Monday, November 25, 2013

2013 - A Nostalgic Year

Until a few days ago, it had been nearly a year since I have posted on this blog.  I got caught up in several huge projects that ate up nearly all my time.  However, as the year is coming to a close, I am thinking back over the year 2013, but I am also thinking back over the last 50 years. (See my previous post about Kennedy's assasination in 1963.) 

Besides adding two new posts within the last few days, I refreshed my image by creating a new header/banner for this blog.

2013 was a milestone year for me.  It marked 50 years since I graduated from high school, the year I began college, as well as the year JFK was assassinated.

In some ways I can hardly believe 50 years have passed.  Sometimes I look in the mirror expecting to see myself at about age 35 and am surprised to see an older woman staring back at me, one that increasingly reminds me of my mother.

My high school class has had 3 reunions, a 10th, 25th and 50th.  I attended the 10th.  I felt completely out of place.  Few of my best friends attended. I am a very talkative person, but I didn’t seem to know what to talk to people about.  I think, perhaps, I felt like I hadn’t accomplished what others had.  I had gained weight. I didn’t feel  comfortable in my clothes. Now, it seems silly to me, because, for one thing, I realize that every person takes a different path and our successes as human beings have little to do with our jobs or education.  It is all about who we are, who we care about, and how we behave.

I had done some good things (graduated from college, become a teacher, got married) and one rather remarkable thing.  I had served for two years in the Peace Corps, teaching in a high school that had opened at my Peace Corps' site only 3 years before I arrived ---therefore I was teaching teens, but also adults who hadn’t previously had the opportunity to attend high school.

When my 25th came around, I didn’t attend.  I told myself I wasn’t interested, but I think I was afraid my previous uncomfortable feeling would return. By that time, I had divorced, remarried, and was still teaching.

Earlier this year, I offered to help to find people for my 50th reunion.  In 2011, I had searched for members of my Peace Corps group for a reunion in Washington, D.C. to help commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps.  So I figured I had some experience in online searches.  Soon I volunteered to scan our yearbook pictures to create name tags for the reunion, and before I knew it I was creating a private blog for my classmates.

I scanned the entire yearbook. I made a blog post for each of our 254 classmates. I scanned programs and memorabilia from our high school years, and took photos of our now-renovated high school. I posted photos of our city for those who hadn’t been back for years. I scanned articles from our school newspaper when they were about members of our class and, when I found them, I posted obituaries of deceased classmates. (Approximately 14% of our class is gone.) It took me just about every waking minute for three months to create the blog and people are still sending items to post, so the work continues.

At one meeting with a friend on the reunion committee several months before the reunion, I found myself encouraging her to write a bio that was requested by the committee.  She was feeling as if she hadn’t accomplished anything. As they were received, the bios were sent to the committee, were going to be sent out in a mass email closer to the reunion, and I was posting them on the blog, which didn’t go public until after the reunion.  

Some of our classmates had done pretty remarkable things.  They are doctors, professors, lawyers, and authors. They founded successful companies and made millions. But I told my friend that the first people to respond were the ones who had accomplished great things.  They didn’t even have to think about what to write ---their bios had already been written for other purposes. 

She had been on the commercial tract in high school. Her parents never encouraged her to go to college, which she now regrets.  But I reminded her that she had worked for some of the biggest and most successful international companies with headquarters in our metropolitan area.  When I taught school, there were times when the principal was at a conference for a week and I didn’t even know he was gone.  But if the secretaries were out, the place fell apart.  So she had done important work.  She got married and stayed married and raised two children who both attended college. She and her husband had been able to retire early and had spent several years traveling across the country, something I’m sure others would love to do but most don’t have the courage to even try.

Through the bios, I found it interesting that some people turned out just as I had imagined.  B, the high school math wiz, was a mathematics professor.  No one ever expected K to be anything but a doctor.  I knew A would have something to do with physical education or sports ---her dad had been a university coach and it was in her blood. I expected N to become an artist and E to become a nurse. I never did figure out what J had done with his life, but his bio was extremely witty and I remember him as the star of hilarious class skits that he wrote himself.

But some people’s lives took odd turns.  Our 1963 graduating class was full of men who had the choice of being drafted during the Viet Nam war or to enlist.  Many enlisted and ended up staying in military careers.  There were lots of classmates who were in the commercial or general tracts that had no intention of attending college, but many worked for a few years and then decided to earn their degrees. Two women with whom I had walked to high school nearly every day had done so. A woman who I remember as being mostly interested in classical music, ended up with a husband interested in auto racing ---now they sponsor some big-name race car drivers. A woman who had been a close friend in high school is involved with the committee that sponsors rodeos in TX ---a path I never imagined for her. 

So I attended my 50th reunion, was happy to be there, and had a great time. Some of our classmates look like they are 20 years younger than the rest of us.  A few look to be somewhat older than most.  Many have gray or white hair or almost no hair at all, and there are a surprising number of blonds among the women. One guy who had been overweight during high school (and even on the 25th reunion photo) has apparently given all his weight to some of the rest of us. 

