The two high school functions I attended this graduation season couldn’t have been more different. One was a high school graduation for some 400 students. One of the speakers told her classmates that it was the last time many of them would see each other and that never again would they all be in the same room.
The other, very different function was a 70-year class reunion at a restaurant in Nampa. Seven members of Wilder High School’s Class of 1945 attended. Four of the surviving 11 couldn’t make it. More than half of the original 25, once as fresh-faced and dream-smitten as the Timberline kids, are no longer with us.
Mildred Hickman, who organized the reunion, invited me to attend in hopes that I’d write about it. She thought the bond that continues to bring her onetime classmates together after so many years was special. I agreed. Fifty-year class reunions happen all the time. Every high school in the Valley has one. Seventy-year reunions are another story.
Far from not seeing one another after their graduation or never being in the same room together again, members of this class have held reunions every year since 1995.
One of the reasons for their enduring bond, obviously, is that their class was so small. In a class of hundreds, you know your friends and a small percentage of your other classmates. In a class of 25, you know everybody.
But it wasn’t just that. Another, more compelling reason had to do with the times. Wilder, and America, was a dramatically different place then.
“If you saw an airplane in the sky, you stopped what you were doing and watched until it was out of sight,” Hickman said.
“There were 30 to 40 businesses in Wilder then, all active and prosperous,” Phil Batt added. “There were two gas stations, a truck stop, two barber shops, a doctor’s office, movies. ”
And how many businesses now?
A familiar story. As family farms gave way to corporate farms, families and the businesses they supported faded from the scene throughout rural America. And scarcities, common in 1945, have given way to abundance that would have been unimaginable then.
“There were so many things we couldn’t get,” Betty Cook said. “Gas, tires, sugar, meat, clothing. And you had to stand in line for a lot of what you could get. Now I can go to the store and get everything on my list. We take that for granted now, but what a luxury!”
“We had canvas shoes with hard, rigid soles,” Alice Roberson recalled. “It was hard to walk in them, let alone run. That was what we wore to play basketball.”
Butter was rationed, so they made do with oleomargarine and added coloring to make it yellow. But it still tasted like lard.
They learned to work early, and hard.
“My first job was working in the fields for 25 cents an hour,” Hickman said.
For entertainment, they listened to the radio, and went to dances, wiener roasts and movies. A movie cost only a nickel, but Cook remembers having to gather eggs, walk 2 miles along a railroad track without breaking them and sell them to a grocer to earn a nickel.
World War II was almost over by the time they graduated, but it affected them nonetheless. Batt joined the Air Corps Reserve while still in high school, Mary Brown the Cadet Nurse Corps. And though the graduates missed combat duty, all served on the home front.
“We started high school the year the war began and graduated the year it ended, but that didn’t curb our enthusiasm,” Hickman said. “We had paper drives, war bond drives. ... We did whatever we could to help. And we didn’t have much, so we reused everything. We weren’t a throwaway society.”
“We all worked together,” Cook added. “It was like a big family. And we were problem solvers. We had to be. If today’s kids have a problem, they can look up the answer on their smartphones. We had to work to find answers.”
Hard times tend to produce good people. Cook was Boise’s first female police officer. Batt, the class salutatorian, went on to become one of the best governors Idaho has had in recent years.
“It was hard times when we were in high school, but everybody made the best of it,” he said. “People made do. My dad made a school bus out of plywood.”
Bertha Tarr remembers the hard times as “a good life.”
“We knew everybody, and a lot of us became lifelong friends,” she said.
Friends who continue to see each other every year — in the same room — seven decades after finishing high school. I wonder whether any of this year’s graduates will be able to say that. And if not, are we better off or worse off as a society for it?
Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at email@example.com.