Products of a simpler time, many 1954 grads went on to leadership roles in their careers
By Jack Hess
An anonymous author, in a yearbook forward to the 1954 senior class at Mount Carmel High School, was both prophetic and profound.
“We’ll all meet new friends,” the Sibylline writer said, “but there’s no friend like an old friend.”
Indeed, the 133 seniors made many new friends and, as years went by, friendships from school days evolved into something special. The common bond not only endured, it became enriched.
That was much in evidence when members of the Class of ’54 gathered at Mount Carmel for their 50th reunion. Handshakes and warm embraces began with the first arrivals on Friday and reminiscing continued until Sunday’s fond farewells. Class members reflected on happenings a half-century ago, bringing laughter and an occasional tear or two.
More than 60 members of the class attended. Others, unable to come because of health reasons or other circumstances, sent regrets. The whereabouts of 10 members is unknown, as efforts to contact them were unsuccessful.
At least 23 members of the graduating class are deceased. Their names, along with those of two others who went to school with the class but moved before graduation, were read during a poignant memorial.
Class members live in nearly 20 states scattered over the U.S. Several came from half-way across the country to attend the reunion.
They happily recalled going to The Shack, the teen center, and hanging out at Hadley’s Café after school. They looked back on proms, field trips and playing in the band. They talked about learning to type on manual typewriters, struggling with geometry and the fact girls couldn’t wear jeans to school except on Friday.
They remembered the mostly pedestrian sports in GAA, chemistry lab experiments that went awry and the old Ford Model A driven by a class member.
Inevitably, they recalled the basketball tourney loss by a single point to the team that went on to win the state. While defeat surely stung at the time, those who felt it would eventually find that life also held victories that were sweeter and far more important.
Reunion attendees recalled teachers, coaches, band directors and principals who helped prepare them for careers and life’s twists and turns. A few were remembered for their no-nonsense, you’re-here-to-learn attitude or for personality traits that had students rolling their eyes. Some guys fessed up to having had daydreams about a couple of comely young female teachers.
There was much reflection on “the good old days.” Most said they were glad they grew up in that era, however unsophisticated it was by today’s standards.
While there was fun during their school years, there also was sorrow. In 1953, they grieved with the rest of the student body when sophomore Frankie Coomer died in a shooting accident during Christmas vacation.
There was controversy, too. Many students went on strike when a popular coach was fired. School administrators weren’t happy about the classroom boycott. Neither were parents who had to accompany sons and daughters to school to get them back in class.
By and large, school was an enjoyable experience for most, and many friendships turned out to last a lifetime. In a few instances, the friendship became more, blossoming into romance and then marriage.
It was a much simpler time in the early ’50s, seemingly light years before the high-tech age. When you picked up the phone, an operator asked what number you wanted to call. There were no computers, microwave ovens or ubiquitous cell phones. There were no interstate highways or information super highways. No cable or dish TV either; television was still emerging from its black-and-white, snowy-picture infancy.
Aside from the telephone, there was no instant communication. Instead of hitting the send button on email, you put a 3-cent stamp on a letter and hoped it would arrive within a week. Mail moved by truck and train but for a few pennies more postage it would go by air and get there sooner.
Wal-Mart was many years in the future but nobody felt shopping deprived. There were, after all, two “dime stores” in town, Woolworth’s and Index Notion, where some items really did cost a dime. McDonald’s twin arches had yet to appear, but you could get a pretty good burger and fries at Frosty Williams’ Drive-In. Milkshakes at Home Dairy were made with hand-dipped ice cream, mixed individually in a metal container and served in a tall glass. No bulk, pre-mixed stuff in a paper cup back then.
You could pay for a meal at Mel’s Main Street Diner with a dollar bill and get change back. A buck or two would get you and your date into the American and Uptown theaters or the Carmel Drive-In north of town. Regular-grade gasoline at the Texaco station at 3rd and Walnut cost 22 cents a gallon, pumped by a uniformed attendant who also washed the windshield and checked the oil. Bread at the A&P was 17 cents a loaf, and the first issue of Sports Illustrated had a cover price of 25 cents. A new Ford or Chevy went for $1,700, a not inconsiderable sum given the average annual income was $3,960.
Girls wore blouses or sweaters with neckerchiefs, straight or poodle skirts – the latter with layers of stick-out slips – and saddle shoes or penny loafers with bobby socks. Sometimes they wore jeans and their father’s white shirt with the shirttail hanging out. Those who were “going steady” displayed their boyfriend’s class ring on a chain around their neck.
