BOTETOURT – Several hundred alumni, students, former and current staff, their families and friends from the community used Sunday afternoon, Oct. 11 to officially celebrate James River High School’s 50th anniversary.

While there was an official ceremony at 1 p.m., visitors were welcome to wander the school and its grounds from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. where they could look over displays, talk with fellow schoolmates, visit with former teachers, listen to alumni perform, buy memorabilia, get photos taken, visit classrooms and help contribute to the newly established 50th Anniversary Scholarship Fund.

Some alumni were in unfamiliar territory since the school was renovated and added on to in 2007. New hallways lead to the new athletic wing, and the modern science labs, and the new media center and administrative wing got excellent reviews.

Two alumni who also have had children graduate from JRHS spoke during the formal ceremony. Buchanan District Board of Supervisors representative Terry Austin (Class of 1974) praised the efforts that went into the recent additions and renovations “to see that education goes to the next level.”

Jack Leffel (Class of 1962), the Fincastle District representative on the Botetourt School Board, was a sophomore when the school opened in the fall of 1959.

He told the audience that he and future JRHS students who lived on Springwood Road rode the bus to Buchanan every day. “…we saw this enormous structure rising up from the snow. We saw this huge sloped concrete floor being formed and we knew this school was going to have a fantastic swimming pool,” he said. “This pool actually turned out to be the auditorium.”

Two retired educators and former JRHS teachers, Howard Johnston (seated) and Randolph Howard (standing) talk during Sunday’s 50th Anniversary Festival.
Two retired educators and former JRHS teachers, Howard Johnston (seated) and Randolph Howard (standing) talk during Sunday’s 50th Anniversary Festival.

He noted the new school had 241 students from Buchanan and 184 from the Eagle Rock area—485 total—when it opened.

“Kids from each school wondered how they would get along with the ‘other,’” Leffel told the audience. “Football players found out first. Players wondered if those other school students would take away their positions. Those thoughts lasted one day. The new James River football team became a team, and that spilled over into a new high school community, and that community has lasted 50 years, and that is why we are here today.”

Leffel said they were “bugged eyed” students when the school opened. There was a giant gym with more than two rows of seats on each side, amazing science labs and a really big library.

The recently completed additions to the school include the new gym, new science labs and a new media center/library.

Leffel talked about the commitment county residents made when they approved a bond issue to build three new schools in the late 1950s—JRHS, Lord Botetourt High School and Central Academy, a combined school for African American students.

“Once again, this is the community we came from, we inherited in 1959; the same community that has kept James River striving for excellence for 50 years. And it will be the same community that will maintain these standards for the next 50,” Leffel said.

Buchanan Mayor Tom Middlecamp told the audience about the positive impact James River had on his family. His three children graduated from JRHS, went on to college and into successful careers. “I attribute their success to the faculty and staff here at James River,” he said.

He said the faculty, staff and building have changed over the years, “but one thing that hasn’t changed, it’s still a small school with a big heart.”

School Superintendent Dr. Tony Brads talked about the physical changes at the school, including the $17 million additions and renovations that he said give the school a different look than it had when it opened 50 years ago with a price tag of under $1 million.

Principal Jamie Talbott introduced a number of former teachers and staff in the crowd and two of the six principals the school has had, Norman Blanchard and Larry Journell.

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