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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

    Great Valley High School 50th Class Reunion Talk
               October 15, 2016

   Imagine glider flying into the past. Silently, gracefully, going from present time into the mist of past decades till finally we hover over a stretch of Chester County farmland… losing altitude till we hover over the mark: Great Valley High in September, 1962 or opening day….as below us hundreds of kids swarm into a building thick with the smell of new construction.

    Remember the aroma of new wood piled near the almost completed auditorium?
    In the coming weeks this space would serve as a study hall monitored by the stern Mr. Richard Ramsey, overlord extraordinaire, looking over the rim of his glasses at whisperers, gum crackers, mash note passers, or those induced to sleep or doodle or read B novels like William Goldman’s Boys and Girls Together or the revolutionary The Catcher in the Rye while class assignments like The Taming of the Shrew or Beowulf were shoved under three ring binders.  It was in this auditorium that we would hear why Cookies for Vietnam was such a great success; it’s also where we would watch William Francis, Deborah Stearns, Joan Cotter, Joann Haas and William Hammond in the senior class play, Molier’s The Imaginary Invalid.

       Who we were: We were popular & unpopular, loners, joiners, athletes, extraverts, poll vaulters, cheerleaders, football game cow bell ringers, marching band members, compulsive pie eaters, teachers pets & hoody boys in pointy shoes, bleached blond hair and tight white pants hitched up way above the belt line. We were kids with fresh outbreaks of acne figuring out where we belonged, trying out this group or that or becoming loners in the library in the dim light of winter afternoons.

     The Yearbook says we were the energetic students of Great Valley, always ready for action and innovation: the yearbook shows….
 Mike Searcy at a Singer sewing machine hemming a garment or two
            Karen Pyne in a wide legged scissor jump, the only gym class levitation in Chester County
             Loraine Hampton hamming it up with Dave Gallup
             The shirts on/ shirts off agonizing ritual of gym class team selection; the last one picked wore the Scarlet Letter
              Jeff Slabodian’s sweaky  shiny loafers
               Karen Armstrong crowned Miss Cross Country
               The happy days when basketball shorts didn’t hang like kitchen curtains way down below the knee caps.
              Craig Marshall dressed as a French existentialist bohemian making eyes at Connie Cunningham
                Bill O’Brien’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ dance band, the Senior Prom, not quite Led Zeppelin but not Lawrence Welk either
 And, of course---The collective sigh of relief from female grads when realizing they escaped having a quote by Wordsworth put next to their yearbook picture.
               How we dressed: we wore tennis sweaters, madras jackets, white socks, oki dokey farmer plaid shirts, short tight dress pants, conventional jackets and ties, hoop earrings, pearl necklaces and plenty of hair spray on a variety of bouffant hairdos, some shaped like Utah’s beehive, others teased in a variety of ways, blown out on top then hanging straight down against the head before evolving into two small cheerleader flips at the end.

      Joanne Polomski probably had the best bangs in the class although Anne Bernardian and Eleanor Rost rate a close second while Sandra Carr and Debbie Scott cultivated a Veronica Lake look. Ron Dill’s bangs were legendary; they nearly touched his eyebrows while Dan Sipe’s and Jeff Slobodian’s had the look of an expertly trimmed lawn in Haverford. For the high hair effect, we must defer to Dale Weber and Beverly Yorkey: they resembled gunslinger girls in a Gunsmoke episode. “You want water with that bourbon, sir?” Wink, wink. D. Kingston Owens’ cut was straight out of Brideshead Revisited while Bruce Maxfield’s smooth blond top mop had the look of a freshly minted coin.


   We hailed from General Wayne Junior High and before that Katherine D. Markley Elementary or from isolated parochial schools where the tyranny of the school uniform was king.    

     We lived in split level homes, ranch houses, trailer courts, Andrew Wyeth style old stone mini mansions or exotic zoo farms like the Daniel P Mannix Social Register homestead in Bacton Hill where Elizabeth Taylor once stayed while filming National Velvet. We brought with us certain influences from our private family life, the whims and biases of Mom and Dad (because that can’t be helped). You see, we weren’t quite complete human beings yet but we were on our way.

