Crystal Mersh was the president in 1982 of what the local paper declared the “most disgraceful” class to graduate from Calhoun County High School.
After moving away to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, she has created a nonprofit foundation to aid her hometown. The 1982 Foundation has purchased the 100-year-old Calhoun County High School building and is rehabilitating it as a community center. She spoke with Eric Douglas about the project.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Tell me about this class. What made it special? What made it a little bit ornery?
Mersh: We were, and are, different. I guess for starters, we graduated in our class colors, which were light blue and dark blue gowns, rather than red and white, which were the school colors. So that was your first sign. And the police did come. I think they escorted somebody there who maybe was getting a bit out of bounds before graduation.
Douglas: Police escorted somebody to graduation?
Mersh: They shall remain nameless. And then during it there were several hoops and hollers and outcries. And also, allegedly, we were responsible for the decorations on the stage, which were not very attractive, as I recall. But I don’t think we were responsible for that.
Douglas: And something tells me that graduation wasn’t an isolated incident.
Mersh: No, it wasn’t, but a lot of great things happened that year. It was the first time that our football team had a winning season in a number of years. I think it was the best team in the last 23 years. We had a nationally recognized marching band of over 100 people. We had two state wrestling champs, we had an individual who placed second at the state science fair — yours truly.
Douglas: Tell me what your new project is. Tell me what’s going on.
Mersh: So the 1982 Foundation was created only about a month ago. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time. I wanted to do something and give back to Calhoun County. When the high school became available for sale, I said, this might be something. So I started thinking about business strategies of what could work there. What wouldn’t work, because certainly, the county has its share of economic issues, although it’s really on an upward trajectory at the moment.
So we eventually landed on a nonprofit strategy to transform the building into a mixed use space called the Calhoun County Community Center. It will involve having community spaces for classrooms, meeting rooms, events, reunions, also a daycare, hopefully a fitness center, possibly a swimming pool. And then also the revenue generating portions will be AirBnB rooms, and retail and office space that will be leased, as well as a cafe. The thought is that those revenue generating operations then will fund and subsidize the community services and activities.
Douglas: This is a pretty large investment. Why was this important to you?
Mersh: I had the opportunity to do a lot of things in my life, in my professional career. I can remember a point in time sitting in front of a building in Basel, Switzerland, that is, no doubt, a piece of art and going, “How did I get here?” And when you reflect and have moments like that often enough, you eventually answer that question. How I got there was from Calhoun County, from the people who were teachers, the people who were 4-H leaders, who were community leaders, church leaders, those folks invested in me. And I feel that it’s important that the children that are coming up now know that there are people who are going to invest in them.
Douglas: When do you start the renovations?
Mersh: We’re already turning dirt. We are doing what I would call cleaning and decluttering right now, which is no small feat on a building that’s been vacant for over 20 years. Our initial plans is we will start the demo of the portions of the building that are just so far gone, that they have to be deconstructed, and that would take some time, and that’s around the gymnasium.
Douglas: So this isn’t a six-month project. This is a next-week project.
Mersh: It’s like everything I do. It’s fast and furious. And I think it’s important in this case, because the building has been bought a few times and with great hopes and nothing ever happened. So I knew that whatever we did, if we did it, it needed to be fast and furious.
Douglas: Have you ever done something like this before?
Mersh: My hobby is interior design, architectural design, colors, textures, fabrics, all of those types of things. I have done two previous projects in Atlanta that were major renovations. One was a four-building compound. And it was probably further gone than this building. That took eight months just to do the deconstruction. We stripped it down to the studs and rebuilt it back.
The gentleman who will be the architect on the project is from Atlanta. He and I’ve worked together on two different projects. He’s one of the best design-build architectural firms in the city of Atlanta. So he’s going to be working with our construction team here who are young local entrepreneurs, who have a passion for the school and are just getting started. So it’s going to be a great opportunity for them because he will teach them all about architectural plans and how you phase the work and how you deal with old buildings.