High school 50th reunions are supposedly a milestone, a rite of passage, filled with apprehension, resignation, satisfaction, amusement and amazement.
Estimates are that 20-30% of alumni attend their 50th high school reunion. Mine is this fall.
I graduated from Butler Senior High School in Butler, Pennsylvania, in 1969. Because of travel and timing, it is unlikely that I will attend the reunion. If I lived closer, I might be more likely to go.
But, to ensure that I did not totally miss out on the experience, I recently attended two informal 50th reunion events for Columbia’s Hickman High School Class of 1969.
Here’s what I learned after surveying the high school experience from the half-century point.
My hometown was very important in my development and still is in my memory, but not so much my high school.
Butler is a declining steel town of about 60,000 people, 35 miles north of Pittsburgh. My graduating class had more than 900 students, with only a few non-white classmates.
Western Pennsylvania loves football, deer hunting and Iron City beer. Butler is in a Republican county, so I am instinctively slow to ridicule Trump voter
My high school experience was “fine,” i.e. average or typical, but when I list the influences on my development, it falls behind my family, my neighbors, Boy Scouts, the YMCA, my father’s employers, the public library, the swimming pool and parks.
The cross-country coach and three teachers (plane geometry, social studies and English) made strong impressions on me and seemed to recognize my individuality. Except for one jerk (American history), the rest were OK, I guess.
It was a huge school. My friends were mostly my grade-school friends and fellow athletes, but they paled beside the influence of seven siblings.
Butler High, with more than 900 seniors and 790 known graduates, was 50 percent larger than Columbia Hickman in 1969, with about 600 hundred seniors and 530 graduates.
Almost half of Butler’s alumni have joined our class website where the whereabouts of 102 classmates are listed as unknown, compared to 120 “lost classmates” at Hickman.
Hickman also had proportionally fewer reported deaths — 72 deceased classmates, compared to 156 at Butler.
The biggest difference between Hickman and good ole Butler High is the cities where they are located. Columbia now has three full-service high schools, while Butler High has seen declining enrollment since the 1980s.
Columbia, of course, is a big college town, while my hometown was once a “Pennsylvania steel town” that now resembles the rest of Missouri more than it resembles Columbia. Boone County has become more electorally competitive, i.e. more Republican, while Butler County was Republican before I was born.
I discovered that the internet has a mixed impact on reunion attendance: While it is possible to “find” more classmates and even follow them on social media, the incentive to attend a reunion is less compelling.
I checked with five fellow Butler classmates and learned that they don’t plan to attend the reunion either. I would be much more likely to attend if a fellow cross-country runner, whose whereabouts have been unknown since the early 1970s, and several of my grade-school friends, planned to attend.
This year, Hickman’s 50th reunion attracted 135 alumni to at least one of several events. So, a good guess would be that my reunion would have about 200 fellow classmates.
I probably would have known half of them in high school. Despite 50 years of aging, I expect I would still recognize at least a quarter of them.
I would specifically remember, say 20 individual classmates, and the rest would fit into my collage of a high school poster: class leaders, cheerleaders and people “everyone knew.”
Based on my conversations with Hickman and other high school alumni of that vintage who attended a 50th reunion, here is what I predict we would talk about:
First, we would catch up on the here and now. Perhaps we would discuss where we live, whether we have grandchildren and if we are still working. I would be careful not to mention any politically controversial topics.
Second, if we are the same gender, we would ask about our health and tell each other, “you’re looking good.” Undoubtedly, over the course of the evening, it would be mentioned that someone, most likely a woman, still “looked great.”
Third, we would acknowledge classmates who have died or are otherwise absent. We might mention a specific teacher or two, but most of us probably couldn’t recall very many.
Fourth, with a few classmates, I might broach this question: “Did things turn out better than you expected?” Yes, most likely they have — for those who choose to attend a class reunion.
The class of 1969 graduated from high school at an important time, although every class probably says that. Still, 1969 was at the height of the Vietnam War, the summer of Woodstock and, of course, the year Apollo 11 took Neil Armstrong to the moon.
We were the last class to have a dress code. Drugs were only beginning to be a “real problem” for white teenagers. Several of my classmates were killed in Vietnam, by drug overdoses or AIDS.
I know that several Hickman reunion attendees came back to Columbia largely because they still have family here. One guy in particular told me he never felt he fit in at Hickman, saying it was as if the school “had a dome over it that he couldn’t crack.”
He said he came for the weekend to help his mother move into an independent living facility and decided to check out the reunion.
I’m grateful that I always felt I fit in into my high school. They weren’t “the best years of my life,” but they moved me along to adulthood.
If I could do it again, I probably wouldn’t study any harder, but I would be spending more time on music than sports.
I would also be more likely to worry about getting into trouble with sex, drugs and alcohol. They’re all much more prevalent today than they were 50 years ago.
David Webber joined the MU Political Science Department in 1986 and wrote his first column for the Missourian in 1994.