Monday, June 14, 2021
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After 51 Years Apart, State High Classmates Find Elixir of Youth Through Old Friendships

Some looked like they belonged on the injured list for a senior softball team. Others looked fine but described multiple joint replacements, past or future. But whether they limped, hobbled or walked a bit more nimbly, arrivals at last weekend’s event in The Penn Stater Hotel shared the same expectant smile. 

There’s just nothing like gathering with old high school classmates, especially when a 50-year reunion had been delayed 12 months due to COVID-19. The members of State High’s Class of 1970 were downright thrilled to be together on Friday and Saturday, 51 years after their graduation. And, yes, I was one of them. 

It will date me to say this, but I’m a proud member of the Class of ‘70. I, too, have my aches and pains (“pain in the neck” is not a metaphor to me), but I felt a bit younger and stronger while in the company of my classmates. There ought to be a steroid called “friendnisone”– no prescription required.

As the 1970 sounds of “Our House,” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young drifted through The Penn Stater’s ballroom, retired Lt. Col. Norm Buss verbalized the very thing I was thinking. 

“Here we are,” Norm said, “in nearly 70-year-old bodies, but it feels like we’re all there back in the day. We’ve all changed a lot, but we kinda really haven’t. You see the same personalities come out.”

A “FANTASTIC” TIME   

Jared Melson is one classmate whose life was especially wrapped up in the State High experience. His dad, George, was a chemistry teacher, so there were times when things educational got entangled with things domestic. Especially during our junior year when Jared and I were both in his dad’s class, and something small like an incomplete homework assignment could spark tension.  

Despite such challenges, Jared talked with enthusiasm about his reunion experience. 

“I hadn’t been here since my folks died in 2010,” he said, “so it was an emotional journey coming back here. I’m having a great time. All the names and all the faces come back. All the high school loves and dashed hopes.”

Ron Krauss catches up with friends from College Heights Elementary School, Carol Fortunato Witmer (center) and Linda Thomas. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

Ron Krauss, my lifelong buddy from our childhood days in College Heights, offered his perspective that stems from his unique context.  Ron’s dad went through a job change in 1967, and that meant “The Tanker” was plucked away from Happy Valley to a new home on Long Island.  

Why did he come back for this Class of ’70 reunion? 

“I would have loved to have graduated from State College,” said the graduate of Princeton University and NYU Law School, “but it wasn’t to be. I was here from K through nine and made so many good friends. It was a great part of my life, and I just wanted to see everybody again.”

And how did you feel about this reunion, Ron? “Fantastic.” 

ONE CLASSIC MEMORY 

Of course, whenever a large group re-gathers after a long lapse in time, memories are sure to flow. So you can imagine the stories being told by this crowd of 145 (including some non-class spouses) at a 51st year reunion. My favorite, told by classmate Scott Flipse, serves as an example of the humor that helped bond our students to State High’s exceptional teachers.

“During senior year,” Scott said, “I had aviation class with Dusty Rhodes (not only a teacher but the father of our classmate Mark Rhodes). “Steve Covert sat right in front of me, Norm Buss sat to the right of me, Larry Pharo was the only junior in the class and he was just to the left of me. We were next to the windows, those old hopper windows that opened to the inside.

“Steve Covert was coming up with quips of all sorts, and Mr. Rhodes said, ‘One more peep out of you, and you’re out the window.’ Covert being Covert, it didn’t take very long before he piped up with something else. Mr. Rhodes didn’t pay any attention to it, but Norm and I—without any signal—stood up and picked up Steve by the shoulders and the legs. Larry Pharo opened the window and we set Steve on the hopper and closed the window. He rolled out into the snowdrift.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the room, including the teacher. Everybody was helpless, laughing until they cried. Steve was rolling around in the snowdrift and couldn’t get up. He finally got up and had to go into the school near the office. But somehow he got past the assistant principal, Ronald Kuhns (the school’s chief disciplinarian) and made it back to the classroom.” 

ROMANCE VIA REUNION

Cynical observers might suggest that class reunions offer short-term fun with no long-term results. But two Class of ’70 folks, Jack Moyer and Janet Lewis Moyer, would strongly disagree. And so would anyone with an appreciation for lasting romance.

Both Jack and Janet moved to State College during our ninth grade year, but in a class of 525 they just never got to know each other during high school. That remained the case until 2005 when both attended the 35-year reunion. Jack hadn’t attended many of our gatherings, but his buddy, Mark Rhodes, prevailed upon him to ride along from North Carolina to State College.

Mark was having an ordinary conversation on the reunion’s first evening and asked where Janet was living.  When she said, “Raleigh,” he gestured to Jack, standing just 20 or 30 feet away. Jack and Janet found it easy to talk since they lived about 3 miles apart in Raleigh and worked about 3 miles apart in Research Triangle Park. 