T-shirts, Levi’s, argyle socks and white bucks were common attire for guys, many of whom had crewcuts or flattops fashioned at Bart’s Barbershop. The white bucks came off and Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star tennis shoes went on for basketball games. Gill Ring’s house was a popular place for pick-up games because he had the only lighted and paved court in town.
Movies had mostly happy endings and you could count on the guy in the white hat getting the girl. Popular songs were love ballads that would be considered sappy nowadays, but you could understand the words. On Saturday night, the songs might have been listened to by couples in cars parked on moon-lit lovers’ lanes.
Bill Haley and his Comets excited kids with a new brand of music called rock ‘n’ roll, and a guy named Elvis was waiting in the wings. Phonograph records – mostly 7-inch discs that had one song on each side and were called “45s” because they played at 45 RPMs – could be purchased at Oldendorf’s Music. If you hadn’t heard Tony Bennett’s new song or the McGuire Sisters’ latest, there was a listening booth in which to preview them before deciding to buy.
The town was predominantly St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs territory with a St. Louis Browns fan here and there. In the 1954 World Series, however, most everyone rooted for the New York Giants. Mount Carmel native Don Liddle played for the Giants and was the winning pitcher in the game that gave them the world championship.
There hadn’t been so much local pride since a homecoming parade for another hero, Col. Ralph “Hoot” Gibson, an Air Force fighter pilot who gained “ace” status for shooting down enemy planes in the Korean War.
Whitewalls on automobile tires were about three inches wide and fuzzy dice dangled from rearview mirrors. Car radios were tuned to WVMC and Denver Westerfield, a wheelchair-bound disc jockey for whom the new polio vaccine had come too late.
As for cars, unlike today, there weren’t a lot of them parked outside school. Most students had none of their own and used the family car on date night. Many walked to school or rode buses. In good weather, some boys shunned school cafeteria food and headed for Seybold’s grocery down the street for a lunch of Twinkies and Pepsi. The nutrition-conscious bought slices of bologna and shared a loaf of Bunny Bread.
Class trips to Washington, D.C., hadn’t become popular and spending Spring break in Florida was practically unheard-of. The Senior Trip destination was an amusement park in St. Louis. While not long in distance, it proved to be long on thrills. To this day, some vividly recall going on their first roller coaster ride. One first-timer promised God that if He let her survive it would also be her last, a vow she kept.
It was an age of innocence. Assassins had not yet aimed their guns in Dallas or Memphis and terrorists flying passenger planes into buildings was beyond comprehension. Some people didn’t bother to lock their doors at night.
City police officers, of whom there weren’t many, knew most citizens on sight. A night beat cop walked door-to-door in the business district, from 3rd Street to the New York Central Depot and back, checking each place to make sure it was secure. He often stopped at Gordon’s North End Drug Store for a free cup of coffee and banter with teens working the food counter. Johnny Greathouse was a legendary state cop assigned to patrol the county. It wasn’t wise to try to outrun or outfox him.
Drug usage among kids was virtually nonexistent. Not many smoked, even fewer drank.
That’s not to say no one got into trouble. They did, but few if any ever went to jail. About the most serious offense was perpetrated by a prankster who, under cover of darkness, hoisted a bicycle atop the school flag pole where it became stuck. Students arriving the next morning were amused; janitors who had to get it down weren’t.
The biggest controversy surrounded the firing of coach Robert Mirus in 1953. Many students, feeling the dismissal unjustified, protested by cutting classes in a spontaneous walkout. The strike brought widespread publicity and repercussions for those who took part.
The coach who fell out of favor with the School Board was still revered by his players nearly 50 years later. In 2000, a Coach Mirus Reunion was held and many team members came, some traveling from afar. Win-loss records long forgotten, they spoke about the lasting influence he had on their lives. The frail old coach, who had come from Florida despite declining health, was overwhelmed. Occasionally blinking back tears as the players spoke, words sometimes came with difficulty when it was his turn.
On Aug. 3, 2004, Coach Mirus passed away at age 84.
As surely as times have changed since 1954, so has the school – dramatically. A devastating fire in 1962 did that. Now another structure stands where the old one was and faces a different direction. Today’s students are more fortunate than those back then on several counts, not the least of which is the building is air-conditioned. However, they don’t get to savor the sound of old wooden floors creaking under foot as those did in ’54.
Sports programs have improved greatly. Girls, far more athletic, compete in team sports now, no longer relegated to cheerleading roles or the pep block. At the foot of the stadium there’s a fine new all-weather track where athletes once ran on cinders. Football helmets even come with faceguards these days.
