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A Look Back at the History of the Lee High School Building

Melanie Hauser, Lee HS Alumni Director

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As we approach the final few school days remaining in this old Houston ISD building, we thought we would take a moment to look back at the history of this historic Lee High School facility that was built in 1962.
Alumni Director Melanie Hauser – a graduate of Lee herself – wrote the following story, to give us some perspective before this three-story structure gets torn down in just a few short weeks. We hope you enjoy it.

The year was 1962. John F. Kennedy was president and the new “Camelot” was in full swing. So was the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement.
The Johnson Space Center was just a year old and Martin Luther King Jr. was a year away from delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech. The Dow was at 767, gas was 31 cents and the first-class stamp would cost you four cents. The Southwest Freeway and the West Loop were under construction, “The Galleria” was a fruit and vegetable truck farm, and Gregory Peck had the role of a lifetime as Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Houston was exploding as the Astrodome was under construction, Sharpstown Mall – the world’s first air-conditioned mall – was thriving, the Houston Oilers were reining AFL champs, and the Colt 45s were Major League Baseball’s newest team. Houston International (later Hobby) was the city’s only airport, and George Bush Intercontinental was on the drawing board, the housing market was headed west and Westheimer was only a two-lane blacktop road.
That fall, Robert E. Lee Senior High School – totally air conditioned – opened its doors to alleviate crowding at Lamar and Bellaire High Schools and to deal with Houston’s fast-growing west suburbs.
Lee’s original boundaries went from the railroad tracks in Afton Oaks to Highway Six, encompassing among others Briargrove, Tanglewood, Briargrove Park, Rivercrest, Walnut Bend and the Afton Oaks subdivisions. But these suburbs and their own public high schools grew so fast, that HISD had to expand Lee in 1967 and again in 1987. The second expansion was a $14 million major addition that brought new gyms, a pool, and computer and instructional wings.
It all happened so quickly over the first year, Lee wasn’t dedicated until 1963. The school had graduated three seniors in the Fall of 1962, and the first full graduating class of ’63 had less than 50 students. Back then, the entire school could fit into the auditorium, but eight years later, the class of 1971 had almost 600 graduates. And by the 1980’s, Lee was one of the state’s largest 5A schools, with more than 3,200 students and with 750-800 graduating seniors each year.
It didn’t take long for Lee to jump to the forefront in both academics and athletics or to find an archrival –for the first few decades – in Lamar. The football battles were legendary; the unofficial pep rallies on Tanglewood Boulevard infamous. The school went from 19-4A to 18-5A, and Lee won the city football title in the Fall of 1972. Academically, Lee, Bellaire, Memorial and Lamar stood above the rest of the city and ranked among the brightest in the state. The field across the street became the unofficial student parking lot, and rainy days meant pushing cars out of the mud. Football, formals and school spirit ruled. Marselee and Hoffa — two off-campus social groups – thrived. There were pep rallies, and we had the ROTC, Anchor Club, Key Club, Spirit Committee, and the Marching Generals to be a part of.
Woodrow Watts was the school’s first principal; J.T. Shivers the second. Teachers like Margaret “Tiny” Wisdom and Arthur Crutchfield always had something — other than history, the Saber yearbook or debate – to impart. Homa Hill, and then Doris Countee, kept oceanography fun. Thera Yoes and Mary Jane Comstock, then Bonnie Holt and Charles Gomez, anchored the first floor math classes. Uncle Bob – a life-size fiberglass statue of the school namesake General Robert E. Lee and made by Henri Gadbois’ art class – was a staple at all pep rallies and football games. Regina Satloff and the Traveler newspaper kept us in the loop. Razz ‘M Tazz, under the guidance of Linda “Mama” Shuler, gave budding actors, comics, directors, and screen writers places to test themselves.
Almost 54 years after the doors opened, Lee was renamed thanks to an HISD board vote to remove all names associated with the Confederacy. And, come the summer of 2017, the old building will be gone and replaced with a new state-of-the-art, 21st century campus –facing Beverly Hill – because quite honestly, the old building was way past the state of more massive repairs.
Over the five-plus decades, its 23,000 alums have indeed seen a lot of change. The aforementioned field gave way to Pappasito’s and other businesses. Trees and apartments grew up around campus. The school colors, gold and gray, were tweaked to black and gold. Three-year senior high schools became 4-year institutions. Demographics of the area began to change in the 1980s and ‘90s, and since Lee was one of the largest HISD schools, the district opened Westside High School in 2000. Westside siphoned off the football and baseball teams and many of the clubs and advanced programs. Since then, Lee has undergone several academic changes and has become one of the most diverse schools in the country, reflecting our every-changing city.
What opened in ’62 as a school with an overwhelmingly Caucasian student body is now predominantly Hispanic American, although more than 50 countries are represented with just as many languages spoken by students. The soccer team is one of the state’s best – the Generals just won their fourth consecutive 24-5A title – and other teams, like track & field, cross-country, women’s soccer and wrestling are winning or contending for district titles.
Spirit Week, Homecoming Hallways and the Fall Fling are the latest traditions and the school continues to transform academically under Principal Jonathan Trinh. We do everything on cellphones, laptop computers and the Internet – staples that were in the infancy in 1962. Houston is the fourth largest city in the country, Bush Airport is one of the busiest and the city now has three loops around it – The West Loop, Beltway 8 and the Grand Parkway. The Astrodome is in decay and dwarfed in comparison to NRG stadium. And Lee is still there on Beverly Hill.
Everyone knows the most famous alum is ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Class of 1968 and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other impressive alums include Hollywood TV Director and Producer Andy Fickman (’82), former Justice of the Peace Bill Yoeman (’68), former City Councilman Ed Gonzales (’87) and Houston Free Press publisher Omar Afra.
The Class of 2016 joined those alums and became the last to graduate from Lee, before the school’s name was changed to Margaret Long Wisdom High School. But this year’s Class of 2017 is the last to roam the hallways of the old building, and the Class of 2018 will be the first to become seniors in the new building.
But for all of us – beginning with the kids in white socks and loafers in 1962 and ending with the multicultural student body of today – we’ll be forever be walking the gray and gold titled halls and making lifelong friends. We’ll remember the teachers who made a difference, cheering for the Generals and celebrating us as Lee graduates. Generals ……… forever!

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1 Comment

One Response to “A Look Back at the History of the Lee High School Building”

  1. Colleen on September 6th, 2017 5:40 pm

    I went to Lee from 1966-1969 and let me assure you it was NOT air conditioned!! We had a dress code for girls. Absolutely dresses and skirts only AND hose were required as well! Boys had to wear dress shirts with button down collars. And it was hot! We had those tall fans in each classroom and the windows stayed open. No one fought at Lee. Not one fight in my entire 12 years in Houston public schools!


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A Look Back at the History of the Lee High School Building