Hundreds of former students expected for annual banquet
by Jennifer Cohron
May 04, 2013 | 1766 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
WEST JEFFERSON — In some ways, the town of West Jefferson is typical to the South — built on coal mining and bound by neighborly love and school pride.

However, few towns with a population of less than 400 can boast that its graduates and former students have contributed $75,000 to returning a 1926-era school to its glory days.

This weekend, the old West Jefferson High School will be bustling with approximately 400 Tigers who have come in from all over the country to attend the annual alumni banquet.

“There’s never a question about where the money’s going or what we’re doing because they can see what’s being done,” said Mickie Winkler, president of the Alumni Association.

West Jefferson High School closed in 2000 as a result of declining enrollment. The town later purchased the building from the Jefferson County Board of Education.

The mayor and council inherited a facility that had been ransacked. All mementoes related to the school had been stolen, down to the senior class composites and clocks on the walls.

In 2006, the Alumni Association took up the task of raising funds for the school’s rehabilitation.

Town leaders have supported the effort from the beginning.

Current Mayor Charles Nix and all but one member of the council are graduates of West Jefferson High.

“We wanted to help preserve the building and we were putting money into it. The only way I saw that we could justify that was for us to move our offices into the building,” Nix said.

Renovations never cease around the former school, which now serves as both a community center and Town Hall.

The town and Alumni Association collaborate on yearly projects, all of which are pulled off without the benefit of fundraisers.

Proceeds from the Association’s annual Festival of Trees are donated to the local elementary school.

The money spent to fix a leaky roof, create two alumni rooms, install air conditioning in the gym, purchase street lamps for the front of the school and carry out various other projects has consistently flowed in from alumni.

Some students had to drop out of school for reasons out of their control, such as war or a need to work to support their families. However, they are always welcome in the Alumni Association and are as proud of its successes as anyone who donned a cap and gown.

The Alumni’s roll now includes more than 1,100 names. Very few are inactive members, according to Winkler.

“We have people who pass away and their families ask us to please leave them on the list because they would like to continue to contribute. That is rare considering their family might not have gone here, but they know how important it was to that person,” Winkler said.

Donations are up significantly this year, partially due to increasing support from the final classes to walk the halls of West Jefferson High.

Graduates of the 1930s and ‘40s are also faithful to send in their $5 alumni dues.

Whether supporters will ever have the opportunity to visit the facility or not, the Alumni Association will keep them up to date on all the happenings via an annual newsletter.

“One of my classmates lives in Jasper. His wife says, ‘Every time he gets an alumni letter, I see him coming from the mailbox and he’s getting his wallet out.’ But it’s not like begging. We don’t have to,” Winkler said.

Even local residents who have no connection to the school are now joining the effort to revive it.

“We have people come in from the community to pay their water and gas bill, and they’ll tour the building. We have people with no ties to the school who volunteer their time because they want to help with what’s going on in the community,” Nix said.