I didn’t heed Thomas Wolfe’s novel title, “You Can’t Go Home Again“. So two score and 5 years later, I went back for Southwest High School Class of 1969 Reunion in St. Louis, Mo. this past weekend. I had attended the 10th, 20th, 30th, and 40th. As student council president, I felt a definite connection, an obligation, a natural longing like a swallow needing to return to Capistrano.
Our old high school doesn’t exist anymore, and an increasing number of the Southwest Class of ’69 have died with the passage of 4 1/2 decades. One death I sadly learned about this weekend was Rick McAnnar, an elementary school classmate and fellow Boy Scout.
Dan Siefert from Dallas, John Pearcy from Baltimore and I came in three days early and shared a suite at a suburban hotel . Over the years, we have always tried to reunite somewhere ever so often, even though we live far apart. Of course, we lived only a few miles apart growing up in south St. Louis. This trio visited old haunts, including driving by the high school and stopping at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand, a historic site on Old Route 66. Too bad it was cold and damp, not exactly frozen custard weather. We visited our old neighborhoods. The houses we grew up in looked pretty much the same. We agreed that the large, Victorian-style homes overlooking the small picturesque pond in the Clifton Heights Park made much more of an impression than when we were teenagers cruising that and other neighborhoods on a dollars’ worth of gas.
Block after block, we drove and pointed out where classmates lived, friendships grew, and pranks and bullying took place.
We drove downtown to the third version of Busch Stadium where John, a dutiful father for the first time after the age of 50, bought Cardinals playoff shirts for his two young sons. Dan and I didn’t have kids and were shocked by the prices for baseball jerseys, hats, shirts and coats. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a Stan Musial No. 6 uniform shirt, no matter how big a baseball hero he was to me. The city was buzzing with playoff baseball fever.
As the reunion drew closer, the preliminary list of attendees remained sparse on classmates.com. Many fellow alumni evidently didn’t share the same connection or curiosity. Hopefully, they will feel differently for the golden 50th reunion.
We picked up classmate Bob Gebhardt, who needed a ride to the reunion event, after a dreary Saturday afternoon, weather-wise and having watched the Missouri Tigers get throttled 34-0 by the University of Georgia on TV. Was the reunion going to be a downer as well, the three of us wondered?
As we entered the door to the main bar area of the Seamus McDaniels Irish Tavern in the Dogtown section of the city, we recognized a familiar face, Dave Prokopchuk, who came in from Tulsa with his wife.
We walked through the busy tavern dining area and into a back room. There were our reunion classmates, many more than we expected. There was Joanie Roberts DeGregorio, still with a face that would launch a thousand ships. She was at the helm of this gathering, signing classmates and guests in. Mary Boekesch assisted in handing out gold SW Hello Day name tags with our senior pictures on it. For a moment you did feel like an incoming high school freshman shaking hands and making introductions to strange classmates. But wait a minute, I did know that person and so many others. As Janie Bennett Peterson hinted, it is the eyes that reveal the identity. (Janie probably aged the least of us) I informed Randy Brinkman that he looked exactly the same. He chuckled and said what about my beard? I hadn’t really noticed.
It was so good to see fellow alum and baseball summer league teammate, Sam Cardinale. With a white-gray beard and thick mane, he fittingly resembled Mark Twain, taking great satisfaction in announcing that reports of his death at the last reunion were greatly exaggerated.
During the evening there was talk about careers past and present, families, and SW teachers (Miss Kinderfather, a girls coach and phys-ed teacher was in attendance at age 90). We lamented and toasted deceased classmates (most recently close buddy Mike Macey) We spoke of retirement and the demise of our high school. It was a combination of city politics, shrinking post-Baby Boom era enrollments, and the flight of white city residents to the suburbs of St. Louis that closed its doors but could not shut out our memories. It’s worrisome now to see the home town and nearby municipality of Ferguson in the national news about racial strife.
John Pearcy wondered the night before over dinner how the four African Americans in our class felt being such a tiny minority. We bantered about people, places and things, and dubbed Steve May, our historian. Steve lives locally, wasn’t sure he would attend until we three weekend roommates twisted his arm, including dinner Friday, when we met Janet Bley Wiese and Julie Otto, close friends a year behind us. We encouraged them to crash a reunion that might need a few extra attendees. Julie did show and was warmly received.
For the record, our old high school is experiencing a rebirth of sorts as the Central Visual Performing Arts High School. I still think it was a shame the powers-to-be didn’t name this new school, the Southwest High School of Performing Arts.
