COURTNEY, N.C. — The most dramatic photographs from last month’s tornado that barreled through the tiny Yadkin County community of Courtney show a school gymnasium with half its roof torn off, a vivid indicator of the storm’s strength.

Upon closer inspection, those photos give a glimpse into the uncommon beauty of the old gym, with its arched rafters and slatted ceiling, all made of engineered wood.

It created a warm, cozy environment, the antithesis to most gyms, with their painted steel and aluminum and boxy shape.

It was unusual in other ways as well, with a sunken floor and a walkway that ran the length of the top bleacher. Concessions were sold off the walkway so a person could buy popcorn and a drink without leaving the gym.

“I’ve never seen one like it,” said Ed Lakey, who coached the old Boonville High School team to a state title in 1965 and later became superintendent of Yadkin County Schools from 1971-78.

Beyond an architectural treasure, the gym was something of a community hub for Courtney, a place that was open to locals outside of school hours for birthday parties and recreation-league sports.

Rose Lovejoy’s mother used to play Rook tournaments in the gym.

“There’s a lot of things that happened in and around that gym,” Lovejoy said last week.

She was working the cash register at the Courtney General Store, talking with Jim Brawley, whose family has lived in Courtney since 1936. He graduated in 1955 from the old Courtney High School, which closed in 1967. The gym was built in 1959, serving a high-school population for several years.

“I hope they rebuild it,” Brawley said. “It was a pretty building.”

Aileen Steelman has probably spent more time than anyone in the gym.

“That gym is my life,” she said.

Besides playing and coaching in the gym, she taught at Courtney Elementary School for nine years.

“Between classes, sometimes I’d take a sandwich, lay on the bench and look up at the ceiling. It was the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen,” said Steelman, who was about to pack for a senior women’s basketball tournament in Birmingham, Ala. “When you played volleyball, you could hit the ball about anywhere and it wouldn’t hit the ceiling.”

When the tornado hit on May 24, Steelman, 73, went to look at the damage to the gym. Upon arriving, someone yelled to her: “There went your past.”

As beautiful as it was, the gym had a tile, rather than wood floor for decades, which most athletes find less than ideal. Tile floors can be slick, making it harder for players to gain traction. Steelman remembers they were poorly insulated, too.

“Any time it was a foggy night, moisture came up through the tiles,” she remembered. A wooden floor was added several years ago.

The gym holds a cherished spot in the heart of L.D. Williams, who grew up in Boonville and played basketball for four years at Wake Forest University, where he is fondly remembered for his thunderous dunks.

“Courtney was, by far, the most different gym,” recalled Williams, now living in Columbus, Ohio. “It was a nice little nook.”

Young players, aware of the slick tile, used to spray the bottom of their shoes with hair spray to add a layer of stickiness.

His memory of the gym didn’t include the wooden arches and ceiling, probably not surprising given his age at the time.

But for this former NBA D-League Slam Dunk Contest winner, the gym was special for another reason.

It was the first place he dunked a ball during a game.

He was in 8th grade.

At that age level, middle-school teams played with a smaller basketball, one typically used for girls’ games, to better accommodate their smaller hands.

“I was bigger than normal, about 6-2, and still growing. In warm-ups, I thought, ‘If I get on a fast break, I might be able to dunk one,’ and lo and behold, I dunked it,” Williams said. “It was a big-time buzz.”

Todd Martin, superintendent of Yadkin County Schools, said school officials met with an insurance adjuster last week.

A gym will be reconstructed on that site, with the goal of replicating the look of the old gym as much as possible.

School officials still need to meet with an architect to see what is possible.

“I was always thought it was the prettiest gym in our district, and it meant a lot to the folks in the Courtney community,” he said. “As much as possible, we want to go back to the way it looked.”


Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com

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LISA O'DONNELL
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