On Monday May 4, 1987, sitting in an unfamiliar classroom at Ross S. Sterling High School in my second period senior English class, I was given a letter by my teacher, Ms. Pauline Hitt. In fact, each one of Ms. Hitt’s senior students received the same letter. The letter was dated April 30, 1987, and opened with these lines:
“Robert E. Lee Class of 1987 — My dear students,
Yesterday we lost part of ourselves and are sad — all who worked and played within the venerable expanse of Robert E. Lee, the building that housed our bodies, fed our spirits. Without consciously examining our gift, we moved through its halls seeing only its flaws. It was crowded, ill-heated, old, and vaguely shameful to some. Strangely whereas we formerly saw only its wrinkles, memory’s eye now recalls beauty, tradition, meaning.”
Ms. Hitt penned the letter the day after the event that would forever alter Baytown’s history and leave the Robert E. Lee Class of 1987 with a distinction we would have preferred not to have had. We became the last senior class of the original Robert E. Lee High School. In the predawn early morning hours of April 29, Robert E. Lee High School was destroyed by a three-alarm fire. Just as the building had been destroyed, any normality or closure to our senior year had gone up in smoke and flames like the billowing cloud of ash rising into the sky that early Wednesday morning.
For anyone who walked the halls of Robert E. Lee as a student and proudly wore the label of being a Gander, there is an undeniable sense of pride. For anyone who attended REL prior to 1987 or was attending at the time, they were undoubtedly affected deeply by the Lee fire. The mere fact of knowing that the landmark school as we knew it would be no more was a sobering experience. However, there is just something about having the stigma of being that last senior class of a school that opened in 1928 and being a senior class to graduate with no school.
After the fire, the last four weeks of school were anything but normal. The immediate problem was to decide where REL students would finish the school year. The decision was made to finish the year at Sterling. Sterling students went in the morning. Lee students went in the afternoon. Classes were shortened from 55 minutes to 40 minutes. Going to Sterling initially seemed like an insult and felt like it was pouring salt in the wound. It posed a question if opposing sides could come together to overcome unexpected circumstances. News media outlets reported on the subject and tried to make it an issue. In the true spirit of unity in the face of tragedy, the marquee outside Sterling High School read, “Welcome, Lee.” It was not the ideal situation but we made it work.
Our senior prom was nine days after the fire. Usually senior students went to school through second period and then were released around 10 a.m. to go prepare for the evening. Now that we weren’t even going to school until 1:00 p.m., senior students didn’t even have to report that day. Even at prom there was still sort of mood of disbelief and the fire incident still lingered in our minds.
The final three weeks of school were spent with shortened class, abbreviated lessons, and attempting to finish our senior year with as much normality as possible. The finals days were coming. All we had left were Baccalaureate Service, final exams, and then the big event — graduation. The end to what had been the most unusual senior year was near.
Our Baccalaureate Service was to be held the Sunday evening prior to the last week of school. In the original contingency plans following the fire, the REL service was moved to Sterling. Knowing that the REL Auditorium was intact and not damaged at all from the fire, the seniors began circulating a petition to have our service moved back to REL. Thankfully the district conceded. We thought that would be our last time to ever set foot on the REL campus as students.
The next day after Baccalaureate the last week of school began. We took our exams and the last day of school came. I remember that Thursday as I took my last final. I walked out of Sterling High School. All I could think on the way out was, “This is not how this is supposed to be. This is not how it supposed to end.” There was no final walking out of Robert E. Lee High School one last time as a student. The 429 seniors of the REL Class of 1987 were denied our chance of closure for our four years of high school.
We spent just at total of 18 days at Sterling. There were 20 school days left, but we didn’t go on prom Friday and we took our last exams a day early so that we could be free for graduation practice Friday morning. Those last few weeks of your senior years are time for reflection and looking forward to the future. For us, those 18 days were the most bizarre way a senior year and high school career was to end. We were sitting in our rival high school basically just occupying time to satisfy the number of days required by the Texas Education Agency.
Perhaps our class was predestined to end school on a disastrous note. Our entire high school career got off to a rough start. Parts of REL were already undergoing repairs when school began our freshman year because Hurricane Alicia struck Baytown just before school started in August 1983. The omen of disaster followed us all the way until the very end. The fire interrupting our senior year was not enough. Graduation day was a rainout. After practicing at Stallworth Stadium, a deluge hit and it rained all day. Devastated at first because we were not only allowed to finish our senior year at REL, we were now being denied the chance to culminate our senior year and public school education and graduate at Stallworth Stadium. Our graduation was moved indoors. As time has passed, however, I have come to see that maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing. Yes, we were limited to the number of guests we could bring, but we were given the chance to return to the REL campus as the Class of 1987 for one last time. While it was not the same as being able to finish our last days of our senior year at Lee, it did provide us with the quasi-experience of that final day at REL. I wonder to this day that if we had not circulated that petition to move our Baccalaureate back to REL if the original contingency plan for a Lee graduation rainout was to move it to the Sterling Auditorium. While the split day arrangement worked out, I personally think if we would have had to graduated inside the Sterling Auditorium that would have been almost as bad as the fire itself.
People forget that it was the REL Class of 1987 that broke a seven-year winless streak against Sterling. After not posting a victory since 1979, the Ganders would break that skid by winning 20-14. That game was the game that turned the fortunes around for REL in “The Game.” From 1986 until 2009 (the last year that Lee and Sterling were in the same UIL conference), Lee would only lose to Sterling four times. The Ganders would also earn 14 district championships and/or playoff berths. The class of 1987 should have been known as the class that started the Ganders controlling “The Game” but we are not. We are the class forever linked with the fire.
When the investigation revealed a few years later that the fire was not accidental but indeed was arson and that it was part of an insurance scam, it angered me beyond all reason. A criminal act for the almighty dollar had robbed the REL Class of 1987 of opportunities and denied us memories we couldn’t get back. I am sure if there was a way to file lawsuits for wrongful death of missed opportunities and senior memories that there would have been many pending litigations against the ones who were responsible for the fire.
Thirty years later I try to stop and remember what the original REL looked like. I remember the narrow halls. I recall the wood paneling. I remember hearing the creaking sound of the wood floors even though they had been carpeted. I can visualize the old library underneath the upstairs English wing. However, these are just memories. Today I can drive by and recognize the distinctive façade of the entrance to the building. I see the architecture and design of the building which has always given it such character. When I walk inside the building, I see a school which is nothing even remotely like the school where I attended. It’s a strange and different place. I can drive by and point and say, ‘That is my school,” but to walk inside there is no real connection. The Commons is the only thing that bears any resemblance to the REL I knew.
From stormy beginnings of a hurricane which affected the start of our high school career to ultimately the fire which came exactly one month to the day before graduation, the Robert E. Lee Class of 1987 endured and survived. I am proud to be a member of the REL Class of 1987. We were the 59th graduating class of Robert E. Lee and the last senior class of the original Lee. Three decades have passed since that morning when we watched in disbelief as our beloved school burned down and wondered if Robert E. Lee would be lost forever. Thankfully it was not lost and it still stands proudly and has been designated a State Historical Landmark. The final words to the Lee Alma Mater has inspired generation of Ganders and says it all, “May we ever forward march and faithful loyal be. Victorious maroon and white! The banners of R.E. Lee.”
Robert E. Lee and Gander pride survived the fire then and lives on today.
REL grad James Kingsmill is an educator at Dayton High School.