Tales overheard at a 50th reunion

Over Labor Day weekend, the Cranston High School class of 1951 found out the many ways it had defied stereotypes

And now it is our turn. In a familiar rite of passage for grandparent-age Americans, we - the graduates of Cranston (R.I.) High School, class of 1951 - are holding our 50th reunion.

We were graduated in a far different time, when Harry S. Truman was president, the Korean War was in full swing, and baseball's Joe DiMaggio was in his final season.

As with similar reunions that dapple America from coast to coast, ours is a two-day kaleidoscope of hugs and handshakes, a pastiche of chopped-up conversations and the background music of pianist Gordon "Shortie" James.

High school classes traditionally hold reunions every five years. For public schools like ours, it is primarily a social event, with a modest gift to the school added in. Dedicated class members work for months - a year and a half, in our case - to make it happen.

The greatest mile marker

The 50th reunion is the apex of all that go before it. So it is with ours: the most attendees (more than 200), the most successful mixing, the greatest sense of joie de vivre. Even the largest gift ($4,000 for trophy cases).

As with any class, some of us have overcome difficult early years through determination; others are now struggling to conquer late-life challenges.

Some of the women have been stay-at-home wives and mothers; others have forged careers outside the home. We have had white-collar, blue-collar, and pink-collar careers.

For all the similarities with others in our age group, there are ways in which we diverge from expectations.

As we greet old friends the first evening in the19th-century white clapboard Governor Sprague Mansion, we discover, for example, that many of us are still working, several years past traditional retirement age.

Our work is varied and, for many, full-time. Angelo Castelli - who retired once, from the Department of Justice - is a probate judge near Washington. Ann Jalongo, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college in 1983, is an artist in Hawaii.

Jean Oglesby Ernst works "full-time plus" as a public health nurse in California, by day helping people who have just come out of prison, in the evening teaching parenting classes. Jerry Holmquist now owns a small business, after being downsized out of an engineering job during the slowdown of the early '90s.

Computers and climbing

Our class smashes stereotypes in another way: Several of us have had careers in the computer field.

After 18 years as a full-time mother, Florence Faulkner Blixt, a former second-grade teacher, retrained to be a computer programmer. She intends to keep working "as long as it's fun."

John Rock's friends shook their heads in 1959 when, fresh out of Notre Dame, he took a job in California in the new-fangled field; they were sure the computer fad wouldn't last.

Many classmates, while officially retired, remain extremely active. This spring, Joe Donahue celebrated retirement by hiking 41 days and 460 miles on the southern end of the mountainous Appalachian Trail. Charlie Christie backpacked in New England with his son.

Gordon Martin, a Rhode Islander, now tends to the insurance needs of the many fraternal and philanthropic organizations to which he belongs - without reimbursement.

Like an estimated 2 million other grandparents, one couple is rearing grandchildren. Another classmate is a guardian ad litem, a volunteer appointed by a judge to investigate the cases of at-risk children. "I have never gotten as much satisfaction out of any job in my lifetime," he says.

The more things change...

After 50 years, the yellow-brick interior walls of the school building are still there. Except for the chairs, Miss Margerum's blackboard-walled math classroom looks as though she has just stepped out for a moment. But not everything is as we left it. The gleaming gym is now an art room. The library is dramatically larger, and new courses are taught in modern ways.

Similarly, we are partly the same and partly different - unchanged in our fundamental values, for the most part, but much advanced in our capabilities and confidence, and enriched by our life experiences.

Progress is an unfinished journey. But it is one that, after 50 years, can be appreciated for the distance traveled.

Robert P. Hey is a former Monitor staff writer.

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