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DHS Class of 1968 tours old stomping grounds

By Jeff Bryan

For many from the Class of 1968, stepping back onto the campus of what is now just Dunnellon Middle School, it conjured plenty of long ago memories from their time as students on a campus that once housed every grade.

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The return to campus, which was part of the Class of’68s 50th Reunion, was put in motion months ago, according to Jack Roland, who explained for many of his classmates it was their first visit to campus since graduation ceremonies in the auditorium, 50 years ago.

“The vast majority of us have not been in that building in the past 50 years,” Roland said, pointing to the building on the east end of campus, which once housed high school classes. “Why? No reason to. When you get out of high school, the first thing you want to do is run.”

Arranging the tour was left in the hands of Sharon (MacDonald) Sutton, who taught in the Marion County Public School District at Lake Weir Middle School. When the Reunion Committee began months ago, the group wanted to do more than just gather for a traditional reunion.

“We had the idea, wouldn’t it be terrific to tour the school,” she said.

So Sutton began culling through a list of people who worked with the school district and when she saw who the principal at Dunnellon Middle School was, she had no problem reaching out to Delbert Smallridge.

“When I saw his name, I was like, ‘Hey, I taught him,’” she explained, noting he was one of her sixth-grade students.

So for the next several months, she and Smallridge coordinated the tour and caught up on their respective lives and shared several memories of their time as teacher and student.

“This meant so much to me, this is a very special day to reconnect with someone who had a part of my educational background,” Smallridge said as he looked over the former students who milled about sharing memories and laughs.

Stepping back on campus was surreal, Sutton said.

“Because when you haven’t been back to your stomping grounds in a long time and the memories just started flooding back, seeing all of these old wrinkled faces,” she explained, noting the Class of 1968 was one of the largest — 60 students — at the time to graduate. “We really had an awesome class. We had some really incredible teachers. The teachers were telling us we had a special class.”

The tour began at the auditorium where those in attendance gathered on the steps — a one-time school tradition — for an updated picture. After the photo, the graduates entered the auditorium.

“It seems so little,” said James Fowler, as he basked in the moment. “I love it, I get to see some of my old friends. I haven’t seen a lot of them in 50 years.”

Fowler was among several who received their draft cards after finishing school. He served a tour of duty with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam. After his four-year stint in the Marine Corps ended, he began his 38-year career with Withlacoochee River Electric.

One of his fondest memories of attending Dunnellon High School was taking the bus from Yankeetown to Dunnellon.

“We had real good teachers,” Fowler said, noting the likes of Mr. Markham and Mrs. Nichols to name a few. “We had real good teachers then.”

From the auditorium, the graduates visited the old school library, which now serves as a classroom. They recalled the impact of Ruth Riley who was the school librarian. They then moved onto the gymnasium, which immediately triggered one standout memory for Gene Quinn.

He and his close friend, Robert Hays, had gotten into a fight in the locker room in here and the coach made them put boxing gloves on.

“They made us fight until we couldn’t fight anymore,” he explained. “We literally fought until we couldn’t raise a hand. It was all sanctioned by the coaches; he was either trying to teach us a lesson or something.”

Simon Harper, a 6-foot-7 basketball star from Oviedo, was the first memory that flooded the minds of Rob Hess and Rudy Coffin, both of whom were standout basketball players for the Tigers.

“He was so tall, you almost had to worry about getting it over the rafters at their gym,” Hess said.

There was no answer for him.

“Unless you shot it with him halfway, almost between him and the goal, where it was goaltending when the ball started to come down, then he could block anything,” explained Rob Hess as Coffin nodded in agreement.

Their last visit, was two or more decades again. One of the biggest changes, besides the removal of the bleachers, was the addition of fiberglass backboards. In their heyday, it was plywood backboards, Coffin said pointing to the side nets.

“We had those,” Coffin quipped.