Celebrities to revive old Canton school

Gladys Knight and Billy McDowell
Feb 17, 2014
Photo by: Donated photo Gladys and Bobby McDowell have purchased the old Reynolds School in Canton and plan to revive it as a community center.

The old Reynolds High School, a segregation period school in Canton, will soon be revived as a community center by a well-known celebrity couple.

Canton native William "Billy" McDowell and his wife, legendary soul singer Gladys Knight, purchased the the historic school Dec. 17, 2013, for $80,000. Tax records state the school was built in 1930 and is currently listed in "very poor" condition.

The crumbling bricks and graffiti covered walls are nothing like what McDowell remembers, though.

Even though he only attended the school until second grade, it's engraved in his memory and his family's history. His mother was the janitor and a cook there. His grandfather was president of the Touchdown Club, his uncle played on the squad and his sisters were in the last class at the school.

"It was always very clean. I can remember everything about it. I remember where the band room was, the gym, the lab room, especially the principal's office because I was in there quite a bit," he said, laughing.

He remembers the school band marching up and down his neighborhood roads.

"The kids would get pots and pans and march behind them," he said.

He grew up only 100 yards from the school, which meant skipping class was never an option, especially because the principal was his cousin. But back then, nobody wanted to miss school.

"You looked forward to going to school every day. It wasn't a task — they made you want to be there," McDowell said.

When he comes back to visit Canton, it's always discouraging for him to see the lack of activities in town, especially for young people.

"You grow up in a place and you leave and you're gone for a while and you come back and see that there's really nothing for the kids to do there anymore," he said. "Canton had a lot more exuberance then than it does right now."

That's a big part of the reason he wanted to purchase the old school — to create a gathering place for the community. He envisions a community center that will offer several services in one place such as a computer lab and a food pantry for the needy.

"My wife has always wanted to do a school of music and etiquette," he said, adding that she is very involved in raising awareness about diabetes and hopes to have classes about food and nutrition.

He hopes to build a walking track and bring the old football field back to life. Part of his plan is to also remind Haywood County of its past. The old building will still have remnants of what it used to be, with old photos and sporting the school's colors blue and gold.

"If we don't have history, what do we have? I want to try and preserve that. I think the community needs something to rally around," he said, adding that he hopes other towns get involved in the project.

Not only does he plan to breathe new life into the historic school, he also wants to help spruce up the rest of the nearby community and make repairs to the old road leading to the school.

After purchasing the property, McDowell said he received several phone calls from people in his hometown, including Mayor Mike Ray.

"I had people call me in tears just when they heard about me acquiring the property," he said.

Though the couple owns a home in Fairview, they rarely make it to North Carolina. Last year, they spent about a month here, he said.

The school project could mean more trips to his hometown, but when he can't be here, his brother Randy, who lives in Canton, will be his right-hand-man.

He plans to start on the outside of the building and beautify the grounds, remove the graffiti from the aging bricks and make the property less of an eyesore. His goal is to have it cleaned up by summertime.

"I want to have a reception there and clean up the football field and have a big blowout barbecue and have everybody come over and see," he said.

McDowell said Knight hopes to hold a concert to raise money for the project and he will look into possible venues in Haywood County, perhaps even the Pisgah football field if it would be feasible. If not, the concert will be held as close as possible to Haywood County.

Though he expects the project to take several years to complete, he wants to encourage locals to "stay excited, get involved. This is a 'we' thing, not a 'me' thing," he said.

"I was really loved in that town by everybody and they treated me so well and when you get out and you're fortunate enough to give back, you should plant seeds where you were loved," McDowell said.