After a century, the Roanoke Rapids High School will celebrate its 100th anniversary when it opened on Sept. 19, 1921.
The building’s gothic-designed structure was designed by New York architect Hobart Upjohn who brought industrialist Samuel Patterson’s vision to life. The design was a modern adaptation of the Elizabethan Gothic or Tudor Revival style, which is a reference to the Oxford and Cambridge universities. The school had 24 classrooms, an indoor pool, a gymnasium with an elevated track, a 2,000 seat auditorium when completed and was said to be the best facility of its kind between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
Rex Stainback, the school resource officer and a member of the Alumni & Friends Group of the High School board, said he was a Roanoke Rapids police officer for 30 years and has worked with the school since 2003. Stainback said he grew up in Roanoke Rapids, and his mother, Delores Stainback, was a school teacher at Chaloner Middle School. He graduated from the high school in 1974.
Inside the historic building is a narrow room with memorabilia since the beginning of the school which has been collected over the years.
Rex said since he worked at the school, he took on the project to collect and consolidate the historical items in one place.
“I’ve had a great life, and this school has been a huge part of it both as a student and now as an employee,” he said. “There is so much pride in this community as it relates to the building and our district. I’m a firm believer — once a Yellow Jacket … always a Yellow Jacket.”
Rex knows almost everything about the school, from the original floors to the first school in the U.S. to have fireproof stairwells in a high school, the first piano still used, and anything else that even the oldest living graduate may not know.
Up top on the building sits two lions, each between two obelisks, and four owls arched high above over the front doors of the building.
Rex said the lion statues stand for power and the obelisks for stability. The owls symbolize wisdom, he said. Rex said Patterson’s purpose behind the building’s architecture was to express the power of education, stability and wisdom.
Inside the memorabilia room are several photographs from all decades.
Rex said people had brought the photographs to the school over the years as they found them.
“The old photos are just amazing,” he said. “I appreciate the many donations we’ve received. There’s one in there of Coach Hoyle and the RR Baseball Team at Simmons Baseball Park, which was once at the corner of 11th and Jefferson. That park used to be home to the Roanoke Rapids Jays, which was a minor league baseball team here from 1947 to 1952.”
One interesting artifact, however, is a metal that read, “Asbestos Curtain: In Case of Fire Cut Small Rope.” The sign has several names written on it.
Res said it used to hang on backstage of the auditorium to instruct the stage managers to cut a particular rope in the event of a fire to drop all of the curtains to prevent the fire from hitting the ceiling.
“After plays students would often sign their names on the sign or write a message,” he said. “It was just something they would do. One day we noticed the sign was missing. Ironically, a student sent it back in the mail a few years ago. The student apologized for stealing it many years ago. It made me smile. That little sign has so much history. The sign is now in our memorabilia room.”
In the hallway of the school are still bells with “IBM” engraved on it, which are original to the school.
Rex said salespeople used to come around the area to sell typewriters, adding machines and office equipment.
“They also sold bells which the school purchased,” he said. “They’re still in our hallways but no longer in use. Replaced with a new electronic system.”
A fire hose also sits inside a case from when the school first opened. Rex said the hose is still charged and active.
“There’s so much unique craftsmanship in the entire building,” he said. “Just unique aspects like brass railings and wrought iron. The doors are still balanced and work perfectly to this day.”
Interim Superintendent Julie Thompson provided a comment on the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the school.
“On behalf of the faculty and staff of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, we are excited to celebrate this historical moment in our school’s history,” Thompson said. “Our schools are a source of great community pride. We are grateful for the dedication and hard work of the Alumni and Friends Association Centennial Planning Committee, who have worked tirelessly over the past year to plan this extraordinary weekend.
“Undoubtedly, each of these 100 years had its own challenges and successes, but our tradition of excellence has been tested and proven over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic as our staff, students, families, Board of Trustees, alumni and community worked together to ensure we continued to move forward together. This experience has led us to change our district motto to ‘Together We Succeed.’ This motto is more than just a slogan, it exemplifies our shared vision as a community moving forward and honors the legacy and hard work of those who came before us.
“We hope those attending will enjoy the performances by our talented band and choral students, cheer loudly for our resilient student athletes on the football field, and experience old memories and make new ones as they walk the halls of our revered Roanoke Rapids High School.”
Chairman Jay Carlisle of the Board of Trustees said RRHS has continued to serve as a centerpiece of the city, a historic landmark for both community and state, and a place to house students and classes.
“Upjohn perfectly brought to life Industrialist Samuel Patterson’s vision for the school to be the symbolism of the power of education,” Carlisle said. “Our historic school has seen a century of memories and continues to produce graduates who embody Pattern’s dream of the power of education. The vision of the community of Roanoke Rapids to create a school that gives the children of the community more opportunities by ensuring equity in access to education lives today through the mission and vision of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. While our classrooms might look different today, outfitted with 21st-century technology, the purpose remains the same — making sure the children of Roanoke Rapids have access to high-quality education.
“With that commitment to excellence and a passion for education in mind, our faculty and staff continue to reach new levels of distinction every day with the support of the community, stakeholders and families who entrust us with their students. I believe that I speak for the entire Board of Trustees when I say that I am proud of Roanoke Rapids High School and the entire Roanoke Rapids Graded School District and the accomplishments and advancements we have made and continue to make to further Patterson’s vision for our community and students.”
As the time draws near for events and celebrations, the school will also open a time capsule embedded in a cornerstone of the school.
“I’m excited to be part of this 100th Anniversary celebration,” Rex said. “There’s so much pride in this building and community support surrounding this event. The time capsule opening will be exciting as well.”