Bobby Joe Campbell joked that his family was so poor while he grew up during the 1950s in south Columbus, "Every time the rent came due, we'd have to move."
In his first seven years of education, he went to a dozen elementary schools.
"That's no exaggeration," he insisted.
So when he declared that attending Winterfield Elementary School in the second through fourth grades "meant the most to me of any three years that I ever spent in my life," he has a larger comparison group than most.
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And he has a tighter reunion group than most.
Campbell, a retired English teacher from Columbus High School and now a licensed auctioneer, went on to become president of the Class of 1965 at Baker High School. After the 35th reunion in 2000, a group of Winterfield alumni decided they had such a fine time reminiscing, they didn't want to wait another year to meet again. So thanks to Ed Kirkland's leadership and Roy Nix's email list, the Winterfield branches of Baker, as well as some offshoots from Columbus and Jordan high schools, gather twice a year for a Saturday lunch.
Winterfield opened in 1951 on Dawson Street and was demolished in 2000 to make room for Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, which opened later that year on the same property but fronting 30th Avenue. Although the Winterfield building is gone, and these Baby Boomers are now senior citizens, their relationships remain strong.
The alumni group is so informal, however, it doesn't even have a name. No officers, no dues and no agenda -- except good friends getting together for good food and good times, recalling good memories and making new ones.
"A few drinks -- tea in our case -- a few laughs, nobody gets hurt," said Kirkland, who owns a small business in Roswell, Ga., called Kirkland Imports LLC.
As about two dozen Winterfield alumni lunched last month in Ezell's Catfish Cabin on Warm Springs Road, Campbell explained why that school made such an impact on him.
"I can walk up to any one of these people in this room and say, 'I love you,'" he said. "Not only will they believe it, but they'll also feel it."
Because it was more than a school. It was a community. It was a family.
From their homes, throughout the neighborhood and in school, Kirkland and his classmates felt a seamless bond, "the right mix of love and discipline," he said. "Church attendance instilled in us strong moral values of showing respect and courtesy to others."
Kirkland called his childhood "a magical time."
"The Korean War was winding down, the economy was good, people worked hard and really were thankful for living in such a blessed nation," he said. "That attitude was reflected in the way families were raised in our neighborhoods and in the way our teachers and principals taught us to reach for scholastic and social achievement. We also were heavily influenced by the close proximity to Fort Benning and the values of love of country and disciplined determination in all that we did."
Wilson Grier made the longest drive to attend this lunch. He can find catfish in Flemingsburg, Ky., but not friends like these folks.
"Everyone in this room has been a lifelong friend," said Grier, a retired teacher now raising beef cattle. "That big fella right there (Kirkland) was the best man at my wedding in Northfield, Mich. When we talk, it's like yesterday."
In addition to exploring Bull Creek, collecting bird eggs, fishing, boxing at the Boys Club, swimming and shooting marbles, Grier fondly remembers Virgil Hughey, who taught science and coached all the sports.
"He put us in a 1957 Ford, 12 or 13 kids, and he ran us all over Columbus playing basketball and football," Grier said. "I mean, he taught us that there are some things that you do and some things that you don't. When my kids do something wrong, they ask, 'What would Virgil say about that?' because that's who I quote."
After each game, Hughey, who became principal of Columbus High (1980-84), treated his Winterfield players to an ice-cold Coca-Cola at Parker's Grocery Store, "and he did not have the money to do that," Grier said.
Winterfield's janitor, A.J. Banks, was another mentor at the school, whose students were all white because it was before the Muscogee County School District was desegregated in 1971.
"He was like a second father to every kid at that school," Grier said. "He was black, but he treated us like his own children. If we were doing something wrong, he was the first to straighten us out, but he was the kindest gentleman you ever saw."
Bob Bunn, retired from the Jacksonville (Fla.) Electric Authority, explained why he drove 300 miles for this lunch.
"It's always better to be seen than viewed," he said with a laugh.
Bunn described attending Winterfield as "a great, innocent youth. In that era, the village raised the kids. You couldn't get away with anything, because if you were off doing something, one of the neighbors would call, 'Little Bobby is down here by the creek with his air rifle.'"
Or he was ogling Donna Howard Hiller, "the prettiest little redhead you'd ever seen," who lived down the street.
"Her daddy was the most intimidating guy in the world," Bunn said. "He scared the boyfriends off."
"Well," Hiller said with a smile, "I was his oldest. He was going to make sure."
Kathy King, who back then was "Cathy with a C," hitched a ride with Kirkland from Atlanta, where she works in cosmetics and real estate. When she tells folks why she travels back to Columbus, "everybody just thinks it's unreal. They think it's just hilarious, meeting with my kindergarten group."
King recalled the time in second grade when she fell off the monkey bars and the principal, Ralph Toole, picked her up and brought her to his office.
"I used to have the biggest crush on him," she said. " He was like my hero, like daddy coming to the rescue."
Connie Sue Jackson Crowe, a retired Reese Road teacher, noted the kids in the Winterfield neighborhood played outside until dark.
"We'd ride our bicycles for miles," she said. "Leave in the morning and be gone all day and come back late."
The Rev. John Hatcher led the group in grace before anyone touched the hush puppies or slaw: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, we thank You for this day. I pray, Lord, that the conviviality around the table will lift us, encourage us and help us to recall the memories and will help us to remember today, even. Bless the food, those who prepared it. Thank you for Edward and his leadership, and may it be an example for others to stay together and share fellowship and care for one another. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen."
The group responded, "Amen!"
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter @MarkRiceLE.