After graduation, some seniors went off to college, while others got married and started families. Some girls took secretarial positions; some guys got jobs in the oil field where the pay was good but the work hard and sometimes dangerous. A few stayed on the family farm. With limited employment opportunities locally, many sought jobs elsewhere. A few struck out for California to seek their fortunes; some saw the military as a way to see the world and get college tuition help. Several dedicated their lives to the service of others. One or two fell by the wayside.
The class lost its first member to death when Katherine (Brown) Clark died May 30, 1967, one day short of the 13th anniversary of Graduation Day.
Many success stories
Uncomfortable classrooms aside, many members of the Class of ’54 went on to distinguished and rewarding careers.
One became a respected judge; several went into science and medicine. One of those who entered the military became a high-ranking officer and received multiple decorations for courage in combat. Two became airline pilots; one got a Ph.D. in physics and became an expert on nuclear science. There were company presidents, board chairmen, chief financial officers, bank executives, business owners – the list of success stories goes on.
An uncommon number went into education, perhaps influenced and inspired by teachers who had been positive role models.
One class member had gained national attention before leaving high school. Archie Dees was named the best high school basketball center in the country his senior year. He went on to star at Indiana University and played professionally in the NBA before returning to Bloomington, Ind., to enter business. He was elected to the I.U. Hall of Fame and was named to the Illinois Coaches Hall of Fame
Another high-profile class member went into law. Robert Keenan, after a stint as a high school teacher and band director out of state, got a law degree and returned to Mount Carmel. He eventually was elected Circuit Judge, a post he held for 22 years. Judicial peers and city and county leaders paid tribute to the jurist at his retirement two years ago.
Military careers took class members around the globe, sometimes into war. Robert Wood spent 28 years in the Army with two tours of duty in Vietnam. Qualified as a member of the elite Rangers and a parachutist, he retired with the rank of colonel and a chest full of medals including Distinguished Flying Cross, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star and Combat Infantryman’s Badge. After his overseas assignments, he was appointed to the faculty at the Army War College.
Wood, a private pilot who flies home-built aircraft in retirement, was among the first inductees into the Mount Carmel High School Hall of Fame honoring distinguished graduates.
Those who went into higher education included senior class president Larry Ankenbrand, who became a coach, administrator and dean at Eastern Illinois University.
Joe Hemsky earned a doctor’s degree in physics and became a professor at Wright State University. He did research, had a number of papers published on nuclear and solid state physics and received several teaching awards.
Gill Ring became Professor of Philosophy at St. Meinrad School of Theology, a position he still holds, after graduating with high honors and receiving a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship.
Mary Etta Skinner taught at a state university in New York, Marilyn (Reisinger) Ramsey is an instructor at a community college in Illinois and Barbara (Parkinson) Klasson taught in a California college. Juanita (Marx) Henry didn’t enter college until she was in her 40s, earned a Master’s Degree at age 50, and became an instructor at a Texas college.
Several devoted their lives to education. Norma (Schroeder) Fick and Peggy (Miller) Adams, for example, had 65 years of teaching experience between them. Another longtime educator, Jackie (Trover) Kitchen, was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year and was selected as an Illinois Master Teacher. Jo (Keene) Kessler worked with kids in their formative years as a kindergarten teacher. Russell Eastin coached a high school track team to a state championship.
Among those who served their country, Richard “Dick” Rigg was an Air Force pilot for five years, flying cargo and passenger planes all over the world. After his military service, he was a pilot for Eastern Airlines for 22 years before going into business in Georgia.
For Linda Utter, it wasn’t necessary to join the military to travel extensively. She was a Trans World Airlines flight attendant, often flying a transcontinental route.
Some entered the ministry and, even now, one is studying for a degree in theology. Virginia (Nagy) Williams, who already holds a ministerial license, hopes to have her degree in 18 months and become pastor of a church.
Mary Etta Skinner, although retired, remains active as an ordained minister and educator. She taught in classrooms from Illinois to California and in Spain. She also trained teachers in New York and served parishes in three states.
Class valedictorian Mary Kathryn (Ruth) Payne and her husband, Dr. Charles Payne, were commissioned by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and served as missionaries in India in the 1960s. Mary Kathryn’s life was cut short by cancer in 1977.
Several are church lay leaders, among them Jon Webber, who has been a deacon and Sunday School leader for more than 40 years and has served on boards of directors of Christian schools.
Betty (Marx) Foshee has been an elder in her church for almost 18 years, working mostly in programs assisting the elderly. She also served on the Day Care Center’s Board of Directors.
Edna (Schmidt) Anderson spent much of her adult life doing inner-city social work at Columbus, Ohio, where she also served on the Habitat for Humanity Board. Retired and back in Mount Carmel, she is a Sunday School superintendent. She also owns Living Legacy Farmstead and Bed & Breakfast and has received awards for historic farm preservation.