Janet had never married, and Jack was moving from a separation to divorce. And so the two began a friends-only relationship during occasional lunches before winding their way slowly toward marriage.  They finally tied the knot on April 10, 2010, not long before our 40th class reunion. Of course, they attended that function along with those of 2015 and 2021.

Jack and Janet Moyer met at the Class of 1970’s 35-year reunion and got married just before the 40-year gathering. Photo by Anna Witmer

These days, the Moyers focus much of their time on Jack’s four grandchildren (and another is due in a week or so). “I never got to be a mom,” Janet said, “so this has been a topper to my life, to be a grammy.”

No wonder Jack and Janet are among the most enthusiastic of all reunion-goers. 

“It’s special, special,” said Jack. “We’re sort of revisiting where we met. And we feel kinda special among the crowd.” 

TOUR SHOWS OFF NEW SCHOOL

Several highlights stood out among the weekend’s activities. A 29-minute slideshow, designed by classmate Barb Neumuller, provided photo memories from elementary school through high school. And of course, the show incorporated portions of the top musical hits of our era—songs from groups like The Beatles, The Carpenters, The Jackson 5 and Simon & Garfunkel.  

In my pre-reunion column, Barb predicted that such tunes “will bring back memories because music has a way of transporting us back in time.” She was right.

Another audiovisual show produced a sense of love and loss on Saturday night. The photos of 60 deceased classmates were shown and as each image was projected, one person would stand and raise a votive candle to honor a departed friend.  

The “In Memoriam” production was “tender and touching to us all,” according to reunion co-leader Ellen Herman Campbell. Among the 60 who were quietly honored was Steve Covert, the same man who brought moments of hilarity to our high school days.

Perhaps the most amazing portion of the reunion took place on Saturday morning.  That was when we toured the new high school building, an experience that several classmates described as “jaw-dropping.”  

Principal Curtis Johnson donated some of his free time to show us the school, and he commended us for being the largest alumni group to take the tour. But it was lots more fun when he took a few good-natured pokes at us for being a bit gray. Perhaps the best was when he mentioned telling his wife he was going to give a tour to the Class of 1970 and then added her response: “You were born in 1970….”

Laughter turned to amazement, however, when we saw the modern cafeteria that offers three entrees per lunch and an all-day snack bar. Or when we observed a typical classroom with its broad variety of digital features. Or when we saw the massive fitness room, the television studio, the nursing lab, the business classroom with a stock market ticker display. 

State High Principal Curtis Johnson enjoyed his interaction with the 1970 graduates. Photo by Bill Horlacher.

Said Gary Grove, “This looks like the Starship Enterprise compared to when we went to school. Learning has really got to be fun these days compared to the three-ring binders and chalk boards that we used to have.” 

Added Mike Albright, “I thought the statement he (Johnson) made that it’s like a community college was very appropriate. It’s more than just a high school, for sure.”

FULFILLING FOR COMMITTEE

A committee of nine ’70 graduates planned the reunion, led by co-chairs Campbell and Patti Wilson Spicer and also including Albright, Patty Hopkins Condo, Cathy Reidy Savereno, Brenda Neigh Palmgren, Neumuller, Judy Holtzer Smelter and yours truly. Of course, the overall investment of hours grew significantly when COVID forced a postponement and rescheduling. No one complained; everyone was delighted by the results.

Said Spicer, “These are friendships that have lasted since kindergarten for many people, and it was so worth the two years of planning to be able to get together.  I truly enjoyed every minute of it—the smiles, the hugs and the laughter!”

Added Campbell, “The reunion exceeded any expectations I may have had.  We caught up, reminisced, laughed and even shed a few tears. It was a joy-filled and life-affirming weekend.” 

CONCERN AND APPRECIATION

Were any concerns expressed during the weekend? Just a few that were directed toward the urbanization of downtown State College.  

JoAnne Brace Weyers drew a parallel to her community near Virginia Tech University when she said, “I don’t like the high-density, cramming students into places which we also have in Blacksburg.” Diane Klaus Horton noted that “high-rises can be attractive, but these (in downtown State College) just aren’t.” And Kelly Richers, a superintendent of schools in California said, “I remember that there used to be space in State College. There’s no space in downtown State College anymore. Everything is jumbled on top of each other.”

Alumni who were impressed by the new high school were, from left, Gary Grove, Will Stark, Jon Rutschky and Fernando Ortiz. (Photo Provided)

But with respect to the reunion activities, folks were effusive in their praise. Mike Leibowitz, another friend from long ago in College Heights, admitted that “there may have been immodest bragging about grandchildren” but he also said, “My heart is full and my soul is renourished.”

As for the last word, I’ll save it for Deane Linsky, a friend for life who I met in 10th grade.  Ironically, The Carpenters’ song, “We’ve Only Just Begun” was playing as the retired pastor shared his memories from five decades ago.

“Being in this environment, your mind travels backward and you reflect on what were for me a lot of really happy days. Really good times, great friends, great privileges of education. We grew up in the ‘60s and there were wild things going on around us, yet we had fun. No reason to complain.”