Last weekend I attended my 60th Kirksville Senior High School reunion. There I found myself surrounded by joyful former classmates and a rich tapestry of life stories.
This three-day reunion reminded me that one source of ideas for my Show Me mysteries was our surprisingly happy 45th reunion. Interactions with old friends made such a deep impression that they influenced me a couple of years later when I began developing the ongoing characters for my series.
I created three women who grew up together, led very different lives, and reunited in the hometown as each faces a personal crisis. The protagonist juggled a dangerous double life in Vienna as a CIA covert operative and comes home to heal with her closest childhood friend, a civic leader who never left. The third friend gave up her dreams of Broadway to further her peripatetic ex-husband’s business career.
Like many small towns, Kirksville didn’t offer enough economic opportunity or cultural appeal to hold most of the 123 graduates of the Class of 1957. About 75% went to college before scattering across the nation. One of the most common occupations was teaching, but someone did almost any kind of job you can think of.
The organizers asked me to welcome the 40 classmates and their family members who came from 14 states. Confession: I thought by welcoming they meant to greet people at the door and give them nametags. On Saturday, I realized I’d agreed to give a short speech that night. I’m a writer. I wrote a speech, or at least made notes.
Here’s approximately what I said.
Coming into the room last night and seeing all those joyful, smiling faces, I thought what a lucky bunch we are. Lucky to be here at all 60 years after graduating, and lucky to be here with each other. Looking at you, I see the faces of 1957, teenagers who share memories of an important time, those self-absorbed years when we were figuring out who we were going to be.
Memories of those years have faded, though some events remain clearer than what happened a few weeks ago. I wondered what memories everyone shares. One must be the frantic Mardi Gras season where the classes competed to raise the most money and have their class candidates named king and queen. Everyone contributed, often with unique fundraising ideas. Another would be building homeroom homecoming floats, pretty and clever presentations far more entertaining that those I see in homecoming parades now. And then we had the campaign to pass the bond issue for a new high school
Some of the sharpest memories for each for us surely involve our favorite activities—playing on a school or intramural team, rehearsing with the marching band, preparing to sing in the chorus or play in the orchestra at a Christmas program, taking the stage in a school play, serving on the student council, putting together the many pieces of the yearbook, taking part in the Roman Banquet in which the Spanish class served the conquering Latin students, traveling to Chicago with Masque and Gavel to see a big-time play and hear Tony Bennett at a real night club.
KHS offered us opportunities to explore many interests. For me, the big one was co-editing the school newspaper with Phyllis. We had a lot of fun and a lot of freedom. The experience confirmed and strengthened my desire to become a writer.
We were lucky in having excellent teachers. They went far beyond their job descriptions to counsel, coax, and coerce us to accomplish more than we thought we could. Perhaps their great example contributed to so many of the class becoming teachers.
We’ve been lucky to have Jeanne, Dorothy, and other classmates willing to organize five- and 10-year reunions for decades—and to coax and coerce classmates to come.
For me, one of the most heartening things about our reunions is this: Each reunion we seem to appreciate each other more. We had cliques and other things that set us apart in high school, but the divisions have vanished over the years. I haven’t seen so many people smiling at each other since our last reunion.
Last night as I caught up with old friends, the writer in me thought what a treasure trove of human experience had gathered. I wanted to hear about each person’s life. We’re a living anthology of life stories, and the common thread of those stories is the experiences we shared as the Class of ’57.
If you’ve taught, you’ve seen a class form a group personality. What was our group personality? I can give a partial answer: We welcomed challenges, and we worked together to meet them. Now, 60 years later, more than half of the survivors cared enough about each other to make the effort to come here.
We are a lucky bunch.