1950 – 1959: The Innocent Years

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 The United States

This decade was the time of motherhood and apple pie, the years when families sat down together for an evening meal. Life in the 1950′s was exemplified in the television shows Leave it  to Beaver and The Andy Griffith Show. It was a time of unprecedented prosperity. Between 1948 and 1955, family income almost doubled. In 1960 the gross national product was half a trillion dollars, a seventy-seven percent increase over the 1950 GNP. With increased prosperity, families fled to the suburbs for space, clean air, higher social status, and good schools. The demand for teachers and facilities exceeded the supply.


In response to a request for a personal message, Press Secretary James Hagerty sent the Highlander an autographed picture of Dwight D. Eisenhower. For Americans, President Eisenhower consistently symbolized moderation and calm. Photo from the Highlander

Although the 1950′s are called the Eisenhower Years, Harry Truman was still President for the first two. During this time he made three difficult decisions: he committed troops to Korea, he authorized the development of the hydrogen bomb, and stripped General Douglas MacArthur of his command. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President from 1953 to 1961, was a moderate, middle-of-the-road Republican. He surrounded himself with successful businessmen and appointed a new chief justice to the Supreme Court, former California governor Earl Warren. The epoch-making decisions of the Warren Court were in the spotlight for a decade. The Korean Conflict ended in 1953 with the signing of an armistice calling for a demilitarized zone, and in 1954 the Supreme Court declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional. Also during Eisenhower’s administration funds were appropriated for an interstate highway system, and farm subsidies went largely to big operators, forcing small farmers, particularly blacks, to flee to metropolitan areas for employment.

The 1950′s were also an early part of the Atomic Age. After the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War 2, the Soviets exploded a bomb in 1949. In response, scientists in the United States developed the hydrogen bomb, and on November 1, 1952, an explosion on hundred times as powerful as any previous bomb obliterated a mile-wide island in the Pacific. The weapons race seemed necessary because the Soviet Union pursued a course of world domination. It took over Eastern Europe and in 1956 crushed an uprising i Hungary. Ten years earlier Winston Churchill had warned that “an iron curtain” was descending. During the Cold War the foreign policy of the United States focused on containment of communism behind its existing borders. The war became hot when North Korean forces invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. This war was the first major challenge for the United Nations, an organization only five years old. During this “police action”, The United States suffered 162,708 casualties, 54,245 of them deaths.

The threat of communism was real — in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev declared, “We will bury you” — but people in the United States overreacted. Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin and chairman of a subcommittee on internal security, claimed to have a list of names of 205 influential government employees known to the secretary of state as members of the Communist Party.

Thus began a four-year witch hunt that ruined the lives of hundreds of innocent people. Even teachers had to take loyalty oaths. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. Educators reappraised math and science programs, and legislators financed the space race. On January 31, 1958, America launched Explorer 1.  The decade ended on a sour note, however, when in 1959 Fidel Castro took power in Cuba.

In 1896 the Supreme Court had ruled that separate but equal educational facilities for Negroes were legal. In 1954, however, the Warren Court reversed this decision by saying that separate facilities were inherently unequal, that racial segregation violated the Fourteenth Amendment. At the time seventeen states required segregation and four permitted it. Although the court said that local authorities were to proceed “with all deliberate speed,” by the end of the decade 2,118 school districts still had not complied. One December evening in 1955, Rosa Parks, a Negro seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to move to the back of the bus; her action was the start of the nonviolent revolution by American blacks to integrate public facilities in the South. A young Montgomery minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., organized the bus boycott that resulted in desegregated public transportation.

Nancy Key and Henry Price
The picture of two LHS students, Nancy Key and Henry Price, appeared in the October 1954 Photolith, a national magazine for yearbook staffs. The setting reflects the times: church, mom, and apple pie. Photo from Photolith

At the beginning of the decade, only one American family in twenty owned a television set; at the end of the decade nineteen of twenty did. All television programing was live, as videotape had not yet been perfected. Popular shows included I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, and Hallmark Hall of Fame.  It was the competition with television that led to Hollywood’s rapid conversion from black-and-white to color film. From 1934 to the late 1950′s, the film industry honored a production code set up by the Legion of Decency. The code forbade scenes of passion; the sanctity of the home was always to be upheld. Married couples were never to be shown sharing a bed, and profanity, racial epithets, nudity, and lustful kissing were prohibited. All criminal activities within a film were to be punished. Blockbusters from this decade included The Robe, Oklahoma, and Rebel without a Cause. In the world of popular music, the superstar was Elvis Presley. Although Ed Sullivan pronounced the rock n’ roll king “unfit for a family audience,” he later hired him for three appearances but permitted the camera to film him only from the waist up.