   That mayhem filled first week of school!

  Yours truly walked through a floor to ceiling glass panel window on a first floor staircase landing thinking it was an unfinished doorway. Shards of glass rained down on all sides of me but, miraculously, there was no injury. There was Homeroom and the Pledge of Allegiance and then each of us taking turns reading a passage from the bible. By sophomore year the bible readings would morph into a moment of silence: we bowed our heads and meditated on something philosophical—the cat and the hat, the Beatles, Snoopy let your hair out-- though most of the time we worried about upcoming quizzes, or untoward comments in the latest slam book.

 The slam book was the adolescent version of adult character assassination:  So and so is fink, stuck up, or even, God forbid, a skank, meaning I suppose a possum like creature running from woodshed to woodshed. Remember, we weren’t complete human beings yet, so these faults can be forgiven although in retrospect I must say that if a female student can be a skank then so can a male student—it goes together like Yin and Yang, North and South, Great and Valley and Candy Kane and Mr. Kane, GV’s Vice Principal, may they both rest in peace. 

  Remember the very Harry S. Truman look of Principal Mr. Mark Jacoby in his suit and tie although he was not as well dressed as the dapper Mr. Richard T. Brooksbank in his Brooks Brothers tweed, 5-tiered corded belt and 100 per cent calf skin leather loafers sans a tucked in penny.

 Great Valley as a big fashion runway:  Algebra teacher Mr. Edward Eill in his big suits and garish ties; or Louise Einoff, teacher of Spanish and French, meticulously dressed and topping it off with a  pair of stilettos, her beautifully sculpted eyebrows like Greta Garbo’s in an old Hollywood film.  Martha Shelita, queen of guidance counselors, sporting a feminist look before there was a feminist look (some say she even wore sneakers). The sleepy eyed, rumbled looking Harvard educated Mr. Peter Erskine, the original bed hair hipster, so soft spoken and totally non threatening as an authority figure but outdone in personal theatrics by that Hungarian tornado, Mr. George Dobash, who once turned over a trash can in his Problems of Democracy class to illustrate a political point or two…

   Okay, so let’s talk about Dobash. I met him years after graduation while sitting nursing a draft in a Center City bar. I heard a voice that had POD written all over it. “Excuse me, is your name George Dobash?” I said. He raised his cocktail in a toast, blinked twice then commented, “Oh God, your class was one of the best. How’s your sister, what was her name?” “Susan,” I offered, “How could you forget?” He went on to tell me a variety of things-- inside stories about GV teachers, stuff we were not privy to as kids. These soap opera tales increased the temperature in the bar so that I had to open my shirt collar.

    GV’s two science gurus, Mr. Rocco and Mrs. Bravo introduced us to the joys of dead frogs--- no, not as Kentucky dish delicacies but as cold specimens for sophomore biology dissection. This project caused a slight panic, especially when laying the frog on its back, spreading out its limbs and then pinning it to the tray. The unseemliness of it all caused Sue Whitcomb to faint before she could extract anything, alerting Mr. Rocco to the fact that there might be a collective student reaction, as in students fainting en masse and being taken out on stretchers to the football field where they’d be resuscitated by cheerleaders and Band Majorettes.
     High School Biology frog dissection was a classic rite of passage but it’s not done much these days. It takes too much time and there are just too many horror stories of frogs coming back to life.

    Mention trays and the needle points to GV’s venerable cafeteria ladies and their hot serving spoons.  I remember some of them wearing white hair nets which gave them a grandmotherly appeal although they were much younger than we are now.

  And what about those GV hallways… alive with the sound of students and teachers going from class to class…  

   There’s Mr. Kessler. Remember when he took his art classes to the Barnes Foundation? Mr. Kesslser was the quietest of men, the virtual opposite of gym teacher Al Como, and brother of the famous singer Perry. Al loved to line up the boys who had bleached their hair blond, the daring fashion of the day, and giving them a swift swat from a paddle as punishment… something that in today’s world would be seen quite differently with Al probably being put on some kind of list. In many ways, yes, the old days trump the insanity of the present. 

