BOBBY ARDOIN Editor/Consulting Writer
They remembered being warned about entering a pecan grove east of the school, the football field whose condition the coaches treated as sacred and a maroon and white team bus that was apparently often operated by student drivers.
Those memories and others often brought laughter and reflection last Saturday as nearly 200 graduates from the former J.S. Clark High School gathered at the Evangeline Downs Event Center for the annual alumni celebration.
The annual banquet and student scholarship presentations also featured mini-class reunions, the singing of the alma mater and fight songs and a colorful 16-year-history of the school authored by alumnus Michael Daniels and presented by Clark graduate Charles Renaud.
Clark Alumni Weekend also included a Saturday morning parade, a visit to the Clark memorial brick site at Vieux Village and a Sunday mass at St. Mark Methodist Church in Opelousas.
Located on Leo Street just outside what was then a newly-constructed Opelousas housing project, J.S. Clark, Renaud said, provided the city’s Black students with “a first class educational opportunity where respect for teachers and community was instilled in the students.”
The classroom facility which accommodated students from first through 12 grades from 1953-69, is now occupied by students from the parish Magnet Academy For The Cultural Arts.
During the mid-20th century however, J.S. Clark provided Blacks with student-related activities such as talent shows, dances, choir, music-related activities, academic rallies and an annual school fair for 16 years, Renaud added.
There was also a comprehensive athletic program, Renaud said, that included a number of sports and a home field that featured football and track meets and a gymnasium for basketball.
“What was at (J.S. Clark) was first class, missing absolutely nothing. It was the home of the Bulldogs, an endemic institution in its time. Most of all, we had a good time,” Renaud remembered.
About 3,000 students attended J.S. Clark during its existence, said Renaud. The school also had only one principal – Lawrence Emeron – until the school was desegregated at the end of the 1968-69 school session.
The prospect of gathering pecans on property adjacent to Clark was always tempting, Renaud recalled, but students were warned that the owners of the property were usually ready to stridently defend their saleable produce and entering there for picking could be problematic for both parties.
Legendary football and track coach Claude Paxton guarded his fields as though they were tabernacles, added Renaud.
“(Paxton) really took pride in what he was doing. If you were caught in his fields, then he treated it like a toothache. But it was generally agreed that Clark had the best track and football teams. Players from OHS came just to watch the Bulldogs practice football and track. The OHS players always seemed eager to engage, but it was not the time nor the place for that to occur,” Renaud said.
Most of those in attendance managed smiles, as the narrative, described journeys on the “The Bulldog,” school bus, which transported students to a variety of activities.
“We had our own school bus. We went to a lot of places on The Bulldog. It was distinctive, with a picture of a Bulldog. Most of the time we had our own drivers, with the bus driven by the students,” said Renaud.
Chris Arceneaux, a 1968 Clark graduate who also spoke, said the Clark Alumni Association annually provides $1,000 scholarships to parish students and money for the Opelousas Boys and Girls Club located on Laurent Street.
Arceneaux reminded the crowd that the alumni group is designed primarily to give back to current students that attend St. Landry parish schools.
“I think that speaks volumes about who we are. We choose to invest in our students,” said Arceneaux.
Arceneaux added that he and other Clark alumni have been influenced by what they experienced at the school.
“No matter what we became, the ones here (Saturday night) will never forget where we came from” said Arceneaux.