Although the Eisenhower years have been called eight years of sleep, this was the time in which Europe was rebuilt and Japanese democracy made strong. The fifties have been described as the nothing years of unparalleled mediocrity, but the United States managed to show the Soviets that they could not take over the world and at the same time avoid nuclear war. These were the calm years, the calm before the storm.


Lakeland in the 1950′s still had a small-town atmosphere. Everything revolved around the downtown area, and Munn Park was the center of downtown. At a curb market on the north side of Bay Street, farmers sold fresh vegetables. Most grocery shopping was in the downtown area, and J.C. Penny was the best department store on Main Street. Kathleen was another town, and the narrow paved road around Lake Hollingsworth was a challenge to all new drivers. Lake Hollingsworth was a safe place to live. People left their windows open at night and traveled all over town on the city bus. There were four movie theaters — the Palace Theatre and the Strand on Kentucky Avenue, the Lake Theatre on Main Street, and the Polk Theatre on Florida Avenue — as well as three drive-in movie theaters: the Silvermoon, Filmland, and Lakeland Drive-In. Lakeland also had a skating rink and an air-conditioned bowling alley.

Southgate drawing

Growth during the decade was slow. The population according to the 1950 census was 38,000; it was 41,350 in 1960. George Jenkins moved his warehouse to Lakeland in 1951 and built Lakeland‘s first shopping center for his fourth Lakeland Publix store. Southgate opened on November 9,1957, with the high neon arch that is still a landmark. The downtown was still much alive, especially since Maas Brothers had built there in 1954. North Street, a two-lane road that ended at Wabash, was converted into the four-lane Memorial Boulevard. Although I-4 was not completed until 1962, the dedication for this connection was held on November 15,1954, the first in Florida. Watson Clinic, previously housed in the Thelma Hotel and the Marble Arcade, moved to its present site at 1600 Lakeland Hills Boulevard in 1958. The theater and auditorium overlooking Lake Mirror were built in 1957 and dedicated “to a continual program of civic entertainment.” Most important of all the construction to Lakeland‘s young people was the McDonald’s modern drive-in restaurant which opened on Memorial Boulevard in 1958. Hamburgers cost fifteen cents and french fries sold for a dime. At Florida Southern College and Lucius Pond Ordway Building was constructed in 1952 and the William Danforth Chapel in 1955. The last of Wright’s designs was the science building and planetarium completed in 1958. In a visit in 1957, Wright summed up the feel of the campus: “Every building is out of the ground, into the light, a child of the sun, the college of the future.” Dr. Charles T. Thrift, Jr., was named president of the college in 1957.

Elvis and fan

One of Elvis Presley's many fans was Ginger Harrell, 1960 LHS graduate. Because her sister was dating a Ledger photographer, she had the opportunity to pose with the star on August 6, 1956. Photo courtesy of Ginger Cannon

Although Buddy Rich and Tommy Dorsey played at the Polk Theatre in 1950, the most remembered musical event of the 1950′s was the appearance of Elvis Presley on August 6, 1956. At each of the three shows that day, two thousand fans paid $1.25 each to see the hip-swiveling, guitar-strumming singer. Each show lasted about two hours, with a magic show and a comedian getting the crowed ready for the last twenty minutes with Elvis. The excitement was electric; girls shrieked and screamed with joy as Elvis and the Jordannaires performed. Police even had to hold girls back from climbing onto the stage. This rock ‘n’ roll idol brought ecstasy to Lakeland on month before his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Like all southern towns, Lakeland was segregated in the 1950′s. The railroad tracks separated the town into two communities. Separate drinking fountains and restrooms were marked “Colored” and “White,” and blacks always rode at the back of the bus. They ate either at separate restaurants or at the back of white restaurants. Blacks, who represented twenty percent of the population, had their own school. Black teachers were on a lower pay scale, and black students had a different curriculum because there was never enough equipment. Because their books were always hand-me-downs from white schools, students were made to feel that this treatment was what they deserved. During the first half of the decade, they accepted the conditions that had existed for decades. After the ruling in the Brown vs. the Board of Education case in 1954, however, they realized that the law was on their side. Although outwardly nothing changed in Lakeland in the 1950′s beneath the surface resentment was growing.

In the meantime, the city had other problems. In 1954 the last of the swans, a Lake Morton attraction since the 1920′s, died. Two years later the Queen of England offered the city a pair of Enlglish mute swans. Although the birds were free, the crating and shipping cost three hundred dollars, an amount raised by residents and tourists. On February 9, 1957, the royal pair, described as “big, white and beautiful,” arrived. And life in Lakeland went peacefully on.

