William McDowell says he wouldn’t trade the Western North Carolina mountains of his youth for a hometown in Beverly Hills.
The Canton community nurtured McDowell, who went on to own jewelry stores, work in real estate and now helps run an artist development company with his wife, legendary soul singer Gladys Knight.
“When I left this small town, I had the confidence to do anything that I wanted to do,” he said in February. “I was just at the White House for Michele (Obama’s) birthday party, and I looked around thought, how did I come from this town and get here? How did I get the confidence to do that? The confidence came from that place.”
Since this winter, McDowell and his Reynolds High School Community Restoration Foundation -have worked together to clean up the Reynolds School property on Reynolds School Road in Canton into a vibrant community center.
He views the center as a way to return the investment this community made in him, McDowell said.
In the last six months, the group has cleared the overgrown football field and parking lot, and has taken “about 75 percent of the junk out of the building,” McDowell said.
Knight and McDowell worked on the property Monday. “Gladys was painting the walls herself,” McDowell said.
After holding community meetings, McDowell also has a clearer vision of what the center will include: a theater, library, computer lab, a diner and an outdoor walking track. The next steps include completing the clean up and finalizing architectural renderings, he said.
The project will “show we do have some pride in what we own and the blessing of how people treated me growing up,” said McDowell, who grew up 20 yards from the school.
He envisioned it as an “all-service” building, where Knight would love to teach music classes for kids. Or children could take etiquette courses or the elderly could walk safely around a new track.
The track is the first on McDowell’s to-do list, the costs of which he estimates will be about $2 million. “I want to have the football field cleared,” he said. “One of my uncles asked to put a track there so the elderly could walk there. I want to have that all done by the summer.”
He also plans to raise money for the project, and he and Knight aim to stage a benefit concert in Asheville. Knight and McDowell bought a home in Fairview in 2005, but live and work primarily in Las Vegas.
McDowell purchased the school property in December at an auction for $80,000. The 20,000-square-foot, one-story school was built in 1930. The building and 6.5-acre property is valued at $78,100, according to tax records.
He’s been interested in rehabbing the property for almost 10 years. Reynolds wasn’t just next to his home — it was an extension of home. His mother worked as a cook at the historic African-American school. His grandfather was president of the Touchdown Club, the booster program for the football team. His uncle was a standout on that squad, McDowell said.
“I don’t even know how to describe something that hardly exists anymore,” he said. “People would give everything they had even though they didn’t have a lot. If I had the choice between Beverly Hills or growing up there, I would pick that place.”
During integration, it was consolidated into Pisgah High School, which opened in 1966 and is McDowell’s alma mater. After the students left, the building became a storage facility for a junk dealer, he said.
“The community used to be so well kept,” he said, noting he left Canton in 1977. “They took pride in what they had. When I came back, I saw a lot of people had left and gone on to a better education.
“I went over to the school and saw that it had been taken over by a storage facility, and it was just godawful,” he said. “The football field had overgrown. It was nothing like I remembered.”
His most important memory of Reynolds, however, has nothing to do with the field or the building.
“Everybody had the ability to nurture without question,” he said. “You just felt like you were surrounded by people who love you. I want the school to be that community where you know you are going to be cared for and loved.”