The scene of many hundreds of hard-fought basketball games, junior-senior proms, alumni banquets and miscellaneous other social occasions for more than a half century has been the old high school gymnasium, properly called “Phillips Hall” after the man who brought it into existence.
Claude Phillips came to town as superintendent and history teacher of Oconee County High School. He soon began a campaign to convince townspeople that the school needed a gymnasium for its basketball games which had been played on a dirt court with backboards nailed directly to injury-promising posts set at the very margin of the play area. Some teams in the district had indoor courts, and it was with considerable reluctance that they would agree to play us at home.
Mr. Phillips did a good job of selling his idea, and a community effort got under way in the summer of 1933, when the fierceness of the Depression meant that many people were out of work and few people had any excess cash. Mr. Phillips’s idea was that people who could hammer and saw would do the work. People with access to building materials would donate them. People with jobs would donate cash, and fundraisers would be held to obtain funds from everyone who would participate. Mrs. Arch Camp was named treasurer.
A huge barbecue was organized for July 29. Someone got Eugene Talmadge, the best stump speaker of his day, to come and make a speech. According to The Enterprise the following week, 5000 people showed up. I recall that Mr. Roy Thrasher, our state representative, took longer to make the introduction than “Ol’ Gene” spoke. In the afternoon, there was a double header baseball game played at the schoolyard. The Watkinsville team, featuring the Thrasher boys, Loren and Ralph, who were good enough to try out for the majors, played Statham. The nightcap was Bishop against Commerce, with the Kennimer boys, Victor and Montgomery, and “Casey at the Bat” himself, LeRoy Bray, perhaps the best ball player in the county.
Ground was broken for the new gym on August 15, 1933. With Mrs. Camp’s weekly reports to The Enterprise to let everyone know the progress being made and with Mr. Phillips’s zeal, people began to show up to help out. Trucks and cars came by to drop off kegs of nails, 2x4s, and other necessities. The workers were given their lunch each day by a committee of PTA mothers. A cadre of skilled carpenters was hired at fifteen cents per hour, paid out of the donated funds.
Providence intervened in the form of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. In May, Roosevelt had recruited Harry Hopkins to set up a system that would pump federal money into communities as quickly as he could get it there. Hopkins reasoned that the quickest way was to contact every jurisdiction in the country and find out what projects they had either all ready to go or better yet under way but languishing for lack of funds. The OCHS gym was made to order for this purpose.
Mr. Henry “Babe” Porterfield was one of the fifteen-cents-per-hour carpenters. He told me many years later that one day someone came up to the job and said, “Boys, beginning tomorrow you will be paid twenty-five cents per hour with government money.” “Babe” said, “Let me tell you that was the happiest day of my life.” Thus did the New Deal make its arrival in Watkinsville.
Construction was completed in a few days shy of four months, and the first basketball games were played on December 15, 1933.
It would be natural to conjecture that a basketball court constructed under such circumstances and with such rapidity would suffer from inferior workmanship and materials. I recently asked an alumnus who played on it himself and coached a team which played on it more than twenty years later if this were true. He said it was quite the contrary: The OCHS gym has the smoothest and sturdiest floor of all the gyms in the district.
The building’s architect had created space above the dressing rooms for use as a classroom. It first housed the Home Economics Department, then the first school lunchroom, and later the overflow of overcrowded classes. The gym has proved to be a wonderfully functional structure, housing flower shows, intramural sports, and a long list of community meetings. Unlike a public structure named for a person only because he or she is prominent, “Phillips Hall” is truly a monument to the man who inspired its creation.
By Albert Wimpy Ward