I recognized most of my classmates immediately, and if I didn’t, a quick glance at a name tag gave me a name, and then I saw the face from the 1963 yearbook gleaming through. As soon as we started to converse, the years simply melted away. Behind the wrinkles and gray hairs no one had changed much at all.

My only regret is that I didn’t have the time to sit down with every individual to spend an hour catching up.  We’ll just have to stay in touch through the blog.  


A year ago, E, an old friend from college got in touch.  We had been in the art department with me, but he was an “older” student. He had worked and been in the military before attending college.  We went out together once in a while in college, but were never really romantically involved.  So after several phone calls in which we caught up, I took a short drive (about 90 minutes) to visit him one day about a year ago.  We spent an afternoon catching up on old times.

E called me last week to tell me that J was in bad shape and not expected to live. J was another older student who shared a tiny cottage with E near the university.  Like E, J had spent a few years in the military and worked at civilian jobs before college.  J and I also went out sometimes, but again, nothing serious. He was 7 years older than I was and was very smart and had in infectious sense of humor. We kept in touch while I was in the Peace Corps and when I returned, he invited me to attend homecoming with him in the fall of 1969.  He was working at the newspaper in our university town. That was the last time I saw him.

In 2000, I had retired from teaching and had signed up with a temp agency to keep myself out of trouble.  I was working at a business that did, among other things, gold leaf application, and they had been contracted to apply gold leaf to the cupola of the old courthouse in the town where I attended college. My boss asked me to call the local paper to see if I could persuade a reporter and photographer to go to the site.  It was a newsworthy story, but would be free publicity for my boss, too.  I told him I knew someone at the paper, if he was still there.  He was.  After we caught up with each other’s lives, J and I got down to the business of my call. As an assistant editor, he sent someone to cover the story.  That was the last time I spoke to him.

But even when I haven’t seen someone for decades, if we were once friends, I know we still are.

A couple of days ago, E called to say J had died, at age 75. I found a lengthy article about him in the town’s newspaper where he had worked for more than 40 years.  The writer interviewed E and also S, another guy I had gone out with in college, but I hadn’t seen since graduation.  J, E, and S, all in the same article. E and I both hate funerals, so we decided not to attend. I found J’s daughter’s address online and sent her a note including my memories of her father, along with a sympathy card.  

So, besides the 14% of my high school class who are deceased, another old friend has passed. And it will only get worse in the coming years.

However, I am still kicking and happy for those old friends who are still alive and well. I’m only sorry I didn’t stay in touch with most of them during the intervening years.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Day JFK Died - 11/22/63

When a friend died a few days ago, I read a lengthy online article about him from the newspaper in the town where I attended college. He had worked as a columnist and assistant editor there for 40 years.

I happened to notice that the paper was collecting stories from readers, asking where we had been on November 22, 1963 when we heard the news that Kennedy had been shot.  Below you will find an expanded version of what I submitted to the paper.

I was a Freshman at Indiana State College in Pennsylvania in the fall of 1963.  (The school would become Indiana University of PA before my 1967 graduation.) That year, I had graduated from high school and had a fun-filled summer.  I was disappointed when my parents would not allow me to go the March on Washington for Civil Rights  (August) where Martin Luther King gave one of his most-impressive speeches. I started college, made new friends in my dorm, and had met and dated several college guys. Most of my classes were rehashes of what I had learned in high school, so I was doing well without having to study much. The fall had remained beautiful and warm until early-November. It seemed like all was well with the world.  

On November 22nd, I had stayed up into the wee hours of the morning  to study for an 8:00 a.m. mid-term exam, so I took a nap before heading to my 3:00 test. I remember  having an odd dream in which the other girls in the dorm were upset because a war had started.  I think someone heard the news on the radio and ran from room to room to announce that Kennedy had been shot. I probably heard the frantic tones and turned them into the dream.  When I woke, my roommate told me that the President was dead. 

My family lived in a highly-Republican suburb of Pittsburgh.  In high school, I was the only student in my class to volunteer to take Kennedy’s side in a social studies' class debate.  Other students had to be assigned to help me.  My friends had teased me on the day before the national election in 1960, because in our school’s mock election, Nixon had won with about 90% of the votes.  

On that November day in 1963 at 2:45, I walked in a stupor  to the English Department building. The campus Oak Grove had been stunning in all it's autumn beauty just weeks earlier, but by the third week of November, the branches were bare and sad-looking. 

The professor had not canceled the exam but gave us the option to take it at another time if we were too upset to concentrate. I decided to stay.  It took my mind off the national tragedy that had unfolded in Dallas, at least for an hour.   

When I graduated from IUP four years later, I honored the memory of JFK by joining the Peace Corps which he had established in 1961. I served in an underdeveloped area of Brazil, living for two years without running water, electricity or a sewage system while I taught English as a foreign language and worked on community development projects. I still consider it the best thing I've ever done.  Returning to Brazil to visit old friends and former students in 2011 came in second. 

On that November day in 1963, the country seemed to have lost its innocense and optimism. However,  I remember Kennedy as an inspiring and witty speaker.  And I will forever honor him as the founder of  the Peace Corps which provided me with the most-rewarding experience of my life and the opportunity to do something important in the world.