Lakeland High School

Two major changes occurred at Lakeland High School during the 1950′s. The first was, of course, the move to the new campus on Hollingsworth Road. The second was the retirement of the principal, Mr. T.J. Poppell, after twenty-five years. Never again would a principal have such a long tenure and the school such continuity of leadership. Students praised him for his patience, understanding, devotion, and selflessness. May 10,1957, was designated Mr. Poppell Day, and at an assembly of the student body he was presented with a console television set, paid for by the students. The convocation closed with the singing of the Alma Mater.

The new Lakeland High School

The new Lakeland High School, which opened up in September 1952, consisted of six buildings set in an orange grove. Hollingsworth Road and Crystal Lake Drive served as Bartow Highway. Photo from the Highlander

The new school was necessary because of overcrowded conditions at the 1927 structure. School experts at the time felt that junior high and senior high students should be separated. Only tenth, eleventh, and twelfth graders transferred to the new campus. Seventh, eighth, and ninth graders comprised the Lakeland Junior High School, which remained at the North Florida location. The new campus, which was ready for students in September 1952, was built for $400,00. It consisted of six units built in an orange grove: three classroom units, a cafeteria, an administrative wing, and a locker room. The new facility, with a capacity of 900 students, opened with 875 students and 31 teachers. Students quickly realized that the new campus lacked some things that the old school had: a gymnasium, an auditorium, and a band room. Because of these shortages and the potential for overcrowding, another bond issue had already been passed in December 1951.

 The reaction to the new campus was varied. Some thought it was like a college campus. One pointed out that the old school had a personality but the new one didn’t yet. A few worried about missing assemblies, study hall, and Slim’s. However, most found it to be bright and new and fresh and clean. All agreed that it was wonderful not to have all those stairs and to be away from the junior high youth. Students found it an exciting privilege to be the first in a brand new setting. They relished all the trees around the buildings, the closeness to nature, the spaciousness. The campus was set in a thirty-nine-acre tract of orange groves with a banana swamp southeast of the parking lot. The present Bartow Highway did not exist; Hollingsworth Road was U.S. 92.

The new school was not air conditioned. Eventually the office area got one unit, and members of the Key Club had a dance and car wash to provide a unit for the audiovisual aids room. All classrooms relied upon open windows for circulation. When crinolines and angoracuffs became fashionable, most rooms smelled like sweat and liquid starch.

At first basketball games had to be played at the junior high school, and football practice was at Bryant Stadium. In 1954 construction was begun on six more units with a completion goal of February 1955. A gymnasium, boys’ locker room, agriculture building, industrial arts building, and H-Wing were built for $500,000. An auditorium was proposed but never materialized. In 1956 a writer for the Bagpipe, the school newspaper, bragged that LHS had the second largest high school gym in the state. Also in 1956 a thirty-thousand-dollar activities field was started, necessitating removal of five hundred citrus trees.

In 1953 the enrollment at the three-year school was 1,023 with 43 faculty members. By the 1958-59 school year the enrollment had grown to 1,440 with a faculty of 55. Most students walked to school, took the city bus for ten cents, or were brought by their parents. Although not many students drove, parking was a problem from the day the school opened. The only parking lot was south of the administration building, and when it filled, students often parked on the grass in front of the school. By 1958 parking permits were issued to the 150 students who lived farthest from campus and had the least opportunity to ride a city bus. During this decade students used an area easy of C-Wing as a smoking area before and after school and during lunch. The school day started at 8 a.m. and finished at 3p.m. There were six fifty-two-minute periods each day in addition to a half-hour lunch and a half-hour activity period. The activity period, used mainly for club and class meetings and band practice, was the first thing in the morning. Later it was changed to the end of the school day so that those students not involved in club activities could go home. Assemblies were held about once a week in the gymnasium, but student behavior was not good, partly because the microphone rarely worked but mainly because of the informal setting. Students could no longer leave campus for lunch, but this ruling was not challenged, as there was no place close to go anyway. Most students paid thirty cents for lunch in the cafeteria, but a few brought sack lunches. A disc jockey play 45rpm records during the break. Students looked forward to lunch and club meetings. School was the primary focus, but something secondary to a part-time job.

Most students took five classes and a study hall. They could give up study hall to be library workers or be on a publications staff. By 1959 the library had increased its collection to 11,500 volumes and fines were five cents per day. Starting in 1956 state requirements for graduation were three years of English, two years of social studies, one year of mathematics, one year of physical education. All physical education classes at the new school were held outside until the gymnasium was completed in 1955. The course content included dancing (to which a few ministers in town objected), horseshoes, badminton, golf, archery, softball, crafts, and even bait casting at Lake Horney. Students were also bused to the city pool for swimming lessons. Drivers education, mechanical drawing, and industrial arts were added to the curriculum in 1955 and French in 1958.

