Live in Cancer Alley and lose your high school to a chemical plant. Yes you get a new one but still a loss.

On a fall day more than 44 years ago, Sharon Steib kissed her future husband for the first time. It was behind one of the live oaks at the old St. James High School so no one could see the two classmates. Though just a sophomore then, Steib, 60, really liked that boy, Nicholas; he was a good kisser, too, she said. They grew up together, married and have two adult daughters. Those live oaks, planted by 4-H, the Future Farmers of America and agriculture students of the 1930s, remain a touchstone in Steib’s early life, as they are for many other former students at St. James High. But the trees were left behind a few years ago when the high school was moved from River Road to a new location in Vacherie away from the Mississippi River. Planning a large methanol plant directly behind the old St. James High, Yuhuang Chemical agreed to buy it for $10.1 million in 2015 and turn the 46-acre school and its oak-lined entrance and exit into an administrative complex.

A new school but without the trees.

The new St. James High that replaced it has all the benefits of a modern school, costing $45 million to buy the land and build and outfit the entire school complex, but the new school also rose from former agricultural land with no trees. On a brisk morning this month, several years’ worth of St. James alums and a few current students brought live oaks back to St. James High for the next generations of Wildcats. Koch Methanol, the current owner of the methanol plant and the old school, and alumni classes sponsored the planting of 28 live oaks and eight magnolias along the entrance roads to the new school off La. 20. With urging from Ken Guidry of Keep St. James Beautiful, the tree-planting was the brain child of the school’s principal, Shane Kliebert, who last fall pitched the plan to the School Board and Koch Methanol. Koch Methanol officials said they were inspired by the principal’s enthusiasm for the project and the school and jumped at the opportunity to provide at $5,000 grant.

This is nice but did they also build the school?

Kliebert said former graduating classes were invited Nov. 7 to adopt trees and 48 hours later every tree had a sponsor. Magnolias were added to honor the old Magnolia Senior High School, a former all-Black school in St. James before desegregation led to its closure in 1970. Various classes from 1957 to 2020 adopted trees, school officials said. After a ceremony marking the occasion in front of the new school that brought out residents, school cheer squads, the school band, other school groups and collection of local officials, the various classes went to work. School officials had the holes for the live oaks and magnolias pre-dug with an auger, so volunteers only had the drop the saplings in the hole and shovel in dirt to fill it. Lisa Guidry, 52, who now works as a finance secretary at the high school, was shoveling in dirt on top of the root ball as others watched, including her old friend from the class of 1988, Christie Hymel Crooks. Both women said the location of the new school and the new trees in front of it are helping bring together different parts of the Vacherie area. The new school on La. 20 sits between the neighborhoods closer to the Mississippi River and those farther in the parish’s interior. Guidry said she remembers fondly eating lunch under the oaks at the old St. James High, which is near the community of St. James, and called the event to plant live oaks at the new school “wonderful.” “It helps us not to be divided, having the school here,” added Crooks, 53, who now lives in Baton Rouge.

Planting the trees brought back memories.

Crooks and Guidry were planting their tree along an entrance road, while just across that street Steib and her classmates of 1980 had been planting theirs. Crooks, Guidry and Steib had more than the serendipity of the moment to connect them. Steib was a senior, she said, when the original St. James High on River Road burned on March 3, 1980, turning 49 years of school history into ash. Crooks and Guidry were among the first students in August 1984 to attend class in the replacement high school that Koch Methanol now owns. All three women were there together, with many other Wildcats of old, to bring a little of the old school to the new one. Steib, a Vacherie native and former homecoming queen at St. James High, said the high school has avid supporters because of its central role in the community — whatever building the school’s been in and wherever it’s been located. “It’s not the building; it’s the people. You know the people remain, and the people always come back,” she said.

My high school was a converted tobacco warehouse in Izmir, Turkey and is no more.

St James High School gone for a chemical plant