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THE 1950s: A great time to grow up as economic growth, prosperity hits all-time high

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 10:11 AM

Editor's note: This story was originally published Aug. 22, 1999.

HUNTINGTON -- Bill McIlvain isn't like a lot of old-school parents who tell their children how tough they had it when they were young.

A retired teacher and middle school principal, McIlvain said he only regrets that his son and daughter weren't fortunate enough to grow up in the 1950s.

"I tell them all the time that they will never have it as good as I had it," said McIlvain, a 1955 Huntington High graduate. "As far as I'm concerned it was a great, great time. Huntington was a wonderful place to grow up.

"My high school years were fantastic. I started dating Joy as a sophomore, and we've been together ever since. We live about three blocks from where I was raised, and just three doors down from where Joy's family lived."

Not all children of the 1950s had a life as stable as Bill and Joy McIlvain, but many agree that growing up in that eventful decade was the highlight of their lives. During that eventful 10-year period, they experienced first-hand some of the most written-about events of the 20th century.

Television was introduced to the American household.

Rock 'n' roll music, led by a swivel-hipped singer named Elvis Presley, became an obsession of teenagers.

Segregated schools were all but eliminated by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Hot cars, blue jeans, white bucks and crew cuts were all the rage.

But, even those dynamics did little to dampen the enthusiasm for the period for the people who rode the waves of change. They remember the 1950s as a time when life evolved around family and school activities.

"I can't remember that many negatives," said Bill Watson, the Cabell County Commission attorney who was a popular athlete at Huntington High in the mid-1950s. "We grew up not having very much, but we didn't need that much.

"The city was prosperous. It was a great place to be raised, and it was a great time to grow up."

Watson was remembered by classmates as an outstanding basketball player who teamed with the great Leo Byrd to make Huntington High one of West Virginia's best teams in 1954-55. He averaged 22 points a game to go with Byrd's 33 as the Pony Express advanced to the state tournament.

The dream of a state championship faded when Watson suffered a broken ankle in the regional tournament. HHS lost to Mullens in the state title game.

Byrd was great, as he later proved as one of the nation's top college scorers at Marshall College. But, he may not have been the best player in town. Hal Greer, a star at the all-black Huntington Douglass High School, broke the color line at Marshall in 1954 and later became a Hall of Fame player in the National Basketball Association.

"I never played against Hal in high school because of segregation, but I played with him in the summer leagues at Dreamland (Pool)," said Watson, who earned a scholarship at Duke University.

Integration came to Huntington and the area slower than in other cities in West Virginia. Douglass did not close until 1961, but black students were given a choice to attend either Huntington High or Huntington East beginning in 1956.

David Harris, director of Marshall's equity programs, attended Douglass through the eighth grade but transferred to Huntington High in 1959.

"My mother wanted me to have the best educational opportunity at the time," said Harris. "It was tough for a time, but one of the things I still cherish is that some of my best friends from that class are white."

Harris and other blacks from the turbulent period, however, say integration was not the panacea for racial equality that it was painted to be.

"Black people lost a lot of their identity through integration," Harris said. "When I was younger, I could look on the southeast corner of Hal Greer Boulevard and 8th Avenue and see a large number of black-owned businesses.

"We had a black theater, a black nightclub and a black company. We don't have any of those things now."

James Venable, a 1953 Douglass graduate, said the 1950s had some of the same positives for blacks as it did for whites.

"The moral climate was great," Venable said. "We had Sunday school teachers who also were teaching in our schools. You were aware that you weren't a first-class citizen, but you took what you had and made the best of it.

"Still, I don't think any of us want to go back to segregation."

Many people, though, would like to recapture some of the innocence and a sense of well-being that pervaded the 1950s.

"We had a lot of school-related activities, and I can't remember having any trouble," McIlvain said. "I was lucky enough to have my own car when I was a senior. We went to the drive-ins like Dwight's on 8th Street, or Fat Boy's over on 1st Street.

"We had some other places we could go to dance like Zips out near Wayne. Later, I was able to go to Marshall with money I earned working on the floodwall. Tuition was $42.50 a semester, and books were about the same amount.

"I was able to stay home and go to school."

Joy Fischer McIlvain, the memento collector of the family, treasures the newspaper clippings and pictures of her high school days. Her file includes photos of the sock hops at school, the basketball team and the band.

"Bill tells our kids that they will never have the great times we had growing up in the 1950s," she said. "I agree."

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