In the midst of the strangest five months most of us have ever experienced I almost overlooked the fact that this past Monday was the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. On June 1, 1970, about 250 of us sat in the bleachers of our high school gym — the girls wearing white gowns, the boys wearing blue — with our proud parents looking on as a few of our classmates made speeches and Mr. Homer Sharp called out our names and handed us our diplomas.
It was over almost as soon as it started, and then we were getting into cars and heading in vastly different directions. Many of my classmates would remain close friends for as long as they lived. Others I haven’t seen since the ceremony itself.
We left with such promise and high hopes, and some have fulfilled those dreams. I’m pretty happy with how my life has turned out — so far.
My classmates became doctors and lawyers and teachers and housewives and merchants and mechanics and soldiers, as well as, I suppose, butchers and bakers and candlestick makers. We were a lot like most classes who graduated in 1970. We had a reunion planned, but it became an early casualty of the COVID Crisis.
I was sad about that. I had hoped to cross paths with some of the folks I haven’t kept up with and others that I see only through the magic of Facebook. As plans were being made for the reunion that hasn’t been, I began to inquire about my classmates who are no longer with us.
I was painfully aware of some that had passed away. Tony Piper was killed 14 months to the day after we graduated, in Quang Tin province, in South Vietnam. I think he was the first classmate we lost, but I’m not sure. The first newspaper column I ever had published was about Tony. Memorial Day, 1995. That was 25 years after graduation. Twenty-five years after that column I still mourn his death and still appreciate his sacrifice.
Lynn Jones was born on Ground Hog Day in 1952 — four weeks before I was born. She was one of the most elegant and graceful people I have ever known. She pursued her dreams and became an oceanographer. I used to visit her in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she tried to teach me to dive. I wasn’t a good pupil. Cancer claimed her at a very early age. Same with Mary Hazel Polk and too many others.
Rosemary Robertson and I began a truly unusual friendship during the summer before our fourth-grade year. I preached her funeral at Salem Campground — maybe 15 years ago.
Wayne Penn and I were great pals growing up. We shared comic books and watched Bestoink Dooley and the Big Movie Shocker on Friday nights for a long, long time. He served in Army intelligence for twenty years, I suppose. He left us a long time ago, too.
Two of my college roommates, Bob Lunsford and Jimmy Hutchins, passed away a few months apart, two years ago. Jimmy and his family were among the greatest influences I’ve ever known in my life. I presided over his funeral, too.
My friend and classmate Vicki Thompson Gheesling sent me a list this week of all the classmates we have lost, that the reunion committee was aware of. I was shocked to see 47 names on her list.
Some of the names jumped out at me. Carol Freeman was a Lady Ram basketball player and a good one. She was tragically killed in an automobile collision. My track team sat behind the wreck for an hour, on the way from Loganville to Conyers, without my having any notion that my classmate had perished practically in front of me.
Gail Halstead. We used to catch lighting bugs together and play Red Rover and Tag out of Jail in her front yard when we were kids. Melinda Hays and I went 20 years without seeing one another before randomly renewing our friendship at a UGA tailgate, 25 years ago. Her husband, Jim, remains a close friend to this day. Donny Moore. He and his brother and sisters were so close to me and my family growing up. Bryant Steele invited me to Rome to instruct a seminar for his writing group just a few months before he passed.
Walker Ellis, my cousin, and Gerald Fuller — the irrepressible Snuffy, who would always pay you back next week if you would only loan him a quarter this week. Johnny Fincher and Peggy Nelson and Larry Hawkins, all friends from childhood in Porterdale. Jane Hamilton died recently. She was one of the funniest people I knew and made sure to stay in touch, even though she moved to Florida years ago.
And I shouldn’t have started naming names because there are so many other good people who are gone too soon.
The Class of 1970. We were going to change the world, and in a lot of ways I hope we have. To those of us who are still hanging on, 2020 is a wild ride. To those who have passed on, you are missed, and we hope to see you again on the other side.
Fifty years. Where does the time go?