The 1918 Proviso Township High School yearbook notes that Quinella Bernice Watson is “quiet and unassuming, but still water runs deep.” On another page, Arwilder Marie Lyles is “ready to help at any time.”
Watson and Lyles were among the first Blacks to graduate from Proviso, which was founded in 1910. The school would eventually become Proviso East in 1958, when Proviso West High School in Hillside was established.
On Saturday, during the high school’s All Class Alumni Picnic, held in Miller Meadow forest preserve in Forest Park, the grandchildren of Watson and Lyles beamed with pride.
Watson’s grandson, Grady Rivers, Class of 1977, said his grandmother was also among the first Black graduates of Washington Elementary School. She would eventually marry Walter Hathaway, the first trustee in Maywood.
“The athletic program we had at East was second to none,” said Rivers. “You had state champions in wrestling, track, basketball and baseball. There were four future NFL players on the football team I played on at East.”
Pirate Pride runs so deep that Rivers’ younger brother, former NBA player and Philadelphia 76ers Coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Class of 1980, sang the high school’s fight song at their mother Bettye’s funeral in 2015.
Robert Fowlkes Jr., Class of 1969, won the state championship in wrestling the year he graduated from East — the same year that the high school won its first state championship in basketball.
Fowlkes, Arwilder Lyles’ grandson, recalled hanging out in Argo, Ill., about 8 miles from Maywood, the day before the massive championship parade that feted the basketball team.
“I led that parade off,” Fowlkes said. “Back then, the buses didn’t run on Sundays and the parade was on a Sunday. I walked all the way back from Argo just to start that parade off.”
William “Billy” Fowlkes, Class of 1980, Robert’s cousin and another grandson of Lyles, said he had just moved to Maywood from Memphis the year Robert won state.
“That’s when my daddy [William Fowlkes] took over as athletic director for District 89 at Irving [Elementary School],” William recalled. “He was the one who changed the mascot to the Tigers. Before that, they were called the Crusaders.”
William said his father was athletic director for District 89 while Robert’s father, Robert Fowlkes Sr., was the first Black dean of students at Proviso.
Their grandfather, William Fowlkes, Arwilder Lyle’s husband, was a prominent Maywood civic leader who was a precinct captain for the local Republican Party for 20 years. He was also the first Scoutmaster of Troop 78, “known nationally for its first class workmanship,” according to his Maywood Herald obituary published in 1953, the year he died in an automobile accident.
Billy Fowlkes’ son, Londell, married Nashi Fowlkes, Class of 1991, and a member of the Linyard family. A Linyard has been enrolled at Proviso in every decade dating back to the 1930s, family members said.
They said the immense Pirate Pride traces, in part, to the rich lineage, the fun times and the memories, sometimes painful. That’s particularly the case for Proviso East alumni who attended the school in the 1960s and 1970s — decades of racial strife and transition.
“We had riots,” said Lynn Howell, Class of 1972, who remembers the tension following the 1969 assassination of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton, Class of 1966.
“I remember my daddy wearing a gray trench coat coming to get me,” Howell said. “I wanted to be in the mix!”
In another tent, Connie Divers Bradley, Class of 1951, spoke with her niece, Reatha “Sue” Henry, Class of 1965.
At 88, Bradley was most likely the oldest Proviso alum at Saturday’s picnic. She was born at home, because at the time “there were no hospitals around then that Blacks could go to.”
She grew up during the Great Depression, has lived through “about 11 different presidents, starting with Roosevelt,” can recall the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and the murder of Emmet Till.
Bradley said she had a different high school experience than younger alum like Henry. She said there were only about 50 Blacks in her graduating class of roughly 700 students. Henry recalled a similar paucity of Blacks at East when she attended the school.
“Some classes I had, there was not another Black person in my class,” recalled Henry.
But Bradley said her generation did not experience the racial tension or, for that matter, the very visible racial pride among Blacks that would flare up a few decades later.
“We were the Silent Generation,” Bradley said. “We just stayed in our place. The Black guys couldn’t join the wrestling team. They could play football, track and basketball. But they didn’t allow them to wrestle.”
In a way, Proviso’s rich historical ironies and tensions seemed to come full circle on Saturday.
“This is a lot of history,” Billy said.