by Robert M. Gill, BHS ‘67
Many of us go back so far, we can’t remember a time when we didn’t know each other. In the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, when we were young, Blacksburg was a relatively stable community.
Thus, many members of the Blacksburg High School Class of 1967 began kindergarten together and remained together until our high-school graduation. Other members of our class came later to serve as leaven, some remaining until our graduation and others leaving before. All of us knew, and no doubt took for granted, the feeling of permanence and sense of place which were characteristic of small-town America and our particular time and place.
The Blacksburg of our youth was still a small place. A number of us remember a time in the 1950’s when there was only one blinker-light (and no stop-lights!) within the town limits. For us the Huckleberry was a train, not a trail, and several members of my class joined me on board for my seventh birthday party en route to Christiansburg in 1956. Many can recall a time when the local radio announcer would read a list of recent hospital admissions so friends, neighbors, and everyone else would know. In those early days, the town’s water came from springs which nearly ran dry every summer. Hearses from the funeral home doubled as ambulances whenever one was needed. Enrollment in the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets was compulsory for male undergraduates, and cadets filled the drill field for parades. Finally, most of us remember the siren that sounded at regular times every day and at other times with distinctive sequences to summon volunteer firemen and members of the rescue squad.
One by one, these things of our childhood and youth would fade into memory as we grew older and our world continued to change, almost imperceptibly at times. We spent the better part of our middle-school years in the downtown building which had served until the early 1950’s as Blacksburg High School. Years after our graduation, the building that was our Blacksburg High School became the middle school. Still later, deserted and forlorn, it was know as “the old Blacksburg Middle School.” This building was demolished several years ago, and today only a few trees remain from our time there, trees that were young when we were young.
We last gathered as a class in the auditorium of our high school in June of 1967 for our commencement and then dispersed to pursue the subsequent chapters of our still-young lives. Fifty years after our graduation, as we gathered for our two-day reunion, we may have felt a temptation to idealize the time and place of our youth, forgetting the social, economic, and cultural divisions of the era. As a corrective, we must remember the particularly courageous members of our class who joined us in 1963 as our first black classmates. Others would follow, making our country a better place as our corner of the world experienced in a very small way the civil-rights movement that convulsed the South, and indeed the nation, during our formative years.
Similarly, we should recall the performance of “Our Town” before the BHS student body the Friday before Thanksgiving of our eighth-grade year. A little after 1:00, just before the curtain went up on the final act, someone ran backstage and announced, “President Kennedy has been shot.” Virtually simultaneously, with the audience still unaware of the news, the curtain rose on what was undoubtedly the most moving stage production any of us will ever see. All the actors somehow got through their lines with palpably sincere emotion, culminating with the graveyard scene where Howie Newsome says we never know what we had until it’s gone. Everyone in the (still unknowing) audience must have sensed the electricity of the performance, and when the curtain went down there was total silence. Then Mr. Gray walked to the center of the stage and announced that “While I hesitate to follow such a fine performance with anything I might have to say, I feel I have no choice but to announce that President Kennedy was shot today in Dallas. He lived just 30 minutes. Lyndon Johnson is now president of the United States.” Who could forget the scattered screams from the audience that followed, and then the tears and stunned silence as in that surreal moment, theatre and life converged? I’m sure we all remember that moment.
Finally, as an additional antidote to the temptation to idealize the world of our youth, we should recall that the Vietnam War was underway throughout our high-school years, though for most of us even in 1967, its impact still lay in the future. The times of our youth, then, were imperfect times, as all times are.
Despite such reminders, I’m sure most if not all of us remember our times fondly, as we undoubtedly should. In the fifty years that now separate us from our commencement, each of us has achieved some measure of success in our careers and family lives, contributing in a variety of ways to the various communities of which we are a part. Virtually all of us have known considerable happiness in our lives.
No doubt few if any of us would want to go back to our high-school years. But for two days in June, nearly fifty years to the day after our graduation, those of us who were able returned from near and far to the place of our youth. For two days, we celebrated people and places and times and friendships which we do not now regret, but which we remember fondly and do not want to forget. Certainly more than a few of us renewed friendships which should never have been allowed to die.
As with the members of any community, our memories vary widely, reflecting what was important to each of us in our time: football games with time-outs to search the field for team members’ then-newfangled contact lenses; sock hops on the pristine gym floor, with every corner of the gym well-lit and with chaperones galore; winning championship basketball games in the then-nearly-new Virginia Tech Colosseum, and cheering as the captain cut the net; cheerleaders with skirts well below the knees; budding romance in the band room; band concerts preceded by hours of practice; gym class and the hurried showers that followed; relay races in the gym on days when it was too cold to go outside; strategically-placed super balls thrown simultaneously in one particularly boring study hall; memorable student performances of a wide variety of plays; Thespian and Forensic competitions; SGA meetings and campaigns for class president; and a certain teacher’s roll-call in the weeks before prom, asking each boy “You do have a date for the prom, don’t you?” every day until she got the requisite response.
And we recall the various extracurricular clubs and activities: Key Club; Spanish Club; FFA; FHA; Latin Tournament; Roman Banquets; the Latin Club initiates who somehow combined a four-legged (two-person) horse (“equus,” I still recall), constructed of a combination of papier-mache and bedsheet, with the sounds of the current Beetles tune (but in Latin) “Dicit amat te, (yeah yeah yeah)…et scis non malum est!” on stage. And who could forget the French Club float in the Blacksburg Christmas Parade, complete with carolers singing in French, when the Eiffel Tower collapsed in the wind, breaking one caroler’s arm? Or Santa Claus (as portrayed by a classmate) when his pants fell down as he stooped to enter the fireplace in a Christmas skit before the student body? (And Only The Shadow Knows for sure if this was really an accident!)
Finally, I’m sure each of us recalls favorite and not-so-favorite teachers, coaches, staff, and administrators. We were blessed that remarkably, two of them were able to attend our reunion with us. With the wisdom of age we have come to understand that even our personal not-so-favorites truly cared for each of us even when circumstances and professionalism prevented their showing it. Somehow, that realization makes memories of “being sent to the principal’s office” easier to bear.
Everyone in our class is now “of a certain age.” In one way or another, all of us feel our age. A number of us are retired, and more will be shortly. Many have lost our parents, and all have lost friends and family. Twenty-eight of our classmates have “gone before us,” and we honored their memory at a special memorial table and in the reunion program. To everything there is indeed a season. And yet for a time, in our common remembrance we were all young once more, the world (as Shakespeare would have it) our oyster as we shared once again the times of our youth and the world we were about to change.
Bob Gill is a professor emeritus of political science at Radford University.