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Atlanta’s 1961 Thanksgiving Week – A football game, ginormous Christmas tree, and a little make-believe

(Drawing by Christopher Hiers)

By Guest Columnist BO HIERSa semi-retired marketing officer in the reinsurance industry and super-proud grandfather of his beloved grandson, Fletcher

Thanksgiving week is – with apologies to a popular song about a different holiday – my most wonderful time of the year. If I could pinpoint a single year which kick-started my Thanksgiving fandom, it would be 1961. Like all second graders, I was blown away by large events with lots of people.

Bo Hiers

Bo Hiers

That special weekend featured a tense freshman football game between two hated rivals – the Baby Jackets versus the Bullpups – plus the lighting of a gigantic Christmas tree at the downtown Rich’s department store. Four local choirs strategically placed on four bridges spanning Forsyth Street, and a nutty Oriental marching band led by a crazed maniac with a sword, pushed each event way over the top.

To jog my memory banks, I turned to The Atlanta Constitution’s online archives and zeroed in on Thanksgiving week 1961. My research turned up many “Oh, wow!” moments. Here’s one: Raise your hand high if you knew the local nightly news on WSB was only 15 minutes long. Any idea what occupied the coveted 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. spot prior to the news? Popeye and Quick Draw McGraw, that’s what! Or how about this – I counted 14 advertisements for hard liquor in the Nov. 22 issue of The Atlanta Constitution. We shouldn’t be surprised; after all, the ‘60s were the Mad Men decade.

News of local interest I stumbled across included plans for Marist School (then called Marist College) to move from its current location on Ivy Street near Peachtree to a new 60-acre location off Ashford Dunwoody Road. The move was to coincide with its 60-year anniversary. The builders had an edict: All the buildings on campus were to face Nancy Creek. There was also news that Toco Hills shopping center was planning to double its size, and the new expanded shopping center would include the largest Colonial grocery store in the metro area.

Believe me, I could go on. But instead, I’ll focus on three events during Thanksgiving week – The Georgia Tech-UGA freshman football classic; the lighting of the Great Tree at the downtown Rich’s, and how the 1961 AJC Help Wanted ads shaped the lives of a very special fictional couple

The Baby Jackets vs. the Bullpups Thanksgiving freshman game was a huge deal in these parts! 

A Hiers family tradition: the Baby Jackets vs. Bullpups Scottish Rite Freshman Game for Crippled Children. (Drawing by Christopher Hiers)

Attending the annual Scottish Rite Freshman Game for Crippled Children was a family tradition for me, and clearly it was for many other fans as well, given that 40,935 braved the rain to attend the 1961 game. The freshmen game began in the early 1930s to raise money for the children’s Scottish Rite hospital during the depression, and it was a rip-roaring success. The theme for the event was as good as it gets: “Strong legs will run so weak legs will walk.”

I remember piling into a car with my dad, brother, uncles and cousins for the trip to Grant Field every Thanksgiving morning for probably six or seven consecutive years in the ‘60s. Ours was a large family, so multiple cars were required.

There was an important caveat, though: no females allowed. Not when it was a total guy thing. The plan worked well for both family genders. The men cleared out, while the women drank copious amounts of wine and readied a Thanksgiving feast for the returning menfolk. In my mind, the guys made out like bandits. Not only did we get to attend the classic freshmen game in person, but we also got to eat like pigs when we returned. Wait! It gets better. We staged our own Baby Jackets versus Bullpups battle outside, then watched MORE FOOTBALL on television.

On a personal note, the Scottish Rite Thanksgiving game is the sole reason I’ve been a life-long Yellow Jacket fan, and current season ticket holder. My scientific decision to root for the Baby Jackets over the Bullpups for the rest of my days came down to this crucial actor – I liked the Baby Jackets uniforms best. The gold helmets had me at Hello.

The Atlanta Constitution certainly did its part to drum up excitement for the 1961 battle. The Constitution sports page did front-page deep dives into both teams’ freshmen rosters for the entire week leading up to the game. The Baby Jackets were coached by Art Davis, while Mike Castronis coached the Bullpups. Going into the game, the Bullpups’ coaching staff was wary of kicking the ball to Yellow Jacket halfback and ace punt returner Johnny Gresham, who had a knack for running punts back to TDs – a feat he had pulled off twice in the 1961 season.

