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Watertown High's class of 1924 a notable one

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In Watertown, the days of politically correct journalism had not yet dawned when this headline appeared in the Watertown Daily Times in March 1924: “COLORED BOY TO WRITE CLASS WILL”

A black student, possibly the only African American in the Watertown High School senior class, had been elected to write the class will for the Annual, the yearbook.

Charles F. Wright Jr., 16, son of a chauffeur, had quite handily bested a prominent member of the class, Wilfred Nugent, for the task.

Was his election cause for a rift among the 85 young people anticipating their graduation in June? The Times, responding to rumors, wanted to know.

“The selection of a colored person for a class honor of this kind is unprecedented in the annals of the high school,” the Times reported.

A vote was taken without discussion after the two candidates were asked to leave a gathering of seniors in the school at 134-138 Sterling St. The discussion came after the tally was in.

“Wright, who has been in the high school four years, is said to be an exceptionally bright and intelligent student,” the Times' account continued.

There were some who “were bitterly opposed” to his election, including “one girl of southern blood (who) is said to have been scathing in her remarks on the subject.” Others declared themselves opposed to him on the grounds that he had never taken part in class activities and that this honor should go to some loyal class worker.

But the majority of classmates “believe that he is well qualified as a writer of the will owing to his proficiency in school.”

Many were of the opinion that Charles Wright was entitled to the honor as much as any member of the class. “They feel that no racial distinction should be made in matters of this kind.”

The report said Mr. Nugent's support came largely from the boys, while Mr. Wright seemed to have significant support among the girls, although he was nominated and seconded by boys.

When the loose-bound 1924 Annual came out, pages 80 through 84 carried “The Last Will and Testament of The Class of 1924,” by Charles F. Wright.

Mr. Nugent, a future Roman Catholic priest, was not forgotten. He accepted the task of writing his class's history for the Annual.

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Art was Charles Wright's true calling. The same yearbook recognized that. Beside his senior photo ran the caption, “This is the (W)right man for the artistic work.”

The writer of the class prophecy added for Mr. Wright, “the distinguished artist, has opened a studio in gay Paris.”

Mr. Wright must have been a baby-face, as a Times reporter in 1927, three years after his graduation, displayed confusion about his age, estimating him to be 16. The topic was an art exhibit at a city book shop.

The young Mr. Wright “has on exhibition some excellent pen and ink and pencil drawings,” the story said. The artist “has been an elevator boy in the Traveler's Hotel where he has had the opportunity to see all sorts of people. It has been his custom to observe guests while taking them on the elevator, and then draw their heads from memory. He has done several fine sketches in this way, particularly of actors who have been playing Vaudeville at the Avon theatre.”

Mr. Wright had also copied pictures from magazines and theater billboards to give his own renditions of the featured personalities, “displaying talent to a marked degree,” the article continued. There was Rudolph Valentino in a serious mood and a pencil drawing of boxer Luis Angel Firpo in a characteristic pose.

Sketches of babies also commanded the artist's interest, “catching the essential spirit of babyhood,” the Times' writer noted.

Unfortunately, the class prediction for Charles Wright was never realized. Although he continued to dabble in art — some of his drawings of nationally known blacks were shown in a 1940 New York City exhibit — he earned his living by less glamorous means.

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Charles Wright was born Aug. 14, 1907, in New York City. His parents, Charles F. and Ina E. Hall Wright, who brought four girls and three boys into the world, moved to Watertown at just about the time Charles was reaching high school age.

The first record found regarding his employment came from 1930, when he was married in August to a Watertown girl, Margaret Anne Stevenson. He was a worker at the home of Lucien C. Mitchell, president and treasurer of J.B. Wise Co., Watertown.

Living on Morrison Street, as did his parents and his bride's parents, he was honored by the congregation of AME Zion Church in April 1933 to take charge of the church. Commissioned by a bishop in New York City, he succeeded a pastor who had retired because of poor health.

By 1937, Polk city directories list him as “houseman” for an attorney, A. Raymond Cornwall, 242 Paddock St., and then in 1941 as a chauffeur for Harold W. Conde, 531 Washington St., president of W.W. Conde Hardware.

Early in 1942, while still on the Conde house payroll, Mr. Wright was compiling more sketches, focusing on prominent blacks, people in history as well as his contemporaries.

And then, something happened. In about June 1942, he was admitted to “an Ogdensburg hospital,” according to his obituary. He was still a patient there when on Nov. 15, 1942, at the age of 35, he died.

He was survived by his parents, wife, two sisters and two brothers.

Margaret Wright went to work as an elevator operator at Empsall's Department Store, remaining single for 14 years. She began a new life on Dec. 21, 1956, when she became the wife of a military man, Charles T. Smith. The couple lived in Baltimore as a result of his assignment in the nation's capital.