It was great seeing high school sweethearts Don and Sharon Poliette, who I hadn’t remembered at past reunions. Don said sedentary, early-bird dinner retirement in Florida is not for him. He still is a regional sporting goods salesman, a career position well-fitted because he was a fine ballplayer. I would have loved to step outside with him for a game of catch. Not sure my right-throwing arm of yesteryear would agree.
Paul Discher pulled me aside to a table where there was looping DVD “A Photographer’s Scrapbook” of still photos he took of our Southwest days, complete with background music. I recall Don was a mainstay in the audio visual club, and he did a wonderful job chronicling SW students being students. He had a DVD copy for every member in attendance. it is available to purchase on line for any of the class of ’69 who couldn’t make it. Naturally, he is in the business of video conversion, photography, and digital scanning at (www.dischercreative.com)
There was a contingent of special alumni who attended, along with me, the Isaac Mason Elementary School— Mabel Leong DeLuca, Sheryl Rietz Graber, Louise Wilcoxen Wilson, Mike Showers and Cliff Shepard. Cliff and I probably vied for man- mile award. He came in from Los Angeles, and I from the other coast in Portland, Maine. Mike Showers was a much more confident individual from what I remembered as he told me about his career as a Teamster Union negotiator.
Louise Wilcoxen had been my chief rival for scholastic honors in grade school. We laughed about how we shared a mutual admiration and innocent infatuation back then, although we never dated.
Loyd Shantz, who attended University of Missouri at Columbia with me but joined another fraternity, hadn’t changed a bit. He handed me a photo from the University of Missouri freshman yearbook. The photo was of my freshman dorm floor with SW alums Steve Berra, who was not in attendance this evening, and Bob Gebhardt, kneeling alongside me. After graduating from the University of Missouri, Loyd worked and eventually took over his dad’s business, Modern Imports, while I moved 1200 miles to the East coast to work in newspapers. Loyd didn’t venture away, because well, as he puts it, “it’s pretty hard to move a junk yard.” I left the newspaper profession in the late 80s, but I was glad to see Bob Watson is still at it, as a reporter in Jefferson City.
A lot of SW women in attendance area stay regularly connected through Facebook and meet every other month at Debbie Rizzo’s Pizzaria. Along with organizer Joanie, Patty Tamme Trares, Rosie Tamminga-Mack, Sydney Johnston, and others, they were the nucleus of this gathering.
Facebook has made it easier to stay in touch, and Terry Trayanoff Mulverhill said she followed my travel blogs in Italy from a message link. I was glad to see Jeanill Eyermann Curry, a close classmate, in the very rear of the room. I told her how I cherished an official Western Union Telegram from her mom and dad the day I was elected student council president. Can you send a Western Union Telegram these days, we wondered?
Another long-distance attendee was Marilyn Wilds Davis, who brought a raffle basket of goods from the State of Washington. She admitted to crying when seeing her old house, not far away, in Dogtown. My initial thought as I approached her to say hello was that I had crowned her Miss SW over 45 years ago. But it couldn’t have been that long ago, not by her youthful looks.
I have to admit, with a graduating class of about 600, I didn’t know everyone and that included this evening. But I did my best to mingle through the attendees and make acquaintances.
Joan sincerely hoped I could help in the planning for the Golden 50th reunion and to rein in a few alumni I stay in touch with who didn’t come in for whatever reason. John Mullen said he hoped I would influence Ron Bryant, class president, who lives near my winter home in St. Petersburg, Fla., to show up for the next big reunion. John and Ron went to grade school together. I pledged I would do my best, and reasoned some people probably regarded the 45th anniversary as just another year.
Joan, John Pearcy and I talked about what kind of affair would be right for the 50th. I think we agreed the cost of a band or DJ would be too much. We agreed those who showed up Saturday night and hopefully those who attend the 50th would prefer a setting, a little more formal, but quiet enough to mingle and share memories. Our location Saturday evening was perfect, a neighborhood bar that provided a very reasonable package of food, drink and space. Joan had considered my cousins’ up-scale Favazza’s Restaurant on The Hill, which would have made the event all the more special for me. But it was too expensive for this not-so- marquee milestone. I suggested for the 50th a pre-party afternoon gathering and tour at the old high school and will try to make that happen. I made an unofficial visit there a few months ago when I was in town. The performing arts school principal said such a gathering might be possible with the present students performing for us grads of 50 years.
I even think author Thomas Wolfe would have loved this reunion’s cast of characters. In the novel, he did opine, “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.”