In a surprise move that later was revealed to be a planned move, newly elected Fort Smith School Board member Wade Gilkey attempted Monday night (Sept. 28) to reverse course on a previous Board vote to end use of the Rebel as the Southside High School mascot.
Gilkey’s effort would eventually fail.
The Fort Smith Public School Board voted 7-0 on July 27 to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963. The Board voted to discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year.
Southside High School was formed in 1963 and over the years there have been attempts to change the mascot. One of those happened in the late 1980s when a school board committee pushed for a change. The effort failed to gain support from a majority of those then on the Board.
The 30-person group tasked to find a new mascot for Southside High School in Fort Smith first met Monday (Sept. 21). The 30-person committee includes the 14 people who recently selected Wabash Cannonball as the new Southside fight song.
Monday was the first night on the School Board for Bill Hanesworth and Gilkey who won by wide margins in the Sept. 15 school board election. Hanesworth, a former plant manager at Rheem’s Fort Smith operation, received 2,333 votes, or 71.54%. compared to just 928 votes for incumbent Rick Wade. Gilkey received 900 votes, or 75.3%. compared to 295 votes for incumbent Russell Owen.
Those who opposed the mascot changed viewed the margins as a mandate on the issue, and Gilkey wasted no time in putting that mandate to the test. During his time near the end of the meeting to make comments, Gilkey moved that the Board retain the Rebel as a nickname and allow the committee to select new imagery. Hanesworth seconded the motion. In explaining his support, Hanesworth said Gilkey’s motion represents a compromise on the issue and his many years of business experience have caused him to appreciate the benefit of compromise.
While Gilkey’s motion was not on the agenda sent to the media, awareness of the attempt was somehow known because there were several people signed up to speak for and against a mascot change.
Jean Ann Sadler, a member of the mascot committee, was the first to speak, saying “we can rebrand the Rebel” and “remove any association with the Civil War.” Several others were also lined up to speak in support of Gilkey’s motion. Dick Bumpass said the political climate in which the mascot was changed is an “unfortunate thing,” and he said the Board is “about to throw away 50-plus years of pride and tradition” by doing away with the mascot. Fort Smith attorney Joey McCutchen said President Thomas Jefferson was a rebel. Rob Joliff said he and his wife drove all the way from Frisco, Texas, to support Gilkey’s effort. He encouraged the Board to consider the 1776 American Revolutionary figure to be the new Rebel mascot.
There were also several people opposed to Gilkey’s motion. William Buckley reminded the Board that Gilkey ran on a campaign of transparency, yet the effort to reverse the mascot vote is less transparent than the two meetings in which the mascot and fight song were changed.
“You’re not delivering on the promises you previously made to the public,” Buckley said.
Board Member Jeannie Cole responded to those who said the action to remove the mascot had divided the community.
“That division started in 1963,” Cole said of when Southside was formed and the Rebel mascot began. “It is time to end that.”
Board President Deanie Mehl rejected the notion that a Rebel nickname could be rebranded, especially with “Southside” as the school’s name.
“No matter how hard we try to rebrand it, we will be rebels associated with Johnny Reb … and the Confederacy,” Mehl said. “I see it (vote to rebrand) as capitulation … a blatant attempt to circumvent a vote we took two months ago.”
The motion would fail in a 3-3 vote. Mehl, Cole and Board Member Yvonne Keaton-Martin voted against Gilkey’s motion. Gilkey, Hanesworth and Board Member David Hunton voted for the motion. Board Member Susan McFerran, who voted to end use of the Rebel mascot, was not at Monday’s meeting.
Prior to the vote, Hanesworth said regardless of the outcome the Board and community should move on. After the vote, he would not comment on how he would handle a future vote.
“As far as I’m concerned, we need to move on to the next thing,” Hanesworth said after the meeting.
When pressed how he might vote if the issue again comes before the Board, Hanesworth said, “I’m not going to speak to that right now.”