Mrs. Smith was 79 when she died on Feb. 7, 1989.

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The class of 1924 boasted of a child prodigy, an eventual president of St. Regis Paper Co. and a beauty contestant.

Leland B. Norton was a 10-year-old when he entered WHS and graduated at 14, believed to be the youngest boy to graduate from the school up to that time. Principal Gary M. Jones said in 1922 that Leland Norton was one of the brightest boys who'd ever entered the school. Despite that, a Times story said “he is not entirely devoted to his books, but is fond of all athletics and participates in several sports.”

When he entered Hamilton College, Clinton, in September 1924, he was believed to be the youngest student ever admitted there. He graduated in 1928 with a bachelor of science degree at 18, then did graduate work at Cornell University, Ithaca, where in 1934 he received a doctorate in chemistry. He became a professor of insecticidal chemistry in Cornell's Department of Entomology and had 40 articles published in scientific journals, his focus being chemical properties of insecticides.

The professor died June 10, 1953, at age 43 after a long illness. He was married twice, and was survived by two sons and a daughter.

The 1924 Class Prophecy foresaw him becoming “president of the association for suppression of unnecessary noises and grimaces.”

His yearbook photo caption: “He's small, but can pull ties faster, and manage a battery of paper wad shooters more efficiently than any other male member of the high school.”

Another member of the class of 1924 who went on to make his mark on the world was William R. Adams, the class prophet. He predicted of himself: He is “known now as the slide rule king (and) is attempting to figure out how many baseball diamonds can be made from the Sahara desert.”

And William Adams's photo caption read, “It is hard to find a word big enough to describe Bill. He is big in body, big in mind and big in heart. Oh! Bill!” They expected big things from him, and their confidence was rewarded. Mr. Adams was for 15 years president, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of St. Regis Paper Co. He retired in 1972 and died seven years later at the age of 72.

The Times editorialized, “Bill Adams was typical of a generation which understood two career responsibilities, that of his corporate employment, and that of volunteerism toward unpaid government and public service to all people, a hallmark of the American system which was understood and practiced selflessly by him.”

The apparent last survivor of the class of 1924 was Anna M. Lyng, who died at age 97 on Jan. 10, 2005. After attending Potsdam Normal School, she taught in Deferiet, Boonville and Watertown schools. She never married.

Her classmates predicted her future a little differently from how it turned out: She “is in Florida, participating in the Bathing Beauty Contest.”

The class prophet missed the boat about who would be the beauty contestant. That honor went to classmate Hilda Farrell. In August 1924, a panel of judges selected her from among 40 young women to be Miss Watertown, to compete for the title of Miss America at the National Beauty Tournament in Atlantic City, N.J. She was not among finalists at the pageant.

Later the wife of John B. Butler, she became a nurse. She was the mother of former Watertown Mayor Joseph Butler and grandmother of City Councilman Joseph Butler Jr. She died at 77 on Feb. 21, 1983.

Wilfred A. Nugent, Charles Wright's challenger in the class will contest, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1932 and was given the honorary title of monsignor in 1964. He died in May 1991 at age 87.

His senior photo caption more closely reflects upon the career he chose than did the class prediction: “Whenever anybody's needed to help make anything a success, you can always count on Wilfred.”

The prediction: He “is living comfortably on the proceeds of his patented receipt for shiek oil and patent leather grease.”

Errington A. Whiteford was another class member who became a paper industrialist, but his stage was New York City, where in 1941 he founded Whiteford Paper Co., a specialty paper designer and distributor. He died in June 1982 at age 77.

His future, according to the yearbook: He “has lost his tendency toward women and has settled down already as a 'Bach.'” Mr. Whiteford was married twice.

Said his senior photo caption, “When he smiles, he dimples, and he is always smiling.”

Graduate William G. Lewis, who died at age 69 in January 1977, was a chemical engineer who, as company vice president, had his name attached to a Watertown business, Lewis and Clinch. That foiled the class prediction for him: “The two Lewises, Jimmie and Bill, have just established a radio station in Borneo, to bring the inhabitants there closer to our civilized world.”

Bill Lewis must have been into radio technology, however. In the class will written by Charles Wright, Mr. Lewis bequeathed to a lower classman “my knowledge of the mysteries of radio.”

June 25, 1924, was certainly a memorable day for one of the graduates. When she woke up in the morning, she was Dorothy S. VanLuven, but by the time she arrived for the 8 p.m. commencement ceremony, she had become the 18-year-old wife of John G. Case, who was to become known as Jack Case, sports editor of the Watertown Daily Times.

Speaking of marriage, two sets of classmate sweethearts later tied the knot: Stuart Wager and Annis Combs, and Veneita Lobdell and Ralph Gagnon.

Buster Crabb of Watertown assisted in tracking history about Charles Wright, and Times librarian Lisa Carr assisted with research.







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