Built in 1964, Wheeler's main facility has outgrown its enrollment capacity and shows its age. In 2010, the Wheeler community lobbied hard to get the Cobb Board of Education to approve a $20.3 million renovation project. Now, the school is preparing for construction this summer.
On Saturday, walking the hallways as they knew them for the last time were numerous Wildcats alumni who are a bit grayer than they once were as youthful students who dashed between classrooms and traded cafeteria gossip. Many of them showed up with their own families and cherished memories.
"Things haven't changed," one man said as he wandered around, inspecting old lockers and classrooms.
Welcoming the graduates in the main lobby after they signed in were old albums chronicling the school's history through photographs and yellowed newspaper clippings. Wooden pieces of the original gym floor - salvaged from water damage in 2003 - were on sale. And floorplans of what the renovated facility will look like were displayed.
The entire day - part reunion and part wake - was bittersweet for many of the alumni who hadn't been on campus in decades.
"The one thing that's super sweet about it is seeing this many people turn out," said east Cobb resident Julie Davis, 57, a 1973 grad who works as a heathcare professional.
"Being an officer of the alumni association, we've had a hard time getting people involved and we thought that they'd move on and don't care. But this large turnout today shows that the former students do care."
The Wheeler Alumni Association was largely responsible for the weekend's event. The event's organizer was past president Richard Wright, an Atlanta documentary filmmaker who named his production company, Wildcat Video Productions, after his alma mater.
He was on hand conducting interviews with former students and documenting Saturday's farewell for a film he expects to complete after the renovations.
"It's amazing the things that they will tell us - like who beat them up and where," said Wright, 53, a1975 graduate.
"But (also) the friends they made, the incidents and pranks, and the teachers. A lot of people talk about the teachers who inspired them. It's amazing how many people say, 'If it hadn't been for so and so, I wouldn't have turned out like I am.'"
One of Wheeler's most memorable events was a prank in 1969 that involved a stolen pig. According to one of the masterminds, 1969 graduate Steve Evans of Dallas, a group of students "borrowed" a pig from the dairy farm of the late George Bentley and decided to let it loose in the library after they discovered it unlocked.
"He had a good time ripping all of the books from the shelves and messing in the floor," remembered Evans, 60, a retired real estate developer.
"The word got out that if you were a senior, you would not be eligible to graduate. So (the underclassmen) took the heat and went to the principal's office and said they did it. They had to go and work on Mr. Bentley's farm on Saturdays for about a month."
The school's renovation project includes demolishing the old structure - which housed classrooms, a library, cafeteria and a gym - and constructing a black box theater, to be complete by fall 2012. The second phase, which begins in fall 2013, includes construction of a new, two-story main building that will house 14 classrooms. The project is funded by SPLOST III money.
Trailers will be brought onto campus to house students during the construction.
Returning to the old cafeteria decades after graduation, Marybeth Sullivan, 41, of east Cobb, a 1987 graduate, said it didn't look as imposing as it once did as an awkward freshman. She spent much of yesterday sharing memories with old classmates, such as William McLeroy, 42, of Acworth, who hadn't returned in 25 years.
Unlike many older alumni, 25-year-old Ben Tyndell was less sentimental about the old school building that he looks forward to seeing demolished. A class of 2003 member, Tyndell said he had few classes there as a magnet student. However, he fondly remembered band rehearsals in the old gym.
"This building always needed an upgrade," said Tyndell, who is preparing for graduate studies at Vanderbilt University.