New gymnasium

When the new gymnasium was completed in 1955, it was the second largest gym in the state. Before its completion, practices were held at the old gym on Florida Avenue. Photo from the Highlander

Beginning in 1950 a College and Career Day sponsored by the American Association of University Women was made available to seniors. In 1954 juniors could also attend, and in 1958 some sophomores were included. Nine-teen colleges sent representatives in 1951; by 1958 forty colleges were available. College testing grew in importance during the decade. By 1954 ninety percent of the high schools in the state were participating in the college placement  testing program administered by the University of Florida. The National Merit Scholarship test was given to fifteen LHS seniors in 1955, and in 1956 Lakeland High School had a runner-up for a National Merit Scholorship. Juniors could take this test in 1958. The Scholastic Aptitude Test was offered in 1955; the morning test cost six dollars and the afternoon test an additional eight. Thirty eight juniors and seniors took the SAT in Tampa in 1958.

Clubs and interest groups then as always were a vital part of school life. In fact, clubs were instrumental in landscaping the new campus. The Classical Club, with 128 members in 1958, was one of the largest organizations on campus. Not only did it continue having a Roman banquet every year, but also in 1950 and 1956 it hosted the state forum attended by eight hundred students from across Florida. The Keyettes and Lionettes service clubs formed in 1950. By1956 eleven service clubs were active on campus. Although these organizations emphasized service, they resembled fraternities and sororities in that membership was by invitation only. A 1958 state law outlawed secret societies in Florida public schools; after that the request for membership came from the student and not the club. The “L” Club continued to invite athletes who lettered in football, baseball, basketball, tennis, track, or golf. A girls’ drill team called the Cruisers was formed in 1955. Until 1951 boys as well as girls served as cheerleaders. Boys were dropped because they were needed on the field, and they were unwilling to practice. After 1951 the cheerleading squad was composed of twelve girls elected by popular vote; selection was one of the highest honors a girl could receive. Cheerleaders frequently traveled great distances to games, sometimes going as far away as Jacksonville. On train trips they wore nice traveling outfits, gloves, and hats. After arriving they would change into their uniforms. Cheers then emphasized crowd participation rather than gymnastic ability.

Hall and street patrols continued on the new campus. The purpose of the hall patrol was to keep order when classes were changing and keep unauthorized persons off campus. In 1956 local authorities decided that the street patrol should not be charged with the responsibility of directing traffic, as this was the function of the local police department; thus the street patrol was reduced to a campus patrol. The Student Council planned Stunt Night after a ten year hiatus, and the junior class sold book jackets and magazines to raise money for the Junior-Senior Reception. After Mr. Harry Mayhall retired, Miss Hazel Haley took over the direction of the senior class play. Selections during the decade included Arsenic and Old Lace  and  Charley’s Aunt. Plays were still presented at Mayhall Auditorium, but the caliber of the productions greatly improved.

LHS graduates

Nine college-bound LHS graduates posed for the Ledger in September 1960. Gloves, hats, and spike heels were proper attire for girls. Photo courtesy of Sharon Smith and the Ledger


Dances were an important part of student life. In fact, a dance was held after every football game, usually at the Teen Midway, the city-owned recreation building. Dances held in the new gymnasium were always sock hops so that shoes would not mar the basketball court. Homecoming was the most important dance of the fall season. The queen was selected by the penny-a-vote system until 1951, when the election was by popular vote. Having a Homecoming King instead of an escort selected by the “L” Club started in 1951. Homecoming also involved a parade with floats and the candidates riding in gaily decorated convertibles. In 1959 Drag Night replaced the parade.

The Christmas Dance was another important event. The Bagpipe sponsored the contest for the selection of Miss Merry Christmas and Mr. Happy New Year to reign during the holiday. Sometimes this dance was held at the Teen Midway and sometimes at the Ordway Building at Florida Southern College. In the early spring the Keyettes sponsored a TWIRP Dance, TWIRP being an acronym for The Woman Is Requested To Pay. In 1958 Billie Lynn Sloan lamented that during TWIRP week she spent two dollars on her one and only and not a penny on herself. “My money is all gone. I guess my twirping days are over this year,” she said. In March of 1959 the Key Club celebrated the arrival of spring with a prom, a semi-formal dance at the Civic Center with tickets selling for one dollar.

