This past Monday provided me with a clash of emotions. I went to the mail box and received a letter from Rick, the senior class president for the class of ’66. I knew that our 50 year class reunion was looming on the horizon. Yippee! Skippee!
Then I opened the letter and read the front page. Time. Check. Date. Check. Location. Check. There it was, another outstanding job by Rick and his wife Debbie in once again getting our small class together. 61 graduates of a small school in the farming heartland of the Midwest meeting once again. What could be more exciting than to see your old classmates!
Then, I turned the letter over to read the backside. Seven of our classmates have died since our 40 year class reunion. Seven! Since Grandma P and I moved to the southeast almost 8 years ago, seven classmates died. I was not aware of five of these seven passing. Combined with the classmates that died earlier, 20% of our class of 61 graduates will not be attending the reunion.
I am still in shock….not only from the number that died, but also by the people that died.
As mentioned, our school was located in a small farming community in the Midwest. The town was small, one square mile and at the time it had a population of less than a thousand people. Everyone knew everyone. The school district was geographically large. From the school, it extended over 15 miles from north to south, and over 20 miles east to west. This required the majority of students to be bused in every morning and taken home every night. Many of these bus routes were almost an hour long for the students. We did not have a ‘middle school.’ You were either in grade school, grades 1-6, junior high school, grades 7-8, or in high school which was grades 9-12. All ages of these students rode the same bus. First graders were riding with seniors and everyone in between. You couldn’t wait to become a freshman, because you finally got a name rather than a number. You were a ‘freshman!’
Now here is something that happened in our small town that would be very rare today. Over half of the class of ’66 spent all twelve years of school together. Yup. In retrospect, I spent more time with my classmates in school than I spent with my sister and parents at home. Once we reached high school, classes promptly began at 8:17 AM. Lunch was from 12:17 PM to 12:47 PM. You learned how to eat quickly and efficiently. The end of the school day was 3:41 PM. Well……it wasn’t the end for most of the students. That is when the extra curricular activities began, or, if you were one of the farm kids, it is when you got home to assist with those farm chores. There were members of our class that never participated in those extra curricular activities because they were needed on the farm.
I need to point out that because of spending all twelve years of school together, the boys and girls in our class really did become our brothers and sisters. A confession. I only kissed one girl in our class. She and I were juniors. She was attractive and intelligent and desirable…..but, it was really like kissing your sister. (What did you expect? A Kardashian moment?) I never dated a girl in my class again.
Because of the small size of school, we were able to participate in many of those extra curricular activities. Band, chorus, class plays, operettas, sports, school newspaper, class yearbook; a whole myriad of activities. And….like the old joke……..’our town was so small that we had to take turns being the town drunk’, we needed participation from grades 9-12 to have a chorus, a band, and to produce an operetta. If nothing else, our class was well-rounded because the majority of us were doing three or more extra curricular activities. Sometimes this expanded to 6 or 7 extra curricular activities throughout the school year.
The class of ’65 had the greatest singers and actors. The class of ’66 had the athletes. We had five very talented athletes in our class. Rick, Steve, Dave, Don, and Bob S. were all multi-sport talented athletes. When we were juniors, our football team was undefeated and won the conference championship. That team had only four seniors on the team with two of them being starters. The next year, as seniors, we again went undefeated and won the district championship. We were rated as high as 13th in our state in football. This was done before the time of 5 or 6 school athletic divisions, with a tournament to determine the champion in each division. Not bad for a small school with over 600 high schools in our state. The five guys mentioned above were the leaders of that team. The rest of us provided a pretty darn good supporting cast.
(Ironically,even though our home town has become a 4th tier suburb to a large metropolitan area, they have never won a conference championship in football since the class of ’66. This is sad considering the graduating classes are over 4 times the size of the class of ’66!)
Our high school won the state golf championship three years in a row! Not bad for a bunch of small town kids taking on the metropolitan large schools.
We had other successes in wrestling, basketball, baseball, cross country and track and field. Those were our sports in addition to football.
Like all graduating 18 year old students, we had ambition. We had aspirations. We all had hopes, dreams and optimism about our futures. Some of these hopes and dreams may have been unrealistic…but give us a break, we were 18 years old and high school graduates!
Sadly, some of our classmates could not cope with reality. Where they were once vaunted high school athletes, they were now, unceremoniously, demoted to regular guys. They couldn’t cope. Don the athlete, the stupidly funny guy in our class, committed suicide. He did this after getting out of the military. Bob S. was determined to have died recently. Even his surviving brother does not know how he died as he separated himself from his family. All his brother knew was that he died in Florida. Both of these guys were the closest thing we had to Viking ‘berserkers’. When they were playing football, they suffered no pain and were only going to cause carnage for the other teams. Their attitude was catchy for the rest of the team. But both, good friends to each other, never quite got their train on the tracks of life. Sad.
Roberta was the class salutatorian. She got a masters degree in nursing. At the 40th class reunion, she and I shared stories of where we had traveled. We determined that of all the classmates, she and I had traveled the most. At the bar, she and I were joined by Jim M. and his wife Patty. The four of us chatted. I am the only survivor of those four. I did not know of Roberta’s passing.
The classmate whose passing caused me the most emotional anxiety was Judy. This was not because I knew her better than anyone else, or liked her better than any of the others; it was because she would have been the last person I would have thought to have died. She was fit, trim and athletic. She was the most attractive girl in our class. She was our classes version of Annette Funicello. (C’mon. Some of you have to remember the original Mickey Mouse Club.) That was Judy. Her death caught me by surprise, as I would have voted her ‘most likely to live the longest.’
So, this is my Ode to the Class of ’66, and its gone, but not forgotten members: Judy, John, Rich J., Bob L,, Jim, Don, Roberta, Loren, Bob S., Kathy, Dan, Rich R. and Ruth. I will never remember you as the grandmothers and grandfathers many of you had become, but as the fresh-faced eighteen year old graduates filled with hope, ambition and aspirations.
Rest in peace, my brothers and sisters.