By Sue Botos
The world was a less uncomplicated place in 1961. Before the assassination of JFK, before Vietnam and well before 9/11, a new home cost about $12,500 and the average income in the U.S. was $5,315. A new car ran about $2,850, and it was most teenagers’ dream to own a Chevy Impala.
Before DVDs, students at Rocky River High took their dates to the theater to see “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “West Side Story.” School dances featured The Twist and The Pony to music by the Shirelles, Chubby Checker, and Elvis Presley. Westerns such as “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” dominated TV.
Their beehive hairdos and letter sweaters may be gone, and they may be 67 or 68 instead of 17 or 18, but members of the high school’s class of 1961 shared these old memories and caught up on new events in each other’s lives during a 50th-reunion weekend, which featured a tour of the high school on Saturday.
“The old hallways look exactly the same. All those old memories just come flooding back,” commented Sharon O’Grady Pfaff, one of the event organizers.
Pfaff said that 125 classmates signed up to participate in all or some of the weekend’s festivities, which, in addition to the high school tour, included a Lolly the Trolley trip through the city and Cleveland, a dinner dance at the Westwood Country Club (the site of their senior prom), golf and brunch at the Beachcliff Tavern.
Attendees came from near and far, as evidenced by the license plates in the school parking lot – New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Florida, Missouri. But none came as far as Marilyn Brewer Lhuillier, who has lived in France for 42 years after “marrying a Frenchman” whom she met in Rochester, N.Y. She added that since she had not been back to the U.S. since 1979, family reunions were also a part of her visit.
The class, which numbered 218 at graduation, took a variety of career paths, and includes Steve Doan, a retired vicepresident for GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceuticals, and Harlan VanWye, an administrative law judge for the State of California. He said Navy service took him to California, where he stayed after he realized “I’d never have to shovel snow again.”
Van Wye was attending his second reunion, the last one taking place 10 years ago, three weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. “It wasn’t a somber atmosphere. Everyone appreciated the fact that they were able to get together,” he recalled.
That thought was echoed by other classmates.
“At the 30th and 40th reunions it was all about what you were doing. You bragged a little,” commented Pfaff, adding “Now you’re just happy to see people.” She had earlier stated that 66 members of the class had passed away, and many had survived cancer. “It’s so healing to come back. It’s a celebration of life,” she said.
Barbara Illenberger Frase, whose mother graduated from Lakewood High School with Pfaff’s mother, recalled that she always dreaded the first day of school as teachers stumbled over her long last name. She said that looking closely at faces, especially the eyes, helped when trying to recognize someone you haven’t seen in 50 years.
“The men are the hardest to recognize,” she said, adding that some people changed very little.
For example, she pointed out former cheerleader Jean “Tootsie” Howell Gilbert, enthusiastically shepherding the group along on the tour, which included the auditorium, now serving as band room during school construction and a chemistry room. “Unhappily, I remember this room,” remembered one classmate, while another recalled an experiment that caused “a puff of smoke.”
The tour also featured the high school media center, to which the class donated $1,000 after their 40th reunion. “It feels like you’re somewhere in the Flats,” commented Betsy Grenfell Poling, referring to what used to be an outside wall, now serving as an inner wall for the center.
Kristina Ramey, 18, who was attending the tour with her parents, said she could not picture her classmates 50 years from now. But she said that thanks to Facebook, it will be easy to catch up with them after graduation. Her mother Betty, not a class member, said it was interesting to meet the people her husband has talked about, even an old girlfriend or two.
Although current technology was science fiction in 1961, Pfaff credited the class interactive website with getting people in touch, even with those who moved away before graduation, like Sue Barnert. “I was very excited and anxious, but everyone was so warm. There were a lot of hugs,” Barnert said.
The class of 1961 advised the class of 2011 to use technology to keep in touch. “We never dreamed we could connect like this,” said Pfaff. “Times were a lot simpler then, but generally speaking, we all had positive experiences and wonderful memories.”