  There’s Mr. Procopio whose name comes dangerously close to Pinocchio’s. Or poker face Social Studies teacher Mr. Sapone. Look, its Mr. Brooksbank again, this time walking with Alger C. Whitcraft, the Business Education teacher. Richard is preparing to tell his English classes another joke:  “Why did the couple get married in the bathtub-- because they wanted a double ring ceremony.” Forget I said that. Other faces are surfacing: the benign Janet Baldwin, GV librarian; Mr. Hennessey, as tall as Frankenstein who taught Driver Ed (what school today has Driver Ed?); Mr. Kadyk, the leader of the band; Mr. Molnar; Miss Smith; and the erudite “Have you read your Beowulf?” Mr. Hickman. But all this is old school. Students today don’t call their teachers Mister anymore and they don’t use Miss or Mrs. either.  Today everything is ground down in an equal playing field.  Yes, we lost something there…
   Time to head out to a Saturday football game as Deena Jordan, Doris Kraus and Sandra Carr work the crowds with pom poms, megaphones, jumps and double hooks, …not quite a human pyramid but still daring for its time as Don Broome (What man dare, I dare) and Mike Searcy (There is nothing like fun, is there?) score yet another touchdown …a real Vitalis, Jade East moment or better yet Canoe because with a canoe we can row over to see the other sports, namely cross country where Ed Zacarais is leading the pack again, running, running, running straight into the stopwatch arms of Mr. Kellerman who taught math when he wasn’t noting times in his blue sweats. It was Kellerman who told yours truly after a horrible cross country fall onto a shard of glass (I still bear the scar) that it’s time to shower up, another thing I hear they don’t do in high schools anymore.

     GV was classy. We had Arnold Palmer golf, Dave Steinback Wimbledon-style tennis, folksy Sue Hess Lacrosse, gymnastics (Terry Donnelly and the formidable Mike Talley) and Greco Roman wrestling where Ed Conaway and Dan Rossi (Thoughts shall fly in the twinkling of an eye) almost always pinned their opponents.  Basketball got a 4 page spread in the yearbook (remember Randy Cummins?), while baseball (Gary Brag and Ed Jackman) held its own but without all the chewing tobacco and spitting. 

   Oh no, how did this happen?!  Now we’re smack in the middle of a hallway without a hall pass and the hall monitor is gunning for us. We’ve run out of excuses but the good thing is Dave Pieri has just been elected class president so the atmosphere is hardly like Stalinist Russia.

    We’re allowed to go on our way and look for lost or forgotten classmates, and there are many of them, yes, too many. Where did they go? Richard Henry, Toni Holman, Roger Harris, Michael Mark, Christine Koehler, Charles Kern, Denise Miller, Barbara Darling, Pam Perugi, Roger Peterson,  Howard McCall, Marion Pulls, John Tate, Walter Smith (rest in peace), Bob Terry (rest in peace), Harriet Thomas, Mark Washburn, and Robert Thompson.  I’ve only touched the surface, of course. A few I’ve encountered through the years:  I met Kingston Owens in Boston when he was going to MIT. I ran into Daniel Norris several years ago at a trade show in Center City. Norris was a classmate of mine in parochial school and he used to chase me around the schoolyard in comic bully fashion. We laughed about the chase over trade show coffee. The last time I saw Ed Conaway was two summers after graduation. He was crossing Lancaster Pike in Paoli holding hands with Joan Mitchell. Candy Kane and I became friends in the 1970s. I was introduced to her husband, a likeable guy; we hung out, told stories, then Candy fell ill and I didn’t see her for a very long time. Rest in peace. 

   After graduation I would revisit the GV campus and drive around and relive old memories.  I’d visit to the little creek oasis near Rt 29 where Mr. Kessler used to take his art classes. I’d ponder the track, recall where we held Cross Country practice, and remember all the walks home from school past Memorial Park cemetery as wind gusts opened our books and scattered our papers.

  Uh oh. I’m hearing a call, class. It’s a call to return to that glider and take up our lives again…up, up and away… in the spirit of hope and confidence of course because the passage of time and a 50th reunion doesn’t have to be a scary time…it can be, as the yearbook suggests,  both an end and a beginning