The most important social event of the year, of course, was the Junior – Senior Reception. In 1950 it was held at the Civic Center, with a pirate theme. In 1953 it was at  the Teen Midway with a South Sea Island theme. In 1954 an Evening in Paris was used, and in 1956 Oriental Gardens. Students used bamboo stands with a water feature to carry out a Polynesian theme in 1957. They strung more than twenty-five thousand beads for curtains. One of the joys of the event was the camaraderie established by the juniors working to put it all together. The elaborate decorations were homemade. The main cost was the dress; girls wore long formals with the corsages their dates brought them. Students had fun within the city limits.

1959 prom

Students in a formal receiving line greet guests at the 1959 prom held at the Ordway Arts Building at Florida Southern College. Decorations were by the juniors and food by the parents. Photo courtesy of Ginger Cannon

The Teen Midway was a gathering place for students in the 1950′s. Joker Marchant, city recreation director, was the driving force behind its establishment. It was located on Massachusetts Avenue across the railroad from the present police station. The center was limited to teenagers; twenty-year-olds could look in,but they could not stay. The after-school hours were 3:30 to 8:30; every Friday night there was a dance. Attractions included a dance floor, band stand, refreshments, and games such as ping pong and tether ball. The teenagers of the fifties also liked to hang out at Pipkin’s Drive-In Resaurantm Reece-cliff, or Clearvue on Memorial Boulevard. It was during this decade that pizza became a popular food. Movies at the Silvermoon or Lakeland Drive-In were well attended, frequently with students hiding in the trunk while passing the admission booth. Water skiing was popular with those who had access to a boat, and going to an away game on the train was great fun. Special Trains carried football players, cheerleaders, students, and parents to destinations such as Tampa or Jacksonville for a charge of one dollar. For students who could afford it, Miss Marguerite Lumpkin, the social studies department head, organized student trips for about $135. The spring trip to New York and Washington, D.C.

The three student publuications continued to receive awards. The Tam O’ Shanter called itself “a magazine of you, by you, and for you.” It received many first-place awards from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. In 1953 the Tam was one of three literary magazines in Florida. During that year it had a cover contest, awarding the winner three dollars. In 1958 the Bagpipe won the All-State Award, the highest recognition given to a school paper. It sold for ten cents per issue or $1 for the year. In 1955 the Bagpipe began publishing a calendar featuring thirteen beautiful Lakeland girls. This moneymaker continued past the end of the decade. It was the Bagpipe that nominated Miss Lumpkin for the Freedoms Foundation award, and she did become a Valley Forge Classroom Teachers’ Medal award winner. The Highlander received first-place ratings from the National Scholastic Press Association and the Columbia Press Association. The cost of an annual was $3.50 in 1951, $4 in 1955, and $4.50 in 1958. Every year seniors voted for the faculty member to whom the yearbook should be dedicated. The foreword to the 1950 Highlander revealed the students’ values: “Education should be based on the Christian democratic principles which we sincerely feel to be the one hope for preserving our civilization throughout this Atomic Age.”

For the band it was a decade of building. Mr. Eric Berg took over where Mr. Harry Mayhall left off. Unfortunately, Mr. Mayhall took all his instruments and music with him. It took a long time to build up a collection of large and unusual instruments so that students would not have to purchase them. Band members collected coat hangers and tied them in bundles of twenty-five to sell to dry cleaners. With such fundraisers they were able to buy new uniforms in 1953. During a football game in 1952, the band formed a dollar sign to thank the people of Lakeland for the money raised for its benefit. A contest for an Alma Mater for the new school was held; a student wrote the lyrics and Mr.Berg the music. At the new campus the band met in a classroom until the band building was completed in the mid-fifties. Mrs. Berg sewed heavy drapes for the classroom to absorb some of the sound.

Homecoming parade

The Bagpipe staff decorated their entry in a Homecoming parade of the 1950's. The community supported school activities, with attendance at football games at an all-time high. LHS archives

 Before the move to the new campus, the Lakeland band was never exclusively a high school band. Mr. Mayhall filled in with many adults, including his wife. The first real high school band in 1952 started with twenty-four members, with Mr. Berg himself playing the tuba. When the band entered state competition for the first time in 1953, it was the only band in the history of the Florida Band Masters Association to have all the clarinetists, usually the largest section of the band, also entered as a quartet. The LHS band grew to sixty-five members by the end of the decade. It got an added boost after 1957 when Southwest Junior High School opened as another feeder program. Although the Lakeland High School band achieved Superiors in district competition, it received only Excellents at the state level because of its limited instrumentation. Mr. Berg’s chorus, however, did receive Superiors at state. The October 23, 1953, Bagpipe offered this evaluation of the new band director: “He has worked out many clever halftime shows for the entertainment of people attending the games. He has required that the band members have good scholastic qualities as well as be qualified musically.”

