My Bellingham High School Class of 1951 held its 60th reunion last weekend. It could not have made clearer the changes which have taken place in American society in the intervening years. It also rekindled the optimism of the 125 or so in attendance.
The 375 in our graduating class — about half of which are still living — grew up during the Great Depression and World War II and came out of high
school during the Korean War. Maybe one in six of us went directly to college. Our class, and our time, were marked by stability and continuity. Most of us were born in Bellingham and had attended grammar, junior high, and high school together. Remarkably few kids came or left during those years; even fewer teachers did so.
Bellingham, then a blue-collar town of canneries, a coal mine, fishing, light industry, and sawmills, pulp and paper mills, probably voted 75 percent for President Franklin Roosevelt in our growing-up years. Republicans were not vilified or mistreated, but mainly considered captives of their managerial or professional class origins. There was a Hard Left in Washington during that time, but it waned in influence after World War II. Practical liberal Sens. Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson came to exemplify our politics.
There were givens as we grew up: You had to work hard, do military service, be responsible, and care for your family and neighbors. The Korean War was just as unpopular among our graduating class as the Vietnam War would become a generation later, but no one protested it or fled to nearby Canada. You did your duty, like it or not. There was no drug culture then — only beer consumption tolerated by elders and the police. We heard about marijuana, but no one had ever seen or tried it.
During our sophomore year in high school, a classmate recalled, six members of the senior class had gone joy-riding into British Columbia and crashed their car. Five had been killed; only the driver survived. He returned to class in a day or two. There were no emotional outbursts at the school or grief counselors to settle us down. Depression and war had taught us that tragedy happened.
The politics of our young adulthood were defined by the Kennedy-Johnson years of the 1960s. Magnuson and Jackson exemplified them.
Led in particular by the Greatest Generation which preceded us, mostly World War II veterans, the country underwent a burst of progressive change. Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, federal aid to education, and a war on poverty became parts of everyday life. The economy also was transformed with commitments to global trade liberalization and tax policies encouraging investment, economic growth, and job creation.
Big societal changes also were brewing during the 1960s. Vietnam War protests were only part of it. The generation which followed us — now known as the Boomer generation — was not constrained by circumstance as we had been. There was idealism in it but, also, a lot of self-gratification as millions of college-age kids set out to get high, get laid, and get rich.
The boomers, as it turned out, were not as smart and superior as they thought they were. Their politics got us sidetracked into polarizing social issues which previously had been private matters for individual citizens. Their conduct in government, on Wall Street, and in private industry opened the door to the excesses and, ultimately, crashes which caused the 2008 meltdown and which now have buried us under mountains of public and private debt.
At the BHS reunion, however, no one expressed anger at what had been done to our song. Mainly there was tolerance and a sense that, in the end, things would right themselves. Acting as emcee, I remarked that the next 10 years would not be Depression years, but they would be harder economic years than any of the past 40. We had seen worse and would be OK. No one disagreed.
Stars of our class were at the reunion: Karen Hullquist, our blossomtime-festival queen, who met her husband, Bill Stuht, when he served as her escort at Seafair. Monte Bianchi, who still holds the record for varsity letters won by a single BHS student, who went on to the University of Southern California and then a long career as a coach, teacher, and, finally, artist. Several at the reunion had become wealthy, but you would not have known it. The egalitarian spirit of our growing-up years still prevailed. There were few slackers or jerks in our class — none, in fact, that I could recall. Nor was a single teacher at our high school disliked or unpopular. Did that amount to romantic hindsight? No, others said, they felt the same.
In the background, current high-school students provided music. The outgoing Bellingham High School principal, Steve Clarke, gave us an update on developments at the school over the past 25 years. We discussed forming a fund to provide a scholarship or award to the school in the name of our Class of 1951.
I asked four cheerleaders from the class to lead us in a Red Raider yell. They quickly formed, remembered the words, and even the gestures associated with the yell. We all rose to our feet and joined in a closing cheer. We were cheering, I thought, not only for our school but for our town, our Depression childhoods, our departed classmates, and the fact that we were together and had come through. Who could worry about larger uncertainties? There was real strength there, I thought. The same strength that would see our country through whatever it faced now and in the future.