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Author Lowe remembers ‘Grand Old School’

New author Graham Lowe, left, who coached and taught for 58 years, talks about his book “It’s a Grand Old School” during a recent book-signing at the house of Albany attorney Spencer Lee. (Carlton Fletcher)

New author Graham Lowe, left, who coached and taught for 58 years, talks about his book “It’s a Grand Old School” during a recent book-signing at the house of Albany attorney Spencer Lee. (Carlton Fletcher)

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Graham Lowe interviewed 103 former students, colleagues and administrators for his book about Albany High School, where Lowe taught from 1957 to 1966 before taking a job as first headmaster of Deerfield-Windsor School in Albany. (Carlton Fletcher)

ALBANY — Graham Lowe’s legacy precedes him, so those who know him only by reputation don’t quite grasp the impact he’s always had on the people he taught and coached.

Watch some of those former students and athletes in Lowe’s presence, though, and the picture becomes much clearer.

“I drove here from Monroeville, Alabama,” Jimmy Gibbs said last week as he prepared to leave a book-signing event held in Lowe’s honor at the home of Dougherty County attorney Spencer Lee. “He was my coach, and I had all the respect in the world for him.

“I drove over to see him last summer, and we got to talking about my health. I weighed 271 pounds at the time. I looked at this man who, at 81, still looked to be in perfect health, and I was a little ashamed. So I promised I would do better. I weigh 192 pounds today.”

Lowe, who used painstakingly-conducted interviews with 103 former Albany High students, teachers and school officials as the basis for his just-released book “It’s a Grand Old School,” smiles when told of Gibbs’ comment.

“I was sitting in there in Spencer’s lovely building, wondering if anybody would even show up (for the book-signing), and one of the ladies helping out came in and said, ‘There’s a gentleman outside who said he needs a shoestring,’” Lowe says, breaking into a wide grin. “I knew it was Jimmy Gibbs.

“We were getting ready for one of the biggest games of the year back in 1960, and Jimmy had on everything but his shoes. He went to (one of the assistant coaches) who was in charge of equipment and said he needed a shoestring. Well, that coach’s rule was that before he’d replace anything, you had to bring him what needed replacing. Jimmy said, ‘Coach, it was a shoestring; I threw it away.’ And the coach wasn’t going to give him one. He and one of the other coaches almost got into a fight about it.”

Lowe has a deep treasure of such memories, and he shares many of them in “It’s a Grand Old School,” written over 17 months in 2012 and this year. But primarily he serves as a chronicler.

“Yeah, I injected a few things in there, but I didn’t write this book. I compiled it,” Lowe said. “I interviewed as many people as I could get together with — it turned out to be 103 — but there were others I wanted to talk to. It was a laborious process, though. I’d go and tape the interviews with everyone, transcribe my notes and then go through it all.

“But once I’d read back over my notes at the stories people were telling me, I’d get fired up again. It was like being in a time warp, reliving all those wonderful stories. And it was such a great time and a great place to be living in. We were in the ‘Fonzie’ era, but we didn’t have any real Fonzies at the school. It was like one big extended family.”

Many of the 90 or so people who came to Lee’s for the book-signing shared some of the same reminiscences as their former teacher/coach/colleague. But they all agreed on one thing: Lowe is one of the primary reasons Albany High was such a magical place from 1954-1966.

“I still have the letter jacket Coach Lowe gave me for being the scorekeeper for the boys and girls basketball teams,” Susan Harper, AHS Class of 1963, said. “How many people would have done that? He was just a fabulous mentor.”

One of Lowe’s fellow Albany High staff members, Anna Voss, also remembers her colleague fondly.

“He is now and always has been such a wonderful person,” Voss, who was an English teacher and guidance counselor, said. “He did this a lot with his students, but he also did it with me and other faculty members: He helped us realize we had the talent to do stuff we didn’t know we could do.”

Lowe grew up in Fort Valley and served in the U.S. Army from 1952-54 during the Korean Conflict after graduating from North Georgia College with a degree in Physical Education and a teaching major in French. After leaving the Army, Lowe completed requirements for his secondary teaching degree from Emory University and eventually studied at Florida State University, Louisiana State University, Laval University in Quebec and Besancon University in France.

Lowe started his teaching career at Albany Junior High in 1954 and transferred to Albany High in 1957. He was named the state’s Outstanding Young Educator of the Year in 1965, a year before taking a position as headmaster of the newly formed Deerfield-Windsor School in 1966.

“The only reason I left Albany High was that I had a chance to be my kids’ principal all the way through high school,” he said. “It was a great opportunity. I would have been happy staying at Albany High, but this was mostly about my kids.”

Lowe eventually served as headmaster at Westwood School in Camilla, Calvary Baptist Day School in Savannah and Southwest Georgia Academy in Damascus before “retiring” in 2003. Retirement didn’t take, though, for a man accustomed to working long hours, and he’s worked with son Allen Lowe’s highly successful Deerfield football team since 2003.

Writing, though, was something Lowe never saw himself doing.

“If you open your big mouth enough, finally you have to follow through,” he said with a laugh. “I went to the 1959-1960 class reunion and asked how many of the 250 people there had written a book. Vic Miller was the only one to raise his hand. I told them, ‘Shame on you,’ that they needed to get busy. But it dawned on me that I didn’t have any room to speak.

“My wife Betty’s father died at age 92, and on the last day he was alive he was putting stuff about his family on the computer. I’d been a teacher for 58 years, and suddenly I had 24 hours a day free. So I needed something to fill my time. Writing the book sure did that.”

Those who were not able to attend Lowe’s book-signing last week will get a second chance Sunday at the Merry Acres Inn & Event Center. Lowe will be on hand from noon to 3 p.m. at the center’s Plantation Ballroom.

“Some folks have started asking me when I’m going to do a book on Deerfield,” the new author said. “I told them I’m going to have to recover a little first. This is really something, but I’m proud I got it done.”