By Dr. Ken 


In the 1960s, one could have attended the University Of Cincinnati and never seen the outside of Hughes High School and its 425 foot front tower. With the main administration building located at 2600 Clifton Avenue and Hughes at 2515 Clifton Avenue, one would be hard-pressed to understand how one could not view the high school when walking almost anywhere around the university grounds but Hughes had a reputation, a negative one in every respect, and thus, one of the first pieces of advice given to incoming freshmen was “Don’t go over there.” In truth, much of the area surrounding the university was a bit intimidating. Like many cities that have undergone continuous “renewal” and gentrification, neighborhood names and references have changed over the decades and I have never kept up with those trends, not in Cincinnati and not even in my hometown of New York. The Hell’s Kitchen of Manhattan is still Hell’s Kitchen, not the tonier and gentler sounding “Clinton.” It was a pit and the home of numerous Irish based gangs from the 1800s through the 1990s and headquarters for the notorious Westies. You could get your ass handed to you within seconds on any day or night. We lived on the Lower East Side at one time, a time when nightly gun battles between African American and Puerto Rican drug dealers were de rigueur. Once or twice a week it was necessary to grit my teeth, exit our sixth floor apartment which was next to the stairwell that led to the tenement’s roof, and throw a junkie or two down the steps who was shooting up and gotten loud and violent during the process. It had been a long established immigrant neighborhood never known for the finer aspects of New York City living, yet that neighborhood too has undergone extensive renovation, revitalization, and skyrocketing real estate prices.


The University of Cincinnati was technically in University Heights and bordered on the east by Corryville. Much of The Heights was rundown with made-for-college-student-rentals, and home to Hughes High School. Corryville was home to a gang that called itself the Corryville Rats and they would make occasional forays onto campus, rumble with the National Society Of Pershing Rifles, the campus ROTC/military group that maintained their fraternity house in that neighborhood, and engage in ongoing muggings and assaults. Interestingly, Hughes was first built and operated for the purpose of educating the children of poor, indigent families and by the time of my arrival in Cincinnati, the high school certainly seemed to focus on those very students. By the mid-1960s, like many inner cities, the public high schools no longer displayed shining academic records nor played the highest level of athletics despite having many great athletes. The facilities, like those in New York City, were aged, old fashioned, often on their last legs, and lagging behind the suburban areas. The better coaches and teachers had fled to those suburban or parochial schools, although in every city, there remained a few terrific and successful men like Brooklyn’s Moe Finkelstein who developed pro players like Otis Wilson and John Brockington at Thomas Jefferson High School in the East New York section of Brooklyn.


The 425 foot tower that distinguishes the Hughes High School building, a beautiful Tudor Revival style structure, was named for Thomas Hughes who left his property to the City of Cincinnati for the purpose of educating the poor. Unfortunately, it fell victim to the plight of the lower socioeconomic class. It is now re-named the Hughes Center with multiple high schools within the building


New York, Cincinnati, Detroit, and most big cities were already in decline by the mid-1960s and although I came to Cincinnati with a typical New York heightened sense of street toughness and awareness, I was surprised that in many parts of the city it was in fact often dangerous. The quality of Cincinnati high school football of course dwarfed that played in both city and suburban areas of New York City and Long Island. The Cincinnati Public High School League encompassed the stereotypical inner city schools like Woodward, Taft, Withrow, and Hughes but the definitive shift in power had already been initiated towards the private Catholic schools and to this day, the Greater Catholic League on a year-to-year basis, is superior to the public schools in the city. Yet, as it is in every large city, the poorer and “lesser” schools always had great individual athletes and occasional great teams or units. One of the greatest in Cincinnati history was the Taft High School backfield of 1960 and 1961. While the football, basketball, and track and field teams were sterling, the overall academic performance of the school continued its slide. Over the succeeding years and decades, Taft became the “caricature of a stereotype” of an inner city high school. As noted in the December 1, 2010 issue of the Education Week newsletter, “Calls sounded to just shut it down. And those who remember the old Taft don’t sugarcoat their thoughts. ‘It was an insane asylum,’ said teacher Jocelynne Jason …’A slum school,’ said Jack Cassidy, the chief executive officer of Cincinnati Bell. ‘You would never want your kid to go to Taft High School.’” As academics deteriorated, so did the athletic programs and the dichotomy between private and public school performance was magnified. In some cities and areas of the country, the public schools still play a better brand of football than the private schools but in many others, the gap became significantly wider year to year. One glance at the recent Louisiana high school football rankings as a typical example, make it clear that the private schools have made the days of public school dominance so clearly demonstrated by public schools like Baton Rouge’s Istrouma High School a relic of the past. Another fate to affect the public schools in every major city has been the closing of many of the long established high schools due to poor graduation rates and literal crumbling of the physical structures, and/or the reorganization of a singular school into multiple, separate high schools within the same building. Unfortunately, the plague of bad attendance, bad grades, bad teaching, and bad behavior has continued to grow unabated.  


George Rice of the Houston Oilers was a Baton Rouge Istrouma High School product who became an All American at LSU. He was one of many greats, including the iconic Billy Cannon, from that program


The Taft High School team however, that featured Al Nelson, Carl Ward, Walter Johnson, and Cleophus “Cid” Edwards as their backfield, was a once in a lifetime grouping of talent that Cincinnati, despite its well-earned reputation for consistently terrific high school football, has rarely seen before or since. By the early ‘60s, any real glory of the Cincinnati Public League was long gone and to the present time, none of its public high schools have won a state football championship. Study of the Ohio High School Athletic Association records indicates that they have never won a playoff game!



Carl Ward progressed from Taft High School back up to one of the greatest Cincinnati area athletes of all time, and to a great Michigan star



The Taft High School Senators have undergone an academic reorganization with their current designation as Robert A. Taft Information Technology High School but most would agree that the true glory days are well behind them. They also have not been able to brag about a backfield like the one that represented them in 1960 that included four future National Football League players. 1960’s quarterback was Dennis Whitehead who did not go onto the big leagues but the two seniors were the 6’4”, 230 pound fullback Walter Johnson and left halfback Al Nelson. Junior right halfback was Cleophus “Cid” Edwards who stood 6’2” and 210 pounds while Carl Ward was the young sophomore working as the back-up and “swingman” because he could not quite make the starting line-up. These names should be familiar to HELMET HUT readers with their appreciation of football history. Johnson was an All Pro with the Cleveland Browns and later, a professional wrestler; Al Nelson enjoyed a stellar career at the University Of Cincinnati and a team record holder with the Philadelphia Eagles; Cid Edwards earned a reputation as a punishing runner with the Cardinals and Chargers while Carl Ward, a three year pro with the Browns and Saints, was one of Michigan’s greatest players of the 1960s.