By Keysha Drexel
Wayne Wood, who taught and coached athletics at Simmons Middle School for 30 years, said the tiled mural at the old Berry School site on Columbiana Road needs a little TLC to keep it in good shape for years to come.
“The Berry mural is truly a treasure that needs to be respected and preserved,” Wood said.
Wood has done research on the mural and said he found out a lot about it by talking to the artist who created it and from an article written by Francis Spotswood in 1965.
The idea for the mural came about in the 1960s when Jefferson County school officials wanted to spruce up the huge, blank wall of one of the school’s buildings that faced Columbiana Road.
The school, which first served the Over the Mountain community as an elementary school in 1959, was part of the Jefferson County school system before Hoover formed its own school system. The school was named for Col. William Andrew Berry, a former educator who had served as the superintendent of Jefferson County Schools and as a trustee at Samford University.
“Back before Interstate 65 was completed, Columbiana Road was a very heavily traveled road,” Wood said. “I think they wanted to do something to let people know that there were school buildings up here, so the idea for a mural was born.”
Wood said Alton Crews, who was then the associate superintendent of education for Jefferson County Schools, and George Ellis, the school system’s art supervisor, wanted to make sure the 20-foot by 42-foot blank wall was filled with student-created designs.
“They wanted to symbolize the quest for knowledge and make it large enough that a passing traveler couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of it and at least wonder what it was,” Wood said.
Wood said that Berry High art students were invited to submit designs for the mural and that from the 20 best entries, a drawing by Kerry Buckley was selected for the project.
Buckley was the president of the Alabama Art Club and senior class president.
Buckley’s original design for the mural had to be reworked to meet the requirements of architects Davis, Speake and Thrasher and to meet the suggestions of the tile company, American Olean.
Berry High Principal Clyde Yeilding and the school’s art teacher, Mary Charles Painter, worked closely with Buckley, the Jefferson County school board, the architect and contractor in planning and completing the project, Wood said.
The mural depicts five basic fields of education. The laurel wreath on the mural stands for athletics, the triangle represents mathematics, the paintbrushes and palette represent the arts, a test tube and atomic symbol represent science and the quill and scroll images represent the humanities.
The figures in the mural are all different colors, which Wood said represents the equality of all humanity in the quest for knowledge and enlightenment.
At the top of the mural is a torch with a lighted flame that represents the light of learning illuminating the darkness and dispelling ignorance, Wood said.
The torch symbol is also the symbol the Hoover City Schools system now uses in its logo, said Ron Dodson, assistant superintendent of instruction for Hoover City Schools.
“We still believe that knowledge sets you free, and that’s what this mural represents,” he said.
Dodson’s first teaching job in the Hoover system was at the old Berry School site.
“I was a rookie teacher and this was my first teaching job in 1988 and by that time, this mural was already a landmark,” Dodson said. “This mural is significant to everyone who has lived in the Over the Mountain area.”
There was an effort in the mid-1980s to preserve the mural, Wood said, but the landmark needs more attention.
“Some of the tiles have fallen off, and there’s a tree growing in the corner of the building that kind of obscures the full view of the mural. It just needs some careful help now to get it back in good shape and keep it that way,” he said.
Wood said noted sports artist Daniel A. Moore, a 1972 graduate of Berry High School, once counted the tiles on the mural and found out there were a total of 138,480 in the mosaic.
“We just need to rally all the people who have ties to this school and who care about preserving this part of our history,” Wood said.
Wood said he hopes the mural will be completely restored by the time it celebrates its 50th birthday in two years.
“There are residents from the Over the Mountain and Jefferson County communities as well as many from the state, nation and even the world with Berry High connections. Many have fond memories of their school days which included this artwork scene every day they attended Berry. Thousands of others passed by it on the way to an athletic contest, a graduation or other event who also perceived the mural as the face and symbol of Berry,” he said.