Editor’s note: Istrouma and Capitol high schools will merge this fall at Capitol. The state plans to place a new high school in Istrouma, but it will be unoccupied for the next school year. Istrouma, founded in 1917, was one of the city’s bedrock schools, producing many famous graduates, including our own Smiley Anders. Here, Smiley recalls his years there — 1951 to 1955 — when ‘Tutti Frutti’ ruled the sock hop.
It was my first day at the new Istrouma High School, and I was terrified.
The Winbourne Avenue school was bright and shiny, and to my 14-year-old eyes it looked immense.
That morning I felt the pressure of entering a new school — and also of living up to my parents’ expectations.
The Great Depression and World War II had put college out of reach for many parents, and some hadn’t been able to finish high school. So Istrouma was more than just a high school for 1,200 North Baton Rouge students; it was the embodiment of the dreams of the blue-collar residents north of Choctaw, the guys in hard hats who rode bikes to the plants along Scenic Highway, and the housewives who looked after modest homes and kept the kids quiet when their husbands were working the dog shift.
Filing into school that first day, we found that the teachers were on a mission — to make Istrouma the best school anywhere. They would accept only our best efforts.
In the early ’50s, Istrouma’s principal was the scholary, bespectacled H.P. Overton. But the man we students encountered most, and feared most, was Ellis “Little Fuzz” Brown, assistant principal and disciplinarian. His twin brother, James “Big Fuzz” Brown, ran the football program, making Istrouma a football powerhouse and collector of state championships.
At that time, before Broadmoor, Lee, Glen Oaks and other high schools populated the city, Istrouma and Baton Rouge High were the major white public high schools in Baton Rouge.
The word “white” points out the worm in this nostalgic apple — racial segregation.
As a teen I had the social consciousness of an oyster, but even so it seemed to me the black kids were getting a raw deal.
But when I asked my parents about it, I got “That’s just the way it is…” and “The colored people are happy with their own schools…”
Still, I knew my parents, and other adults, didn’t want to hear my views on that subject.
At Istrouma in the ’50s, the boys wore jeans with cuffs turned up, and shirts with collars turned up. The girls wore big skirts with stiff petticoats and sweaters over pretty blouses. Both boys and girls wore saddle oxfords or penny loafers.
We thought we were cooler and tougher than the kids at Baton Rouge High. It was a time of class warfare, which intensified for the Istrouma-Baton Rouge High football game.
Once, at a pep rally before the Baton Rouge High game, an Istrouma coach played a tape of what he said was a Bulldogs pep rally. In it someone, identified as a Baton Rouge High coach, urged his players to “send them back across the tracks…”
The inference was clear — we were the people on “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Naturally, we were enraged, and that year Istrouma won the game.
As important as sports were at Istrouma, education was more important.
In Janie Bankston’s American history class, I sat behind Billy Cannon. Janie cut the future LSU football star no slack at all, and, as far as I could tell, didn’t even know he was a top athlete. But Billy was a bright kid and needed no favors to make his grades.
Our biology teacher, Lou Hattox, kept a buddy from competing in a district track meet because his grades weren’t up to par.
I had my own experience with a strict teacher.
My geometry teacher, Hattie Garrett, was retiring that year. She was a very nice lady, and I knew she liked me.
It was the year I was the class clown. I was a cheerleader, and thought I was on a roll and had this school thing figured out.
But I didn’t have geometry figured out. And kindly Mrs. Garrett, in her final act as a teacher, flunked me.
After that wake-up call, I toned down my clown act.
I even made a B in second-year algebra. My teacher was Clyde Lindsey, a star on the LSU football team in the ’40s. As a coach and later assistant principal when Little Fuzz moved up, he was respected by even the toughest football players. He later become East Baton Rouge Parish’s school superintendent.
Punishment for guys consisted of licks by Little Fuzz or Coach Lindsey with a well-worn wooden paddle. Later, we were punished by memorizing poetry, which some of the guys regarded as more cruel than licks.
Later, in an LSU English class, when I wowed the teacher by reciting Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” I didn’t tell him how I had mastered it.
At some point during my stay at Istrouma, we acquired our own music and the soundtrack for our high school years.
It wasn’t called rock ’n’ roll then. It was “rhythm and blues” when Chuck Berry chased “Maybellene” and Big Joe Turner belted out “Honey Hush.” On WXOK, cool DJ Diggie Doo introduced us to B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley. Up from New Orleans, we got Professor Longhair, Sugar Boy Crawford, Fats Domino, Smiley Lewis.
Our parents hated it — so that cinched it for us.
We played “Earth Angel” and “Tutti Frutti” at sock hops, CYO dances and on car radios as we went on dates to “our” Hopper’s drive-in on Scenic or ventured into Baton Rouge High territory at the Hopper’s on Florida or Alessi’s, the curly-que place.
With only a few schools of our size, bus trips to football games were long — pre-interstate trips to Bogalusa, Lake Charles, Houma, Shreveport, etc.
As a cheerleader, I rode with the Pepsters, our girls’ marching group. There I was with a bus load of young ladies on long night trips back to Baton Rouge. Which would have been great if the chaperones had ever slept — and hadn’t had eyes in the back of their heads.
I found Istrouma prepared me well for LSU — not many of my classes were as tough as the ones I had in high school.
After we left, Istrouma gradually changed, as did North Baton Rouge.
School integration finally came, and the neighborhoods around Istrouma began to be populated by black families. Much change was due to white flight, but there would have been movement by white families out to places with larger homes and more land no matter who lived in their old neighborhoods.
Through it all, Istrouma’s goal remained the same — to prepare kids from working-class families for the world outside.
It was always a blue-collar school, whether its students were white or black. But it fulfilled its mission over the years, as the many success stories of its graduates prove.
Now it will exist only in our memories. But what memories they are…