If it hadn’t been for Isaac Andrew’s foresight, Steve Saxton may have finally gotten his dearest wish: to see South Albany High School’s fight song go up in flames.

Andrew, the band director, has long been using copies of copies of copies of handwritten sheets of music for the high school’s fight song. A couple of years ago, he scanned them into a computer for digital formatting.

Then came the April 1 fire that gutted the band room, along with the cafeteria, choir room, child development classroom, cheerleading and dance team practice center, Leadership storage closet and all eight kitchens in the culinary arts department.

The fire, later found to be arson, reduced the entire music library to ashes, but the computer scans were still accessible. Andrew is now copying them into a notation program for new pep books to start the year.

“If we hadn’t started doing pep books the way we did it a couple of years ago — digitally formatting our books for custom printing — we would not have our music,” Andrew said.

And that would have been just fine with Saxton. He’s carried his loathing for South Albany’s fight song for 44 years, along with a dark and painful secret:

He’s the one responsible for it.

It was a group effort that led to South’s name, colors and Rebel mascot, which has drawn second looks in recent months as the nation has grappled with displays of the Confederate flag and the history it represents.

As South Albany moves further into the 21st century, rebuilding a section of its campus to replace what was lost to the fire, Saxton said he’d love to see the school make even more changes.

Dump the vestiges of the southern Confederate rebel, he said, even though the school never espoused those values. And while you’re at it, pick a new fight song.

“I always vowed to myself that I’d come clean if I was ever the commencement speaker at SAHS,” Saxton, now 59 and a senior health club industry executive living near San Francisco, told the Democrat-Herald in a letter to the editor. “But this seems like an appropriate time to confess. Here goes.”

We’ll let Saxton make his own confession. First, however, let’s set the scene.

New school in town

In the spring of 1971, Saxton was a sophomore at what was then Albany Union High School, and he’d just been elected as the incoming student body president for the city’s new high school.

“At that time, we didn’t have a school name, mascot, motto, colors or fight song … just a campus under construction,” Saxton wrote.

It was a campus residents agreed was badly needed.

According to U.S. Census reports, Albany had almost doubled in size between 1940 and 1950, growing to a little more than 10,000 people. By 1970, the population was 18,000 and rising.

Bob Stalick, now a retired superintendent for Albany schools, was teaching at Albany Union in the mid-1960s, when the school housed around 1,400 students in ninth through 12th grade. That was already too big for a school with an initial capacity of some 1,300 students.

In August 1961, voters had agreed to a $2 million bond measure for two new junior high schools, Calapooia and Memorial. But even moving the ninth-graders to those buildings a few years later didn’t do much to ease the growing enrollment pressure.

As Stalick recalls, toward the end of the decade, enrollment at Albany Union was more than 1,800 students, even in just three grade levels. Teachers and students were attending on a double-shift schedule, starting at dawn and working into the evening. “It was awful,” he said.

Voters agreed. Records weren’t immediately available, but as Stalick remembers, the high school district successfully passed a $4.2 million bond measure circa 1969 to build a new high school on a former ryegrass field the district had purchased for, as Stalick recalls, just $1,000 an acre.

The school board weighed choices for a new name. “Columbia” was one possibility, as the school would be built on Columbus Street. Another suggestion was to name it for longtime superintendent John Cox.

Board members eventually settled on “South Albany,” and then it was up to the students to do the rest.

In the spring of 1971, Albany Union gave juniors who lived in the new South Albany attendance zone the choice of staying at Albany Union or transferring.

Steve Saxton’s big brother, Ron — who would later become a Portland attorney and chairman of  the board for Portland Public Schools — was one of them, but he chose to stay at Albany Union, where he became student body president that fall. One hundred fifteen other juniors elected to make the change.

As a sophomore, Steve had no choice but to move. As the incoming student body president for the new school, he served on the committee to create a ballot of choices on mascot, motto, colors, fight song and other items for the transfer students to decide.

Finding an identity

“For mascots, I don’t recall what other choices we gave students. I only recall that the word ‘South’ implied ‘breaking away,’ which was what we were doing — even though it wasn’t by choice,” he wrote.

“Whenever the word ‘South’ came up, we identified with the Confederacy that had seceded from the Union, because we were leaving Albany Union. It made sense to a bunch of teenagers. If Albany Union High School had only been Albany High School, most likely we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Stalick, who moved with the students to South Albany and became its first vice principal, agreed. One of the possibilities for a team name was the Raiders, but Corvallis, which had just built Crescent Valley High, snapped that up before South had a chance.

“Because it was ‘South,’ the Rebels became appropriate,” Stalick said. “The discussion was, ‘We’re going to do things differently. We’re going to ‘rebel’ against; we’re going to form our own tradition.”

