For years, a 20-foot-tall viking dubbed Erik oversaw the front doors to Memphis Hillcrest High School. Through a hidden audio system, the iconic statue said “good morning” and “good evening” each day as students came and went.

Silenced in the late 1980s due to vandals, Erik still stands atop the school’s entry. And this school year, he may regain his voice.

Officials with Green Dot Public Schools are planning to fully restore Erik as part of more than $600,000 in renovations to the 54-year-old South Memphis school. Formerly with Shelby County Schools, Hillcrest opened this month as a charter school under the state-run Achievement School District.

The California-based charter operator already has given Erik a fresh coat of paint and new supports to keep him upright. Next on the list: a new audio system to help the gigantic mascot greet students as they come and go.

Students are intrigued with the idea, while alumni are thrilled.

“We loved Erik,” said Archienico Martin, a 1991 graduate who says the statue holds significance to the community.

“If they took Erik down, they would’ve took the school down,” Martin said of Hillcrest’s transition to a charter school under the state-run district.

Still, the giant viking is a little creepy to some students — with or without a voice.

“He made you intimidated and not want to go to school, which is the opposite of what you want,” said senior LeKe’la Jones, adding that at least this year “he wasn’t hanging from a string (by his neck). And he was painted better. The whole front of the building was painted.”

Hillcrest is one of two additions this year to Green Dot’s portfolio of Memphis schools under the state-run district. Last year, there was talk of a school merger with rival Whitehaven High School to block the ASD’s takeover of Hillcrest, but that proposal from Shelby County Superintendent Dorsey Hopson died.

Hillcrest High School teacher and alumna Kawana Strong.
PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Hillcrest High School teacher and alumna Kawana Strong talks with students.

Now that Hillcrest is a charter, its operator is seeking to retain parts of the school that resonate with the community, while improving the low test scores that led to state intervention.

Erik is an example of the former, and school leaders are now looking to find the right voice, says principal Meredith Davis, who came to Hillcrest from DC Public Schools.

When Martin attended Hillcrest, the statue was voiced by then-assistant principal Sammie Hall.
Erik’s makeover this year already has attracted attention in the community. Many passers-by stopped to sure Erik wasn’t going anywhere when work began on the statue this summer.

Now that classes have begun, other changes to the school are also noticeable.

“It’s cleaner. The teachers are nicer. Everyone is honest and considerate,” Jones said. “There’s more (Advanced Placement) classes, online course and extracurricular activities.”

The restoration of Erik is helping to set the tone.

Hillcrest teacher Kawana Strong, who is also an alumna, told one of her classes Tuesday about her memories of the statue.

“Erik doesn’t mean that much to you all; y’all really don’t care,” she said.

“I do!” one student responded.

“But to us, the alumni,” Strong continued, “Erik is a big deal.”