1954 Christmas parade

Lake Mirror is the background for the LHS band marching in the 1954 Christmas parade. When the band was formed on the new campus in 1952, only twenty-eight students participated. Photo courtesy Eric Berg

The last midterm graduation was Janurary 20, 1950. After that, graduation exercises were held only at the end of second semester. In 1953 the size of the graduating class at the new campus was 235. By 1959 this number had grown to 368. In 1953 thirty-seven awards were presented during the graduation exercises. As this number continued to grow, it was decided to have a seperate awards night, the first one occurring in 1957. During this decade the graduation ceremoney was held at Mayhall Auditorium, and afterwards there was an all-night party at the Teen Midway with a movie at the Polk Theatre and breakfast at Morrison’s. The next day many students went to the beach for a week. Each club rented a house and took a parent to chaperone.

Since few people owned television sets at the beginning of the decade, most students felt little involvement with the Korean Conflict. The May 23, 1952, Bagpipe mentioned the deaths in Korea of two LHS students, but their names were not given. Students were more interested in whether eighteen-year-olds should have the right to vote. To discuss another topic of interest, a panel of students in 1956 debated whether married students should be allowed to stay in school. The consensus was that since they had dropped their role at teenagers and had taken on the role of adult, they should go to night school. A pregnant girl never attended regular classes during the 1950′s; she too was enrolled in night school.

Since students have always been fun-loving adolescents, a few pranks were played during this era. Once at the old school a metal garbage can was rolled down three flights of stairs during class time; the result was ten licks for those involved. Also at the old school a Model A was lifted by a group of fifteen students and carried into the front hall of the building. At the new school a group of five “borrowed” a used toilet from a plumbing company and placed it on top of the administration building. One of the perpetrators thought that with the sun bouncing off it the next morning it resembled a work of art. None of the pranks was malicious or immoral. This was a period of restraint, with most discipline problems involving infractions such as chewing gum, throwing spitballs, or passing notes.

Important dances

Important dances in the 1950's included the Christmas Ball and the Sadie Hawkins Dance, a girl-bid affair. Holding the 45 rpm records are Loyce Surrency and Ted Bywater. Photo from the Highlander

Students in the 1950′s respected adults and wanted to please them. They were anxious to learn and abided by the rules. Protesting the Korean Conflict would not have entered their heads. They did not wear revealing clothes; in fact, girls did not even wear slacks. Jeans, called dungarees, were for farmers. Divorce was uncommon and most mothers were at home when students returned at the end of the school day. Fun was being with friends, walking the grass path around Lake Hollingsworth, and going to the beach on Saturday. It was a simple life in an age of innocence.


After the war, athletic heroes sprouted all over the nation. In football they were Johnny Unitas, Howard Cassidy, Paul Hornung, Billy Cannon, Pete Dawkins, Jim Brown, Otto Graham, and Bobby Layne. Baseball was dominated by Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Stan Musial, Rocket Colavito, and Whitey Ford. Sugar Ray Robinson topped boxing, with Rockey Marciano and Floyd Patterson right behind.

Lakeland had a good decade as well. On Friday nights in the fall the place to be was Bryant Stadium if the Dreadnaught football team was playing at home. The stadium was filled with thousands of people every Friday; the rest of Lakeland seemed deserted. The basketball team won the state title in 1957, for the last time in the twentieth century. Lakeland was twice a state baseball winner, copping the crown in 1950 and 1959.

The overall football record (40-35-5) for the decade does not reflect the quality of play during those years. Because of Coach Nurmi Nelson’s philosophy that he would rather be challenged and lose to a good team than to defeat a poor one, Lakeland continued to play schools with double or triple its enrollment. Among the more memorable games were ties with arch-rival Hillsborough in 1951 and 1952, a wild scoring 46-35 win over Ft. Lauderdale in 1952  (three touchdowns by Jerry Drawdy and four by Bobby Brannen), and 1957 wins over Miami Jackson and West Palm Beach. A special feat was Jack Alford’s 101-yard kick return against West Palm Beach in 1955. The 1955 season ended with a 27-6 victory over Dade City in the Citrus Bowl at Bryant Stadium.

In spite of the won-lost record, Lakeland continued to produce quality athletes. Among those earning scholarships were Art Wright (Florida), Dick Leis and Paul Davis (Tampa), Joe Barnard (Georgia), Olin Hill (Furman, later drafted by the NFL), Lamar Peace (Florida), Bill Hood(Florida, Team Captain), and Jack Everett (Coffeyville Junior College). Others earning fan appreciation were Tony Felder, Bobby Brannen, Bob Johnson, Royce Stewart, Bobby Harrell, and Lawrence Harvey.