The trappings of the Confederacy played more of a low-key role, almost as an afterthought, Stalick said: Colors became red and Confederate gray, and students carried small Stars and Bars flags during Homecoming and other football games.

Stalick wasn’t working in Albany when it went up, but eventually, the gym wall at South sported a giant Confederate flag.

“Nobody thought anything of it, to be honest with you,” Stalick said. “The whole notion of ‘Rebels’ was not associated with segregation. We were rebelling against the old school. … Nobody stood up at a school board meeting and said, ‘That’s racist.’ At that point in time, it wasn’t. Nobody even thought about it.”

Added Saxton: “We proudly waved the Confederate flag and had Johnny Rebel as our mascot. The Confederate uniform was our marching band’s uniform, but we weren’t touting slavery or racism; we weren’t supporting any Confederate political ideology.”

The Confederate flag came off the gym wall during the 1989-90 school year, when rumblings of white supremacist “skinhead” groups nationwide, many of which used the flag as a symbol, brought increased scrutiny to racial relations.

John DeBoie, then the principal, held a contest among students to design a new flag. Senior Mike Chamberlain drew five designs that all ended up as finalists. The winner: a mustachioed soldier in a Confederate-style cap, charging on horseback, saber raised for battle.

That emblem has fallen out of favor over the years, although it can still be seen on an occasional T-shirt or on a banner hanging in a rival school’s hall. The image of the saber, which now bears an “SA” flag, has been stamped into the concrete outside the school’s front door.

If everything were to be done over again today, Stalick figures nobody would pick anything even remotely connected with the Confederacy as an emblem for a high school. That said, he’s not sure what’s left is actually harmful.

Saxton is ready to ditch all vestiges, however. He doesn’t feel the true rebel — the one who doesn’t compromise his individuality no matter what the crowd might want — can be represented by a single mascot. “It’s time to close this chapter and write a new one.”

Finding a fight song

And speaking of writing new chapters, here is Saxton’s, about how South Albany’s fight song — which had nothing to do with rebels, the Confederacy, or even South red and gray — came to be:

“Plan A,” Saxton wrote. “School administrators hand-picked a committee of students and teachers. Our mission was to listen to college fight songs and select our two favorites. The school’s band would learn to play both songs. They would perform them at a student body assembly and students would select their favorite. It was a pretty straightforward assignment.

“I ordered a compilation of college fight songs on cassette tapes (there was no YouTube in 1971) and played them for other committee members. We listened to many songs. Our consensus favorite was the University of Michigan’s ‘Hail to the Victors.’ Other favorites were USC’s 'Fight On' and Notre Dame’s 'Victory March.'

“If I had had my way, we would have just announced the 'Hail to the Victors' selection. However, we had to give students two choices. I reasoned, ‘Why give them #1 vs. #2? They might vote for #2. Instead, let’s give them #1 vs. #500.’ Let’s call it Plan B.

“So I listened to every college fight song I could, trying to find one I despised. One of the cassette tapes also included some alma maters (much slower-paced and less-energetic than fight songs).

“I came across the U.S. Naval Academy’s ‘Navy Blue and Gold.’ Bingo! I had my loser. I would pit that song against ‘Hail to the Victors;’ it would be an easy selection for students. I ordered the sheet music for the band to learn and instructed them to ‘speed up 'Navy Blue and Gold.’

“As student body president, I hosted the assembly. Students were not informed of the name of each song nor its affiliated university. That would have unfairly sunk ‘Navy Blue and Gold’ because those were West Albany’s school colors. And I wanted a fair contest (not really).

“Plan B (to get what I wanted) was almost complete. I had left nothing to chance … almost nothing. With band director Darle West conducting, the band played both songs for students. The moment of truth was at hand. It was time for a vote … a simple show of hands.

“I asked the student body which of the two songs they preferred. To my shock and dismay, they overwhelmingly voted for ‘Navy Blue and Gold.’ I assumed they got the two songs mixed up so I had the band play them again. And I put it to a vote again making sure that students were clear which song was which. Again, they selected the sped-up version of ‘Navy Blue and Gold.’ I was dumbfounded.

“I left that student body assembly wondering how Plan B had gone awry. Why had I left anything to chance? A show of hands? What was I thinking? I should have demanded ballots. Trust me … I would have shredded them and announced the winner as ‘Hail to the Victors.’

“To add insult to injury, Mr. West asked me to conduct the Pep Band for the school year. I accepted. And every time we played that fight song, my conscience took a beating. The rest is history. Forty-four years later, ‘Navy Blue and Gold’ – played at a faster-than-written tempo – is still their fight song.

“So while you’re at it, if you change the mascot, please accept my apology and get a new fight song. May I suggest ‘Hail to the Victors’? Put it to a vote. I’ll tabulate the ballots."

*Editor's note: The print version of this story incorrectly identified Steve Saxton's older brother, both by name and title. The Democrat-Herald regrets the error.