While Gresham did not run a punt back for a touchdown, he and fullback Howard Daughtry, described by Constitution sports editor Jesse Outlar as a “205-pound battering ram from Quitman,” helped lead two second half TD drives and guide the Jackets to a hard-fought 13-7 victory.

For many in attendance, the game itself was not the highlight of the afternoon. Instead, it was the you-had-to-be-there-to-believe-it performance put on by the Shriners Oriental marching band. The band members wore Arabic uniforms, looking very much like cast members from Aladdin. I’m not sure if they had a special name for the leader who marched in front of the band while swinging a large sword, but I’m guessing it was something along the lines of “Crazy Man with Sword.”

Another really big Atlanta dealthe lighting of the Great Tree at the downtown Rich’s

The “Great Tree” had arrived from Ellijay days before the event. The massive Northern White Pine stood 65-feet tall and measured 36-feet wide. Enthusiasm for the annual Thanksgiving lighting of the Great Tree, perched atop Rich’s Department, was building throughout the city. By running full-page advertisements from Rich’s for the entire week before the big event, The Atlanta Constitution certainly did its part to stoke excitement.

The Atlanta Constitution reported in its Friday, Nov. 24 issue that Richard H. Rich, board chairman of Rich’s, was obviously thrilled with the massive turnout for the annual Thanksgiving Christmas Tree Lighting at the downtown Rich’s. When Mr. Rich was asked if the turnout was as good as the previous year, he responded, “I don’t see room for anymore.”

Atlanta’s mayor, William B. Hartsfield, was equally thrilled. “It’s quite a tribute to this ceremony and to its place as a fixed custom that a crowd of this size is willing to stand in the rain for it,” said Mayor Hartsfield. The 1961 event marked the 14th annual lighting of the giant Christmas tree.

Marion Gaines, The Atlanta Constitution reporter assigned to the story, wrote this: “The most surprising part of this year’s ceremony was the size of the crowd, which packed Forsyth Street curb-to-curb from Mitchell Street north to the Journal-Constitution building.”

The crowd was estimated to be 100,000 – this despite a misty rain and a cool wind. Families came from near and far. The ceremony lasted 30-minutes and included narration of the Christmas story by WSB’s Bob Van Camp and caroling from four choirs totaling 225 members. The choir members were stationed on the building’s four bridges located on the second, third, fourth and fifth floors, which overlooked Forsyth Street. The final act was a moving rendition of “Silent Night,” sung by not only the choir members, but by the throngs of onlookers as well. How could they not?

Atlantans actually looked for jobs, homes and cars in The Atlanta Constitution Want Ads

Newlyweds Rob and Laurie Petrie could have made a great life in Atlanta. (Drawing by Christopher Hiers)

Just for kicks, let’s create a fictional couple and place them back in November 1961. In honor of the 1961 hit television series, The Dick Van Dyke Show, we will give our couple the names Rob and Laura. The young newlyweds are starting a new life in Atlanta. Rob and Laura were in need of the basics – jobs, an apartment, and, oh yeah, Laura could sure use a reliable car. Where to begin? The newspaper Help Wanted ads, that’s where!

Laura’s torn between a waitress job, or an office job. Right off the bat, Laura’s search turned up two possibilities. The Oak Room at the Piedmont Hotel had an open position for a waitress. The job post suggested Laura arrive in the morning between 9 and 11 and ask for Miss Caldwell.

For the office position, the Retail Credit Company (later known as Equifax) on Peachtree near Spring Street was seeking a Typist-Dictaphone Operator. Turns out, Laura’s knowledge of shorthand was a huge brownie point in her favor. Laura especially liked her chances for this job.

Rob was a people person, one who never met a stranger. He was going into the job search with an open mind, but Rob’s passions were centered around books and airplanes. In no time flat, Rob zeroed in on two jobs in the Help Wanted ads – a sales representative position with McGraw-Hill Publishers, as well as a position with a wholesale parts supplier at The Atlanta Municipal Airport (now known as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, but you already knew that).

Good news for Rob and Laura on their apartment hunt – the Euclid Court Apartments, located in the Candler Park and Little Five Points area, proclaimed their apartments were popular with young couples and newlyweds. Better yet, they had a swimming pool. (Close your eyes and imagine the 1961 pool parties. I see Styrofoam coolers packed to the brim with iced-down PBR’s and Falstaff beers. I also see tubes of “fast-workin’, burn-stoppin’, dark-tannin” Sea and Ski sunscreen, and can hear Elvis Presley, The Shirelles, Del Shannon, Ricky Nelson and Chubby Checker blaring from the speakers.) If interested in the Euclid Court Apartments, Rob and Laura were to call JA 4-7568.