Early basketball teams of the decade were handicapped by a lack of good facilities. Coaches Jack Deedrick (1950-52) and Jack Barker (1953-55) both had competitive teams while continuing to play in the old Lakeland High School gym. Not until 1956 did LHS finally get a new state-of-the-art gymnasium, the envy of schools from Tampa to Orlando and the site of many tournaments. Florida Southern College played its home games at the LHS gym for the next decade, until George Jenkins Field House was completed. The 1955-56 season also brought a new coach. John (Sonny) Powell, star cager at the University of Florida, took over the duties and brought an increased interest.

1957 basketball

This team won the 1957 state championship for basketball, the first triumph since 1929. For the victory in Gainesville, the Dreadnaughts defeated the powerful teams of Clearwater, Miami Senior High, and Edison of Miami. Photo from the Highlander

Highlighting the 1956-57 regular season was a tripleheader unmatched for thrills and skills. After Lakeland won the junior varsity game in overtime, the varsity team defeated Auburndale, reigning state champion, 69-67 in double overtime. Lakeland‘s Bobby Shiver scored 42 points, and Auburndale‘s Frank Etheridge scored 46. In the finale, Florida Southern edged the University of Miami team that featured future NBA great Rick Barry. Powell’s cagers put it all together in the state tournament winning the state title with a 49-46 victory over Miami Edison on key free throws by Ronnie Akins. Bobby Shiver, who would later captain the Florida Gator cagers, was the top scorer with 1,151 career points. Lamar Peace was the top rebounder; Shiver and Peace were supported by Larry Gore, Ronnie Jones, Marion Pye, and Eddie  Collier. Hundreds of Lakelanders journeyed to Gainesville to see this state championship victory, the first since 1929. The decade began and ended with state championships in baseball. The 1950 team, coached by Junior Horsey, was led by Harry Coe, Albert Jordan, Charles Selph, Mac Henry, and Art Wright. In 1953 Jim Miller took over the coaching duties and led the Dreadnaughts to for Big Ten championships, five district titles, and one state championship.

After average baseball seasons in 1953 and 1954, Lakeland won conference and district titles in 1955, 1956, 1957, and 1959. The team lost out to Hillsborough in 1958. A loss to Key West in the 1957 state tournament was avenged in 1959 when, after Bobby Walker throttled Jacksonville Lee 3-2 to win the 2A championship, Dave Amsler silenced Key West’s big bats for a 4-2 win and the overall state championship. Key West’s team included former Lakelanders John (Boog) Powell, a Little Leauge star who played for LHS his sophomore year and became the Baltimore Oriole MVP in 1970, and Charlie Taylor (Pittsburgh Pirates).

1959 baseball

This team won the 1959 state championship, the last top baseball trophy for the century. After defeating Edison, Sarasota, and Jacksonville, the Dreadnaught team topped Key West in the final game. Photo from the Highlander

A second place in the state meet and four Big Ten titles were the accomplishments of the golf teams of the fifties. Under the leadership of Coach Claude Thompson (1950-56), Lakeland won three conference titles and was state runner-up in 1956, losing out by one stroke. With Coach Mabel Caperton at the helm in 1957, Lakeland repeated as Big Ten champions. Outstanding were Joe Hamby, Gary Clark, Jamie Jackson, Tom B. and Tom T. Taylor, Ron and Richard Garl, Rob McManus, and Arthur Edwards.

Boys’ tennis was resumed in 1956 with Joe Clanton as coach. They started well, winning the Big Ten championship through the fine play of Larry Hale and Dave Beerman, who both earned college scholarships.

Three state championships made the fifties one of the best decades for the Dreadnaughts.

One Noteworthy Student

Neva Jane Langley, winner of the 1953 Miss America Pageant, graduated from Lakeland High School in 1950. Born in Lakeland during the depth of the Depression, she started playing the piano at age seven through a program sponsored by the WPA. When her parents saw how interested she was, they provided her with a private instructor. She once said about her early life, ” Lakeland was an absolutely ideal place to grow up in. I loved it.” And everybody loved her. She played the piano at weddings, social clubs, and church and also performed on a weekly radio program. In high school she was a cheerleader, secretary of Student Council, and a member of the Classical Club, Honor Society, and Quill and Scroll. She was Lakeland High School’s Homecoming Queen her sophomore year and Miss Merry Christmas her junior year. When she was sixteen, she became the Tangerine Queen at the Tangerine Contest in Winter Haven.

