Kevin Riordan: Camden High grads, to be honored for service to community, look back

Posted: May 10, 2011

As its venerable nickname - the Castle on the Hill - suggests, Camden High School is more than an institution of learning. Traditionally, it's been a symbol of pride, too.

The Park Boulevard landmark with the Collegiate Gothic architecture has proclaimed the city's educational aspirations since 1918. And for the last half-century in particular, "The High" has played an enormous role in the life of Camden's African American community.

"When I was here, Camden High meant achievement," says real estate saleswoman Arlene Caldwell-Goree, Class of 1960. "For people who had come here from different sections of the city, it meant togetherness."

A respected soloist at First Nazarene Baptist Church, the 68-year-old Caldwell-Goree is among 13 CHS alumni who will be honored May 21 "for their service to the youth and community."

Chosen by the private, nonprofit Camden High School Alumni Association, the honorees are like a who's who of recent generations of civic leaders in the city and beyond. "They give their time to young people, and people in need," says the association's Joyce Miller, citing volunteer work in everything from sports to "spiritual development."

Besides Caldwell-Goree, the honorees include Dhamiri Abayomi (born Donald Council), Class of '59; Arnold Byrd, '57; Christopher Collins, '86; Jamal Dickerson, '95; Roland Fussell, '70; Vivian Goree-McBride, '72; Carrie Perry Matthews, '66; Ralph A. Roberts, '67; Avis Satterfield, '78; Cyrus Saxon, '70; Sylvia Sunkett, '71; and Stanley White, '67.

I catch up with five members of the group, all of them city residents, outside Camden High just as classes are dismissed for the day. Students wearing the school uniform of polo shirts and khakis spill loudly out of the building and onto the sidewalks along Park and Kaighns Avenue.

"When I was here, students weren't even allowed to sit on this wall," Byrd, 71, observes.

That's not the only change; scanners and other security devices greet visitors in the lobby, and the graceful green lawns are encased in fences.

The High, where the dropout rate is well north of 50 percent, is no longer the region's undisputed basketball powerhouse. And new high schools such as Medical Arts, Creative Arts, and LEAP Academy have siphoned away students and community attention.

But Matthews, 66, remembers when Camden High's central tower (now freshly renovated and looking great) was like a beacon.

"My mother, who was the second oldest of 18 children, only went through the third grade in North Carolina. She had to take care of her brothers and sisters," says Matthews, a retired Army master sergeant.

"She kept saying to me, 'I want you to finish school, because I couldn't.' "

Particularly for black students of a certain era, Camden High "meant everything," notes Byrd, the longtime executive director of the Camden County OEO.

"It was the foundation," he says. "Everything I've done is based on what I learned here."

Goree-McBride literally owes her career to Camden High; she recalls deciding to become a teacher during the school's Career Day.

"And I still enjoy it tremendously," says Goree-McBride, who's also a cheerleading coach at Camden High.

As I prepare to leave, I notice Byrd and Abayomi, a retired Camden County College dean, sitting on the wall and reminiscing as only boyhood pals and high school teammates can.

Both men, who grew up in adjacent public housing complexes in Centerville, are remembering a Camden-Bridgeton home game played in the snow.

"He was a tremendous three-letter man - football, basketball, and baseball," Abayomi says. "I was football and track. Arnold was also a scholar. He was ahead of me, and he was like my role model."

Says Byrd, "Dhamiri's being modest. He was a gifted athlete."

"Camden today for a lot of people is just this place that should be wiped off the map," Abayomi says.

Suddenly, he's overcome with emotion. "But to me, this is my home. It's like a challenge. You can grow strong in Camden. You can end up on the corner. But you can also achieve higher heights."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com. Read the metro columnists' blog at http://www.philly.com/blinq

 

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