath the goalposts and then march onto the field with the color guard and ROTC platoon in tow.
The rain gathers strength as they move through the ‘“Star Spangled Banner,’” the low horns carrying the melody in the latter part of the tune.
Over in the Sigmund Pearl Fieldhouse the homecoming court crowds under the overhang, watching the water fall from the sky. The convertibles are parked in the adjacent lot just in case, but things don’t look good for the ceremony.
Just before kickoff, the word buzzes through the stands: the halftime homecoming ceremony won’t be happening tonight, but instead will take place tomorrow at the dance. Freshman Skip Jakupi brings the news to a group huddled under the press box staircase.
‘“They don’t want to get the convertibles wet,’” he explains.
The Whirlies take the field through the bleachers in their gameday blues, accepting shoulder and helmet slaps and doling out high fives along the way. The season’s big game, a rivalry against Page, took place last week and the Whirlies ride high after their 41-14 rout of the Pirates. The North Forsyth squad, representing a soft spot on the schedule chosen to coincide with homecoming, is not expected to prevail tonight.
Grimsley fumbles the opening kickoff but recovers the ball and executes two sets of downs before punting. A fresh wind catches the rain and pushes it to a 45-degree angle. The fat drops spatter on the track, sizzle on the bleachers and turn the field into a quagmire of mud and shredded turf.
Up in the press box, coach Bernard Farrington, Grimsley Class of ’89, breaks down the Vikings’ offense at third and long.
‘“Watch the quarterback scramble on this one,’” he says through his headset, ‘“to his left.’”
The North Forsyth quarterback, Girard Miller, reacts as predicted and is then smothered at the line of scrimmage.
And so it goes, this brand of muddy football, with sloppy, short runs; botched punts; no points and the ref holds a towel over the ball between downs.
Near the start of the second quarter Grimsley quarterback Josh Stewart turns a busted play on third and long into a big gain. The next play he hands off to number 34, Jon Morris, who runs it into the red zone. With 9:35 left in the half Stewart pierces the opposing line and stretches into the end zone. After the extra point it’s 7-0, but Stewart leaves the game with a mild concussion.
The Grimsley cheerleaders bust out seven jumping jacks and the student fans, gathered in the first two center rows of the bleachers, hoot and holler.
Some of them showed up wearing kilts and wigs with their faces painted blue like in Braveheart. By now the face paint has all but been washed away and the kilts have lost some of their drape. The others, too cool for umbrellas or jackets, cheer on their team soaking wet, heedless of the elements.
Ahh, high school.
Charley Irvin and his wife Mary Elizabeth (nee Sampson), up in the stands under a large umbrella, remember it pretty well even though they passed through Grimsley High back in 1949, when it was still known as Greensboro Senior High School.
‘“In a lot of ways it’s the same,’” Mary Elizabeth says
They’re here watching their grandson, Charles Irvin, number 72, play in the homecoming football game just like they did for their son, David, who’s watching from behind the bleachers.
David graduated with the Class of ’77, and he’s thinking maybe the homecoming queen that year was Caroline Johnson, but he’s not exactly sure.
Caroline Johnson was queen in 1976. Tammy Murrelle wore the tiara in 1977.
He remembers homecoming weekend well ‘— he says they used to hold the dance the same night as the football game and thinks it was wise to separate the events.
‘“It’s better for the guys on the football team,’” he says.
Along with David’s parents, his in-laws are in attendance tonight: Tom and Jan Neese. Jan’s the one with the bell.
‘“I started ringing bells because my son could not hear me yelling,’” Jan says, wrapped in a yellow hooded slicker and sitting on a damp towel. ‘“I got a bell off a real cow ‘— excuse me, I gotta watch this touchdown.’”
And sure enough, number 44 forces one across the goal line.
Mrs. Neese rings her bell.
‘“I’m old enough, I can do what I want,’” she says. ‘“It’s a pleasure.’”
Mrs. Neese’s daughter, the former Alicia Neese, current wife of David and scion of the family famous for making breakfast sausage and liver pudding, won Homecoming Queen in 1979.
In 1963, Byrd says, ‘“a gal named Ellen Barrier was the queen. Her father was the sports editor for of the Greensboro Daily News and the Greensboro Record for decades. In fact,’” Byrd continues, ‘“her dad was one of the key players in getting the stadium over at Grimsley built back in the forties.’”
This year’s slate includes twelve girls from all walks of high school life: jocks, pretty girls, popular girls, artsy ones, cool ones, funny ones, preppy ones. And they’re all here at the homecoming dance, no longer relegated to the girl’s gym, held these days in the downtown Marriott the day after the football game and not immediately afterwards.
