I came to the realization this past weekend just how much my high school classmates mean to me.
I have attended most of reunions of the Independence High School Class of 1975, but past events had been rather mundane, sometimes even dull affairs.
But all that changed with the 40th gathering of my class.
Friday started off just like so many other reunions had. While we had a pleasant gathering at the Independence Museum for a mixer, there was a small turnout and we all went our separate ways after a couple of hours.
The highlight, though, was that I had two dates for the evening, which is two more than I had during high school. Being 5-4 and about 120 pounds back then, with a pizza face, Coke bottle glasses, and long hair that touched my shoulders, it didn’t exactly zoom me to the top of the most eligible bachelor list.
Fortunately for me, the husbands of Cindy Cook and Patricia DeVore couldn’t accompany them, so they called me and asked if I would escort them for the evening. I have considered them almost like sisters since I’ve known them most of my life. Their mothers, Lucille Cook and Roberta DeVore, were dear friends of Betty Sell, while Dr. Dale DeVore was the driving force behind my Dad choosing Independence to start his dental practice and raise his family. Patricia was actually about the first person I ever knew in my life other than my immediate family as the Sell and DeVore families spent a lot of time together.
I went home Friday convinced this was going to be another reunion that was going to fizzle like a soggy Fourth of July Roman Candle. I figured to put an appearance in on Saturday and head home early Sunday.
Saturday, however, was a life-changing day.
We met in the east parking lot at the high school and went inside to see the changes made after a massive reconstruction job.
I didn’t even recognize the place, except for the auditorium and “T Junction,” which separated 100 and 200 halls. The town has poured millions into making the place modern and with all the latest tools to enhance finer learning.
Navigating the halls of Indy High is like maze, it’s almost like playing Pac Mac. Where there were once walls are now rooms and I actually had to start my tour over by coming in the door I used to go through every day.
The school finally has added an on-site gymnasium to play its basketball games. Until a few years ago, the Bulldogs played their games at ancient Losey Gymnasium and was one of the few schools in Kansas without its own place to play. We did have a gym in high school, but there was no seating and the place was old, dingy and musty.
We were greeted by retired teacher David Torbett, who was the favorite of many in the class. He taught journalism and was a driving force behind my career. He stopped by to see how many of the class showed up and was greeted warmly. Then in Sunday’s newspaper, he had a letter to the editor in regards to The Independence Reporter cutting loose its sports editor after a long period of service, noting that the former editor and myself were the two top sports writers in the state of Kansas and possibly the four-state area. Mr. T, you’ll be getting your check in the mail.
After we took our tour and snapped pictures for posterity, we met at the Tindle Bell Tower for a memorial service for the members of our class who passed away far too soon.
The Tindle Bell Tower was constructed in 1973 in honor of Mark Tindle, who was a senior when I was a sophomore. He was a star football and basketball player, and arguably the most-liked senior in the class. On Sept. 30, 1972, he died on the football field while we were playing at Parsons, an image that has been forever burned into my memory. It was such a tragedy that took our school a long time to deal with. I knew Mark as he would walk up behind me and take his thumb and forefinger and pinch my neck. He’d tell me, “you’re a pretty ornery sophomore,” and then laugh and mess up my hair. What a treasure he was.
Class of ’75 Reverend DDD (Dwight David Dozier) delivered a powerful sermon for those of us who gathered. Dwight is now a pastor in Great Bend, something I didn’t know until last weekend.
Following his words, Class President Steve Van Buskirk read off the 18 names of the deceased and after each, Chuck Goad tolled the bell. My eyes welled up, I had a lump in my throat and my heart pounded with pain, especially after the names of two very close friends, Sherman Halsey and Terry Schlatter, were read. They grew up near me during grade school as I could run to their houses in about a minute when I used to have my blinding speed before my bad hammys acted up.
As the names were called, I had to wonder how many new names will be read when we gather for our 50th as we’ll be 67 or 68 years old. Heck, maybe mine will be read, there are no guarantees in life. My mother died at 68 and we never thought that would happen.
I think this experience galvanized our class. We weren’t breaking off in our little cliques like we had in high school. I sensed us coming together as one. It was all very genuine.
Later after a tour of the junior high, I went to lunch with people I had spent a lot of time with as well as people who I had barely said “hello” to in high school (I now owe Chuck Goad a lunch, he was very generous). It made me realize what I had missed 40 years ago not getting to know them better. I had no idea of the hilarity of Debbie Mills or the unique talents of Hank Hedge. I’d probably never sat down at the same table and broken bread with David Lumm or Paul Foster. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone out of my way to know those people better and not restricted myself to my clique.
Saturday night, we gathered at the Booth Hotel and the numbers went up. While there were still a lot of people that I wanted to see who couldn’t make it, I continued to get to know people better and the hours just seemed to fly by. Once we were asked to leave the Booth because of time constraints, we continued up the street to Turbo’s and howled at the moon, though I didn’t make it nearly as long as some of the others, from the reports I received.
I have to say the women in our class have caused time to stand still. They all looked wonderful. When I saw Erica Floerchinger, I wanted to ask what her secret was to stop the aging process. Erica, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met as she never once said a bad word about anybody, honest to goodness didn’t look a day over 40. She works for the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. I wish I’d had more time to talk with her about everything she does because it would have been so fascinating.
There were a lot of "thank yous" being passed around, but the biggest should have gone to Rosalyn McGee, who worked tirelessly to make this our best reunion as she put in countless hours trying to find out where everybody lived. I just hope she was able to take time and enjoy it, because she was attending to every detail and leaving no stones unturned.
I’d also like to mention Belinda Boys, who is still so indefatigable and has a heart of gold. I would say she probably enjoyed herself more than anybody who attended as she dove right in for every event and kept everybody’s spirits high. I wish I had her energy.
Mike and Melinda Jones, our golden couple, started dating in junior high and have been together ever since. They still act like they’re on their honeymoon. If there were more couples like that in the world, it would be a much better place.
Billy Sloop was one of my best friends who drove all the way from Mississippi. Billy is now retired, something several of my classmates have done. Not me, it’s going to be another eight years. I don’t know what I’d so with myself if I did call it quits, I’m a born worker.
And finally it was so good to see Rusty Kelley, the ultimate storyteller. The best story I can tell about him was that in my senior year when I was competing in the state golf tournament in Salina at the Muni course. I had started my round par-birdie and thought maybe I was going to shock the world. Rusty, Johnny Buser and Jonathan Newkirk had driven up to follow those of us playing and on No. 3 I hit the wrong ball and a kid from Great Bend immediately called a 2-shot penalty. He allowed me to play the shot even though he knew it was the wrong ball, a violation of the “golfer’s code.” Rusty yelled out and asked if I wanted for him to “kick the guy’s, well, postier.” Needless to say I had to shield my eyes.
Rusty and his favorite foil, David Monroe, were always wrestling and fighting with each other. Dave earned All-Big 8 honors while playing center for the Oklahoma State football team, yet he allowed Rusty to pick on him all the time. Why Dave just didn’t knock his head off is beyond me, but he always went along. Rusty was the master of escaping trouble, which he often was in.
I think I learned a lot about myself this weekend. I know I’m no better or worse than anybody else. We are all equals. And I sensed that other members felt this, too. We shared a lot of hugs and even a few tears this weekend and I believe a lot of us got to know each other better and will stay in touch in the years to come.
Bring on the 50th. I think it will be even bigger and better.