Hold up! Our couple needed a reliable car. Rob and Laura’s parents always drove Buicks, so off to Tom Mitchell Buick – at the corner of Peachtree and Piedmont – they went. Laura lobbied hard for a green ‘61 Buick Electra priced at $3,395, while Rob lobbied equally hard for a blue 4-door ’60 LeSabre four-door hardtop sedan at a much lower price of $2,095. Rob prevailed, mainly because he detested the color green almost as much as he hated overspending.

Laura opted for the office job and ultimately retired in 1996 as a senior vice president with Equifax following an ultra-successful 35-year career. Rob’s love of airplanes trumped his love of books, and he successfully landed the job at the airport. Even better, Rob’s job at the airport eventually morphed into a senior-level position with Delta, where he eventually retired from a senior management position, following 35 amazing years of service in the aviation industry.

Rob and Laura’s respective retirements coincided with the arrival of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The couple was an instrumental part of the Olympic planning committee. For their efforts, the talented hard-working couple were rewarded with the opportunity to host a very special guest in their home the night of the Olympics famous opening ceremony. Rob and Laura’s special guest on that very special evening for Atlanta was none other than the legendary Muhammed Ali.

As they look back, Rob and Laura enthusiastically agree their years at the Euclid Court Apartments were the happiest of their long and loving marriage. And their favorite car ever? Hands-down, the blue ’60 LeSabre sedan, which over the years toted many a Christmas tree on its top. What can I say? I am a sucker for happy endings.

And just think – they owed it all to the 1961 Atlanta Constitution’s Help Wanted ads.

 

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Bo Hiers

Bo Hiers is a semi-retired marketing officer in the reinsurance industry and super-proud grandfather of his beloved grandson, Fletcher.

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4 Comments

  1. Greg Allen Hodges November 22, 2021 11:39 pm

    Well done, Bo. You’ve nailed down many of my youthful memories of my old hometown. Yes, the Thanksgiving Day game at Grant Field was quite the big deal then. And I do remember that slogan. Let’s see now…I believe I was in the 6th grade in ’61…not too far ahead of you. Several years later I was part of the ushering cadre at Grant Field (Boy Scouts)…..watching a sport coated Bobby Dodd nervously pacing the sidelines. And yes my family and I joined the throngs on Forsyth St for the big tree lighting. And the Shriners parading down the street as well…..flashing sword and all. (Still have the 1958 B&W photo of me and my younger brother sitting with ‘ol Santa in Rich’s Toy Dept….me with my buck teeth and brother with a deer in the headlights stare. My grandkids get a real chuckle when they see that picture.) . There were those in-town car dealerships then….my Pop bought a 1960 Chevy Biscayne at Central Chevrolet…..a plain Jane model…no radio…vinyl seats…he was quite the thrifty fellow. Other things you mentioned…Falstaff…Bob Van Camp, ..and those late afternoon kiddie shows…. Officer Don (Kennedy). & Popeye. (“I yam what I yam” !)
    Bo, like we often heard Mr. Hope croon….’Thanks for the memories’.Report

    Reply
    1. Bo Hiers November 23, 2021 8:50 am

      Thank you for the kind words, Greg! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family! Too bad we can’t meet at the downtown Rich’s Thanksgiving night , and hear the choirs sing and watch the lighting of the tree! BoReport

      Reply
      1. Greg Allen Hodges November 24, 2021 10:01 pm

        Using ‘Rob and Laura’ as an Atlanta couple reminded me that Dick Van Dyke lived in Atlanta for a time in the early ’50s where he worked at WSB TV.
        One thing I have always remembered about those chilly Thanksgiving Eve gatherings for the tree lighting atop Rich’s….the store’s big street level picture windows showcased huge golden bells (spray painted Styrofoam) that were swinging to and fro as the sound of cheerful, ringing bells was piped to the sidewalk outside. Mr. Rich employed some talented folks.
        After Macy’s and the vacating of the downtown flagship building, things never were the same….it has been many years now since I have bothered to venture out to Lenox Square.Report

        Reply
  2. Mandy November 24, 2021 7:22 pm

    Oh the precious memories!Report

    Reply

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