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Gym gets new life, future and the name of a legend
sam harris gym
The interior of the newly-renovated and newly-named Sam Harris Gymnasium sparkles before the ribbon cutting. Photo by Pat Donahue

MIDWAY — A history and a legacy are getting a chance to write more chapters.

Tuesday morning, with many of the alumni from the old Liberty County High School in attendance, officials cut the ribbon to the renovated gym on the former campus, and its name honors a legend from both the former LCHS and Bradwell Institute — Samuel B. Harris.

Harris was the coach of the old Liberty County High boys basketball team, winning a GIA state championship in 1965 during the days of segregation. He was one of the first Black teachers and administrators at Bradwell as integration began.

“He would be definitely very, very proud,” said his son Andra Harris, who retired after 30 years as an educator, as did his late father and late mother Gladyse, “and very appreciative to see how this humble start has grown into something that will be a lasting legacy and be of use to Liberty County citizens for years and years to come.”

Harris was a coach and teacher at Liberty before moving to Bradwell in the same roles. He eventually became an assistant principal and served in that role for nearly a quarter- century before retiring in 1996. Harris passed away in January 2020.

He also was a longtime member of the Hinesville Officials Association, serving as vice president, and was on the Liberty County Hospital Authority, county board of elections and was the hearing officer for the school system.

“This gymnasium is dedicated to more than him being a basketball coach,” said son Tony Harris. “He epitomized to me a person who was active in the community.”

It was in that gym where plays and graduations and basketball games were held. When Liberty County High closed its doors in 1972 as students across the county were sent to Bradwell, it became Liberty Elementary. When that school closed, the gym fell silent and eventually into a state of great disrepair. Windows were broken. The roof leaked. Floors were rotting out. It was such a daunting task to bring it back to use that some construction companies wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole, County Administrator Joey Brown said.

“It was much worse than any photograph you can imagine,” he said.

But the vision of the commissioners that started 20 years ago was to keep the original brickwork as a service complex, a library, a pool, a walking trail and a gym were redone. The intent, Brown said, was to try to preserve as much of the original school as possible. The commissioners selected J.W. Buckley and Associates as architects for the gym and Pope Construction as the contractor.

“As you look around today, I think you can see that mission was accomplished,” Brown said.

State Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway), an alumnus of the old Liberty High, praised the old structure, and called attention to the structure that put in place in the first place.

“This is the prettiest gym in Georgia. And it is the second time it’s had that designation,” he said.

The original gym was built during a time when some governors across the South were trying to show separate but equal could work, Williams said, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education that called for an end to segregated schools.

“At the time this gym was built, as beautiful as it was, at the time the most beautiful gym in rural Georgia, to show you could do separate but equal,” he said. “This gym did not come without a cost and a price. Little boys and little girls suffered a lot. This gym has meant so much to so many of us. We thank the commissioners for bringing this piece of history back.”

Williams recalled Harris visiting the school and his football practice. Harris, then teaching in Blackshear, finally came to Liberty to teach after several faculty members moved to California. Harris’ wife Gladyse was already teaching at the old LCHS.

“Our teachers were underpaid, disrespected, but they taught on,” Williams said.

With many alumni of the old LCHS in attendance, LCHS alumni president Deloris Slay also praised the work put in to restore the gym to a new glory.

“This is not only a day the Lord has made but a great day for the alumni of the old Liberty County High School and the community has made as well,” she said. “We thank you for renewing memories that are near and dear to our hearts, from the beginning class of 1953 to the last class of 1972.”

County recreation board chairperson Charlene Godley said the board was hesitant about putting money in the gym, given its condition.

“When the project was mentioned to the recreation board, I’ll be honest, I was skeptical,” she said. “But they’ve done a wonderful job. I can’t get over how great it looks and I’m so thankful they went with the purple and gold of Liberty County High School.”

She also recalled playing basketball in the gym in her younger days, with Sam Harris refereeing her games. Godley later got to know him as a teacher and administrator when she went to Bradwell.

“I grew up playing basketball in this gym, and Mr. Harris called a lot of fouls on me,” she said. “I can see more kids from the recreation department playing here and fouling out.”

County commission Chairman Donald Lovette said he watched Harris keep young men in school who otherwise would have been expelled and faced a bleak future.

“We need more men like Mr. Harris today,” Godley added.

H.C. Baker spoke at Sam Harris’ funeral and in his eulogy, mentioned the coach and the gym. Now the gym is restored — and adorned inside with the purple and gold colors of the old LCHS — and Harris’ name is mounted across its face.

“It means everything,” Baker said of the day. “Sam Harris did so much for this community. He did so much for this school. We played so many games in this building. I didn’t make it happen. But the county commissioners listened to the people, and that’s how it happened. It’s a great day.”

Commissioner Marion Stevens thanked Baker for his push in naming the gym after Harris.

“This facility, if it could talk, would never be quiet,” Stevens said. “We need to save this piece of history. It was one of the best moves we have ever made. There are other gyms in this county, but this is the best.”

The land the county exchanged with the school board is now the home of the Liberty College and Career Academy. Lovette, Stevens and Godley also roundly thanked the voters for approving continued special local option sales tax measures that provided the funding to work on the east end complex and the gym — and the county says it is not through with the east end complex.

“We do have plans for the field in the back,” Stevens said.

“We’re going to keep working on this project,” Lovette added.

The new gym has better heating and cooling systems than before, Stevens pointed out, along with a state of the art scoreboard, shot clocks and a lowered stage. The old gym scoreboard, Tony Harris noted, was known for only having double digits, so the basketball team getting to 100 points and the scoreboard rolling to show the double zeroes was a crowd-pleaser.

“This gym would erupt,” he said, “and we did that quite often.”

Brown said he’s been involved in a number of projects through the years as county administrator, but the Sam Harris Gym was “very, very, very special” to him.

So too is it to Liberty County Recreation Director Raymond Gross, whose mother played basketball on the original court and whose grandmother taught at the school. In fact, youth basketball practices commenced on the floor just a few hours after the ribbon cutting.

“This is near and dear to me,” he said. “This is history. This has significant meaning to me because of the people who attended this school and made this school what it is. We are going to take care of what you have made possible to make sure the legacy is known and represented.”

Liberty County Commissioner Marion Stevens, Sam Harris’ sons Tony and Andra, Chairman Donald Lovette and Commissioners Maxie Jones and Connie Thrift cut the ribbon on the new Samuel B. Harris Gymnasium.
State Rep. Al Williams, wearing his old LCHS letterman’s jacket, discusses the importance of the gymnasium and the former Liberty County High School.
Andra Harris records his older brother Tony Harris at the podium talking about their father, the late Sam Harris.
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