In 1956, just about every buttoned-front shirt in Paducah was on the verge of popping with pride. Construction wrapped on the new Paducah Tilghman High School building, and that fall, students returned to classes in a beautiful, state of the art building. Not included in the overall plans, however, was the kind of football field and stadium that many felt the city deserved.
Augusta Tilghman High School’s football program had called Keiler Field home for years. Sure, there was plenty of history there and lots of fond memories. But it was described as dusty, poorly-lit, and had a lack of adequate seating. Tilghman football was a source of great pride, and the gridiron needed to reflect that feeling.
The estimated cost was high, but community members felt like they could raise the funds to build a magnificent stadium. Organizers announced a goal on Thanksgiving day of 1955 at the annual Tilghman/Mayfield game. Tilghman won 53-7, the newspaper headline reading Tilghman Wallops Outclassed Mayfield. The game provided plenty of fuel.
Joe Mitchell wrote in The Paducah Sun: “A quarter-million dollars. Biggest sum Paducah ever set out to raise. Sounds ambitious, even audacious. And yet, if it came to betting, I’d risk more money on its success than on any sizable campaign in the past 20 years. Why? Because it appeals to people. It will be a facility they can see, feel, use and enjoy—a monument and a memorial for perhaps a half-a-hundred-years.”
Joe was right. Day after day, the paper reported donations and a rapidly rising total. The school began construction. Before long, it looked like the stadium might be open by the fall of ’56. Organizers dubbed it Memorial Stadium as the plans included ways for donors names to be memorialized within the structure. Persons closely connected to the project broke ground in early June of 1956. On Saturday, October 20 of the year, the stadium opened with a game against the Jackson Tennessee Golden Bears.
The school named the press box after Sam Livingston, Chairman of the Memorial Stadium Committee. Ralph McRight, who had played at Alabama on a scholarship (which was a little rarer in his day) had been coach of the Tilghman football squad since 1937. He was considered to be “one of the most effective counselors of young people in the annals of local schools. Troubled or mixed-up or misunderstood and mistreated youngsters by the score found themselves and straightened themselves out under his sympathetic supervision and through the strength of his exemplary guidance,” as reported in The Paducah Sun after his death. That fall, the school named the field Ralph McRight Field.
Memorial Stadium and McRight Field remain central to the Tilghman experience 64 years after their construction. Over time, the litany of state titles earned by the high school’s sports programs were posted on the back of the stadium, thus displaying to the community a civic pride that has persisted for generation. And it continues to give the name Memorial an even deeper meaning.