J. KARL MILLER: Remembering the 1950s as solid era

Wednesday, March 27, 2013 | 5:27 p.m. CDT

Come this weekend, on the eve of Easter, I will attend the 60th anniversary of my high school graduation in, where else but the school gymnasium in Keytesville, Mo., county seat of Chariton County. As is the custom, the gym floor will be covered with tarpaulin or like material  — these surfaces are sacred — as only gym shoes or stocking feet are permitted.

To many of you, the notion of an annual small school alumni banquet must appear quaint — a replay of the era of black and white movies and three channels of snowy television pictures. The classes were quite small  — mine was 34; 17 girls and 17 boys— and growing smaller as people depart these erstwhile bucolic Norman Rockwell portrait communities.

The agenda for this event has changed little over the years. We are seated promptly at 6 p.m. for the welcome, Pledge of Allegiance and the blessing of the meal. Following the serving of dessert and coffee, the eldest male and female graduates are recognized, as is the person who traveled the farthest and the family that boasts the most graduates.

For the past several years, the oldest male graduate has been Luther "Ducks" Stark, class of 1928, a centenarian who graduated a year ahead of my father. His eyesight and hearing have failed substantially, but his mind is as sharp as it was 60 years ago. I make it a point to visit with him as he is a link to a much-respected culture.

The rest of the program consists of each 10-year class detailing a speaker who gives a short synopsis of that class, the number in attendance and where they met to reminisce. Following these presentations, the superintendent outlines the successes and innovations of the school year in academics and athletics, the officers are elected for the coming year, and the attendees stand for the singing of the alma mater.

Looking back at 1953, Dwight Eisenhower was president, Stuart Symington and Thomas Hennings Jr. were Missouri's senators and Morgan Moulder was our congressman. At the top link of my administrative chain of command was Mr. H. A. Sadler, school superintendent and coach, a stern but fair disciplinarian who, after my father, was the man who most shaped my life along with those of my now grateful classmates.

It was a different era, in the schools, the communities and in lifestyle in general. For example, the more serious infractions in high school were apt to subject the culprit(s) to corporal punishment. "Bend over and grab your ankles" was the command, followed by three blows to the posterior with a paddle drilled with holes.

There were consequences for one's actions in those times. There was no excusing bad behavior as the product of poor parenting, suffering from ADD, ADHD or any other alphabetical ailments, moral relativism or not getting that G. I. Joe for Christmas. In both public and private schools, the rules were simple. Rule 1:  The teacher is right; for Rule 2: See Rule number 1.

There was no government guaranteed college education, no living wage regardless of employment status, nor were food, housing or transportation inalienable "rights." Charity began at home, in the community, in the churches and was made available to the needy as a hand up instead of a handout. The able-bodied, the too good to perform menial labor need not apply.

The major difference in the succeeding generations and those who graduated in 1953 and thereabouts is in the attitude toward integrity, character and, above all, the sense of responsibility. Our values, learned from our parents, included a solid work ethic — we understood that the world did not owe us a living.

I have no intention of dwelling overlong on this subject — it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and it is tantamount to beating the same dead horse over and over. It should be a subject for national embarrassment; unfortunately, the "Alibi Ikes" will chime in with various rationalizations with the intent to prove me wrong.

Rather than argue the point, I will merely point out the results of a recent study by the Pentagon concerning problems in accessing qualified recruits for the military. Titled "Ready, Willing and Unable to Serve," this report details three reasons which disqualify 75 percent of today's youth, age 17 to 24, from joining today's armed services.

The three major disqualifiers are lack of a high school education, prior criminal records and physical fitness failure, including obesity. Considering the major advances in medicine, education, science and communication, the fitness for military services of only one-fourth of the eligible population is a sad state of affairs. In 1953, it is safe to assume that at least 75 percent were accepted.

Finally, my fellow alums will "reune" and enjoy each others' company — hopefully not for the last time. The remembrances get better with each telling. The theme of our return as 60-year graduates will be one of nostalgia, a mutual respect and love for one another and a blessedness that we were enabled to grow up in those environs. It was the very best of times.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via email at

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Ellis Smith March 27, 2013 | 6:29 p.m.

J. Karl:

Keytesville, huh. First time I ever drove through it was autumn and they were burning leaves at the edges of the paved streets.

I graduated from a small public high school in a big city. Neither the school nor the buildings it was housed in still exist.

Our class, a bit earlier in time than yours, has never held a reunion. My daughter enjoys telling people that's because most of the graduates are incarcerated in this state's male and female penal institutions, in particular the two institutions for the criminally insane.

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