Portrait of Mr. Ted Comes Home

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Owen Park of Athens Framing Gallery hanging Mary Jett Franklin’s restored portrait of Mell.

Probably in the early 1920s, Mary Jett Franklin, a celebrated and widely traveled Athens artist, painted a large oil on canvas portrait of Edward (“Mr. Ted”) Mell, beloved principal of Athens High School from 1909 to 1943. It was hung in the city auditorium, a building on the Athens High School campus on Prince Avenue at Hill Street—appropriately so, for the building was named Mell Auditorium for Mr. Ted. The Athens Banner-Herald ran a front-page story about the naming of it for Mell on 17 May 1923). Apparently, the naming for Mell was the idea of the school’s PTA. The last paragraph states, “The cornerstone to the Mell Auditorium will be laid during commencement week with Masonic ceremony. The auditorium is now being constructed and will be one of the most handsome buildings in
the city. It was provided for in the $225,000 school bond issue last year.”

Clarke Central drama teacher Harriet Anderson, Pat McAlexander, and Larry Dendy with the newly hung portrait of “Mr. Ted” (photo by Owen Park)

The old Athens High Building on Prince Avenue was demolished in 1959. The portrait apparently remained in the Mell Auditorium until that building was demolished in the 1970s. Wendy’s now occupies the Athens High site, Captain D’s the site of the Auditorium.

After the Auditorium was demolished, the portrait of Mell mysteriously disappeared. In 2018 it reappeared equally mysteriously, donated by persons unknown to the current iteration of Athens High—Clarke Central, located off Milledge Avenue and Baxter Street. The portrait was in bad shape, and the frame damaged. Under the leadership of Mary Bondurant Warren, with the help of Harry Neely, Pat McAlexander, and Larry Dendy, AHS undertook to restore the portrait and repair the frame. Members and friends of the Society donated funds, and in January 2020 the restored portrait was hung in the present Mell Auditorium, located in a wing of Clarke Central. There, it paired with a later large oil portrait of Mell by Reuben Gambrell, a resident of Athens from 1938 to 1942 while he was a Master of Fine Arts student at the University of Georgia under Lamar Dodd and then a UGA art instructor. The portrait was probably painted during those years.

The AHS liaison at Clarke Central was drama teacher Harriet Anderson, and it turned out that her mother, Margaret Timm, and Mary Bondurant Warren had been close friends—and that Harriet herself had babysat for Larry Dendy’s son when she was a high school student. These connections made the delivery of the portrait seem right, even, we might say, destined. As Harriet, Larry, and I posed with the newly hung portrait in the new Mell Auditorium, it seemed the long-lost image of Mr. Ted had indeed come home. Now of course, both portraits look out over a mostly empty auditorium, but we hope that soon students will again return, and that they will take note of these portraits of a much beloved man, so important to their school’s history.

Franklin’s early nineteenth-century portrait joins this one of Mr. Ted, painted by Reuben Gambrell, UGA art grad student and then instructor 1938 -42, probably during these years.

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