By Don McAlavy
An event popular in the late 1930s through the mid-’40s would never have happened in more recent times. Once a year, in the late spring, Clovis High School Principal R. E. Marshall would let school out for tree fights in front of the high school building at Seventh and Main.
It was dangerous and a lot of students got hurt, but to my knowledge no one ever filed a lawsuit.
The object of the game was for one team to take the “fight flag” from the other team.
CHS graduate Don Crook first told me about the tree fights. Then a package arrived earlier this year at the CHS library from Virgil McMillen, a 1943 graduate. In it was a brief letter and a 1943 tree fight flag, a pennant 18 inches long made of purple silk, but now faded to an ugly brown.
CHS librarian Nedra Isabell shared the letter and the flag with me. This is what McMillen, now living in Chowchilla, Calif., wrote:
“Here’s the flag. I believe this was the last tree fight. I have had it for almost 60 years. I really don’t have too much love for Clovis High School because if you check the 1943 yearbook they listed me as ‘Virginia.’ The flag is faded, but at 77, I am too.”
Then I ran into Gerald “Shorty” Gunnels, a ’45 CHS graduate, who gave me his version of the CHS tree fights:
He said the tree fights took place in late spring. On each side of the wide sidewalk leading to the front door of the high school were two big trees, and no grass growing in the school front yard. Students would take two fire hoses, which were connected to the school hallways upstairs, and open windows on either side of the front door. Then they turned the water on and “sprayed any and everybody,” Gunnels said.
The main purpose of the water was to create mud around the trees. Seniors with fight flags would go up in the trees and protect the flags from sophomores and juniors. If one of the undergraduates took the flag away from the senior, his class won the tree fight.
“I remember Brusier (Jerry) Nuzum, a 1941 Wildcat football senior fullback, wearing football cleats up in one of those trees,” Gunnels said. “What a fight they would have getting his fight flag!”
O. T. Rozzell, who was a senior in 1943, said a typical tree fight would begin with a signal from Marshall or Coach Rock Staubus. Then a senior went through the mud to the tree. With help from other seniors, he would be hoisted up into the tree.
“The first tree limbs were about nine feet above the ground,” Rozzell said. “There apparently were no holds barred. They wore T-shirts and old trousers and were encouraged by all the yelling from the students.”
Rozzell and Mary Lee Neff, another CHS graduate, said they think the trees were maple, with slick barks on the trunks, making it harder to get up in the tree.
Rozzell said some tree fights were different than the traditional. Sometimes flags representing the seniors, juniors, and sophomores would be placed at the top of a tree, then students would try to be first to get their class flag. The winner would toss the other two class flags to the ground.
“What a tangled mess that was with all three classes trying at the same time to get their man up that tree,” Rozzell said.
He said 15 to 20 students from each class participated in those tree fights.
Principal Marshall is credited with the tree-fight idea. He got Coach Staubus to help him. Marshall was a big believer in physical fitness. He was a U.S. Army champion boxer during World War I. There are many stories about him keeping his football team strong by recruiting out-of-school athletes from Texas.
Marshall Auditorium was named for him.
Marshall had the longest tenure as a principal at CHS. He became principal in 1923 and in 1945 became superintendent when James Bickley retired.
Marshall retired in 1954, went back to his home state of Tennessee, raised coon dogs and died in 1975 of leukemia.
Don McAlavy is a history buff who lives in Clovis.