After graduating from high school, she spent a year at Florida Southern and then began studying music at Wesleyan Conservatory in Macon, Georgia. It was the college’s fine arts dean who nominated her for the Miss Macon contest. After winning that, she won the Miss Georgia competition, and then it was on to Atlantic City. Since televising the national pageant did not start until 1955, Lakeland residents listened to it on the radio. Although students were overjoyed to hear that Neva Jane had been proclaimed the most beautiful and talented young woman in America, they disliked hearing her referred to as “Georgia’s own . . . .” To everybody here she was “Lakeland‘s own.” After winning both the talent and swimsuit competition and then the crown on September 6, 1952, Neva Jane traveled to forty-seven states during the following year. Traveling with a chaperon, she made public appearances almost every day of her year-long reign. The five thousand dollar scholarship prize helped her to finish college.

Neva Jane Langley

Neva Jane Langley, 1950 LHS graduate, won the Miss America title in 1953. Because the Atlantic City event was not televised until 1955, Lakelanders listened on the radio to the competition. Photo courtesy of Neva Jane Fickling

Neva Jane married and raised two sons and two daughters in Macon. After a twenty-five-year hiatus, she returned to her musical career. She was a guest soloist with the Macon Symphony Orchestra, the Utah Symphony Orchestra, and the Symphony Orchestra in Benevento, Italy. In April 1998 she returned to Lakeland to give a concert at the Polk Theatre. She also recorded a CD and was awarded an honorary doctorate. Not one to rest on her former glory, she served as the president of music, garden, and social clubs in Macon. On one occasion she was instrumental in raising $160,000 in one night to restore an 1848 Macon opera house. She has been described as genuine and caring, a person who never meets a stranger. Her Lakeland pastor said, “Neva’s beauty and personality are reflections of her character and spiritual nature . . . she has always sought to do the greatest good with her talent.”

One Noteworthy Teacher

 Known for years in Lakeland as Mr. Football, Coach L.L. (Nurmi) Nelson grew up in Alabama. In high school, even though he weighed only 125 pounds, he participated in football, basketball, baseball, and track; and at Auburn University he was quarterback of the football team, a star sprinter and broad jumper on the track team, captain of the 1926 track team, and president of his senior class. Once during a football game he made a successful sixty-five yard run for a touchdown. From then on he was called “Nurmi” after Paavo Nurmi, a great Finnish distance runner. During his ten years of coaching football in Gadsden, Alabama, he had a record of seventy-five wins, eleven ties, and thirteen losses. He was an ideal candidate for Lakeland High School’s coaching position in 1948: Lakeland had not won a football game for two years.

During Coach Nelson’s sixteen seasons as head coach as LHS, he won seventy-seven, lost seventy-five, and tied nine. Lakeland High School was the smallest school in the Big Ten Conference, and he preferred losing to larger schools than winning against smaller ones. In 1949 the Dreadnaughts won 9 and lost 1, missing the Big Ten title by a disputed touchdown in a sea of mud. From 1952 on, Lakeland consistently played a tough schedule.

Although Hillsborough was the biggest rival at that time, the Dreadnaughts also played Miami area schools and in the process chalked up some stunning upsets. Coach Nelson brought to Lakeland an exciting brand of football. Fans often took bets on how long it would be before he slammed his cap to the ground in frustration. “I guess the game we wanted to win the most of all,” he said “was the Chamberlain game in 1961.” Chamberlain won by a touchdown before about twelve thousand people in Tampa. It was Lakeland‘s only loss of the season. His team missed the title and the then-mythical state crown in losing 7-0. In 1962 they  just missed sharing the Western Conference title when they lost the season’s finale to Manatee. A mathematics teacher, Coach Nelson served as athletic director from 1966 until his retirement in 1968.

In his two decades at Lakeland High School, Nurmi Nelson made Lakeland a team to be respected. He had the ability to inspire players to rise above themselves and exceed the expectations of even the most rabid Lakeland Dreadnaught fans. One student said “Coach was a motivator like none other; as he delivered his message to us before a game, we felt like running right through the walls to get to that field and start playing!” He was also a thoroughly entertaining speaker who had a wonderful relationship with the community. In honor of his contributions, the 1950 and 1962 Highlanders were dedicated to him, and a scholarship fund was established in his name in 1991. In 1961 the practice football field at Lakeland High School was named after this inspiring high school football coach.

Nurmi Nelson

LHS coach for almost two decades, Nurmi Nelson brought an exciting brand of football to Lakeland. The practice field at the Hollingsworth Road campus was named in his honor. Photo from the Highlander


1889 - 2016
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