A half-dozen or more class members became registered nurses, caring for untold thousands during their careers. Denny Hadley, continuing a family tradition, became a pharmacist and has owned drug stores in Indiana.
Ann (Fitch) Stevens was an analytical chemist for the U.S. government.
Some were gifted with artistic and creative abilities. Glenda Merchant was an interior designer in addition to holding executive positions in business.
Others held elective office, including Judy (Stein) Greene, who for 20 years was Piatt County (Ill.) Clerk and Recorder. She also was Woman’s Editor at the Piatt County Journal-Republican for 10 years.
The class produced captains of industry and entrepreneurs. Norman Chapman was president and chairman of the board of a large California concern and is now developing properties on the West Coast. Jerry Showalter, former vice president of a Mount Carmel company, acquired a Florida firm that manufactures golf equipment. Curtis Perry and Kerry Parr also climbed the corporate ladder. Perry was president of a credit union in Georgia; Parr headed a food service brokerage in California. The late Galen Hall was in hotel management in France.
Patricia (Burton) Trover and her husband operated a large cattle ranch in Oklahoma. They also were in the real estate business, owned a security service company and opened the first antique mall in McAlester, Okla.
Life in agriculture was a given for Robert Baumgart, having been a Future Farmers of America member all four years in high school and serving as president his senior year. He owns Baumgart Farms, a dairy and grain operation in Wabash County.
A number of class members were honored for professional accomplishments and community service. Among them, Jackie Kitchen was named an Illinois Woman of Achievement and won awards for educational excellence. Judy Greene was honored for excellence in public service for her years in public office and involvement in civic and service organizations.
Many others, without fanfare or public recognition, did themselves proud, providing for their families and being productive members of the community.
Some have endured great adversity and personal tragedy, losing spouses and children or suffering life-threatening illnesses themselves.
Most class members have retired and many are involved in church activities and community work. Among them is John Cox, Student Council president his senior year and a class leader throughout school, who is involved in the Peace Meals and Food Pantry programs.
William “Bill” Quick might be the most physically active class member of all. Now in his 42nd year as a licensed high school athletics official, he officiates five sports in two states.
Even so, he might be hard pressed to keep up with Barbara Klasson. A hiking and biking enthusiast, she climbed Mount Whitney at age 51.
Home town true
A number of class members, by choice or circumstances, remained in the Mount Carmel area after graduation. Some opted to stay because they preferred to work and raise a family in a small-town environment. Others preferred big cities or left for careers, then returned to enjoy retirement in the place where they grew up.
Patsy (Lathrop) Dean was among those who chose to remain in her home town. For 48 years, she and husband Donnie operated a business that was a mainstay in the community. Long active in church and civic affairs, she continues involvement in the Wabash Valley College Foundation.
Over the years, the Deans have opened their home to classmates when they came for reunions, a tradition they continued this year.
Phillip Stallings, a pilot for Frontier and Southwest airlines for 30 years, upon retirement yearned to return to the old home place at Friendsville. He still flies some and is involved in perpetuating the legacy of Brace Beemer, a Mount Carmel native who became radio voice of the Lone Ranger. A history buff, he maintains an Internet web site (www.thereusedtobe.com) dedicated to Mount Carmel, Friendsville and the Class of ’54. The web site, with a link that enables classmates and others to communicate with one another, is the source of some of the statistical information in this story.
Each year, Stallings and his wife, Carol, have hosted a get-together for all Mount Carmel grads. Because of business reasons, they will soon relocate to Kansas City, Mo.
Peggy (Wells) Morris, who for 50 years lived in cities from Florida to California, decided to return to Mount Carmel. Now that she’s back, she has a renewed sense of closeness to her school, literally as well as figuratively – she lives only one block away.
If for no other reason, the Class of ’54 could be remembered for its collective sense of humor. Even now, it is apparent. A group of females, meeting from time to time for lunch and to catch up on goings on, has been dubbed the MCOBA – Mount Carmel Old Broads Association.
At the conclusion of this year’s reunion, class members were asked if they wanted to meet informally next year. The idea was met with enthusiasm.
Mindful of the words in the 1954 yearbook – “there’s no friend like an old friend” – they look forward to renewing cherished friendships.
NOTE: The author is a member of the Class of ’54 and is a career journalist. His first “newspaper job” was as a delivery boy for the Daily Republican Register, which hired him to cover sports while still in high school. He went on to own two newspapers, was elected president of the Indiana Associated Press Managing Editors and spent 23 years at the Indianapolis News before becoming a magazine editor.