Until the late ’50s, the Homecoming Queen was announced before the game, Byrd says, and that it wasn’t until the fall of 1958 that the winner was kept a secret until halftime of the game, a tradition that endures today.
Tonight they’ll make the announcement at around 10:30 p.m., but right now it’s maybe a quarter to nine and they’re trickling through the revolving doors to the lobby in couples and groups. They mingle and drift up the Y-shaped staircase and hang over the handrails on the second floor, some cursing themselves for being so uncool as to show up on time.
Jasna Musanovic stands near the table by the entrance to the ballroom, taking tickets and enforcing the sign-in sheet.
‘“Did you go to the game?’” she asks one student. ‘“Did we win?’”
They won, 28-7.
Down in the lobby youth fills the room. They pose for pictures by the staircase and check out each other’s threads. The boys, almost to a one, wear something in black. Their dates wear the kinds of dresses only high school girls, fashion models and trophy wives can pull off. They move with a restrained kind of grace up the stairs and then check their purses and phones and their high-heeled shoes bought for the occasion in a couple of small rooms off to the side before scampering to the dance floor.
Brant Taylor and Bowen Swank, both 14-year-old Grimsley freshmen, sit in two easy chairs wearing khakis and blazers. It’s their very first high school dance and, quite possibly, the first time they will ever sit and wait for their dates while they use the bathroom.
‘“It’s just gonna be a big party,’” Brant says with the kind of sophistication rarely found in one so young.
They’re still filing in at 9:20, but the dance floor, buttressed by two large video screens, is now teeming with movement, and if you haven’t been to a high school dance lately, you should be aware of some changes in the last few years. Gone are the days when chaperones ensured a foot of space (sometimes with actual rulers) between dance partners. These kids dance like their heroes on MTV, all up in each other and working it, working it, working it. Even Jasna is bent in front of her boyfriend and doing the grind.
But the scene is nothing different that you would find on the dance floor of any club in America. Indeed, times have changed.
Byrd talks about the year 1962, when the ‘wild’ behavior of Grimsley students rocked the city.
‘“It was the O. Henry Hotel incident,’” he says. ‘“Not the current one, the one that was downtown on Elm and Bellemeade.’”
Some Grimsley students and some others from Page secured a room in the hotel and threw a party, Byrd says.
‘“And ‘— horror ‘— this party got busted and there was drinking. At the time it scandalized the town. Ministers preached about it for weeks.’”
Tonight Principal Rob Gasparello, a trim, youthful sort (who, by the way, went to the same high school on Long Island as this reporter), shines his flashlight in students’ eyes to make sure nobody gets messed up on his watch. It’s not a major concern, he says.
‘“These are pretty good kids,’” he says.
In the dance hall the DJ roars through the mic: ‘“Y’all make some noise for the football team!’”
Noise is made, and then the whole crowd, perhaps 600 strong, faces front for ‘“The Cha Cha Slide,’” a kind of hip-hop line dance with claps and jumps and shimmy shimmy shimmy. The floor shakes when they hop.
Out in the anteroom last year’s homecoming queen, Vecoya Greene, tries to make a call on her cell phone. She’s wearing the tiara she won last fall.
‘“I was very surprised,’” she says of last year’s pageant. ‘“I wasn’t expecting it. That was the best part about it ‘— being surprised.’”
Vecoya, now a freshman at A&T with hopes to pursue a career in broadcast journalism, rushes over to the ballroom entrance.
The presentation is about to begin.
The bodies on the dance floor part to the sides and a spotlight plays on the surface. The candidates for queen stride with their dates two by two to the center of the dance floor. No tunnel of gleaming swords, no ‘“My Girl,’” no tubas and no convertibles. But the room is abuzz, the kids screaming for their favorite couples and the contestants basking in the warmth.
And then the winner is announced.
Sarah Williams, Grimsley Class of ’06, accepts her roses and her tiara as the entire student body envelops her on the dance floor. It is an instant for the ages.
‘“It was the greatest moment of my life,’” Sarah says later. ‘“I was just happy to be on the court.’”
Her father, Pete Williams, on hand for the occasion, radiates with pride in the anteroom.
‘“I was hoping she’d win it,’” he says, ‘“but I didn’t want to get too excited.’”
Sarah and her date, Chris Weatherly, make for the dance floor to catch the last few numbers with the rest of the kids. The clock nears midnight and the event is in its last throes.
One young man, perhaps a sophomore, lingers with the old people outside the doors to the ballroom looking a bit uncomfortable, as if unsure what to do next. A sweet young thing runs skittishly up to him and grabs his hand.
‘“Come dance with me,’” she says.
He smiles and they scamper with uncontained enthusiasm to the dance floor.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.