They Had a Great Time at Wilson's 50th Reunion
I figured it would be a cold day in hell--and Iowa, too--when I decided to write about high school reunions.
Well, that day has arrived. At least the part about Iowa.
Whether I care to admit it or not, my high school class celebrated its 50th reunion a while back. Fifty! Man, that’s a half-century. And a half-century is a very long time.
Let me say up-front that I was a no-show at the reunion. The people who planned it scheduled it for Sept. 13, 2003, which happened to be the day of the Iowa-Iowa State football game in Ames.
After just having a book published on Hawkeye football history, I felt there was no way I could miss that game.
It also was the day my son, Mark, was one of four F-16 pilots from the Iowa Air Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing who did a pregame fly-over Jack Trice Stadium in Ames to get the day off to a rousing start.
There was no way I was going to miss that, either, and I’m sure everyone understood.
Anyway, they got along perfectly well without me at the reunion in Cedar Rapids, where I was a January, 1953 graduate of Wilson High School.
To show you how long ago I was a kid wearing a flat-top haircut at Wilson, and using plenty of butch-wax on it so it would stay the way I wanted it to stay, the place is no longer a high school. It’s now a middle school, having given way to Jefferson on Cedar Rapids’ west side more than 40 years ago.
But the school still sits proudly on the hill in the southwest part of town, with Wilson Avenue running in front of it and J Street running on the west side of it.
Wilson is located just south of 16th Avenue, which is known as Cedar Rapids’ "Czech Village." It’s a part of town with a very strong heritage. Many of the residents were, and still are, of Czechoslovakian descent.
In my day, there were Czech family names like Pavlicek, Stodola, Dolezal, Jakubec, Mrkvicka and, yes, Maly in the area.
The women [and I suppose men] baked kolaches [pictured at the top of this column] then, and I’ll bet they still do. Kolaches are delightful pastries filled with fruit and poppyseed. If the bakers have lost the recipe, they can still buy a good kolache at Sykora’s Bakery on 16th. My favorite, by the way, is poppyseed.
Then there’s the hoska, the memory of which is imbedded in my mind. It’s called a "Christmas bread," but a hoska certainly would taste very good on Valentine’s Day, George Washington’s birthday or any other day of the year.
I remember my dad’s parents buying hoska at one of the bakeries in the Czech Village [there was more than one bakery then] on Christmas Eve when I was a kid. It tasted great then, and it would taste great now.
If I were asked to describe in general terms the students who attended Wilson High School, I’d say that a lot of us were tough-minded kids who came from blue-collar families. Most of us had strong values. For many, the formal education ended when they received their high school diplomas.
Then it was on to factory jobs at Link-Belt Speeder, Iowa Steel, Cherry Burrell, Penick & Ford, the packinghouse….places like that. My dad was a city fireman, my mother was a secretary at the Cedar Rapids Block Co.
Certainly some of us went on to college, but in those days it was no big deal if you didn’t have the inclination or the money to attend Iowa, Iowa State, Coe, Mt. Mercy or any other university or college.
Getting a good job, finding someone to spend the rest of your life with, listening to Perry Como sing "No Other Love" and Eddie Fisher sing "I’m Walking Behind You" on the radio in your 1950 Ford with the V-8 engine and the dual exhausts, buying a home, raising a family and living life the best way you could do it were the important things in ‘53.
Like Joe Pelisek, a 1941 Wilson graduate and a guy with Czech blood running through his arteries--who spent eight years teaching and coaching football at the school--told me the other day: "They were great kids. They came from good, hard-working families."
Pelisek, now 79 and living in Lincoln, Neb., was invited back to the 50th reunion of the 1953 class, and made it. He was the only former faculty member who was there.
"They took a class photograph that night," Pelisek told me. "I’m the old guy in the middle."
[The entire '53 class, from both January and June, is photographed in one picture atop this column. The gang from one portion (mine) of the class that graduated at mid-year is in the smaller photo].
The saddest thing about the reunion was that 18 of the 1953 Wilson graduates have died. Considering that the class had only 94 members—35 of whom showed up for the reunion--that’s a shocking number to me.
Included among those no longer with us were Kenny Oliver, who was a classmate of mine at Lincoln, one of the elementary schools that fed students to seventh grade at Wilson. Another was Steve Ammons, a kid we called "Ears" and who became a good friend of mine.
Of course, the usual tough things have happened to some of those from the class in the post-high school years. Some are divorced, some have lost their spouses to death. Many are battling illnesses.
A number of us still live in Iowa, but others have moved to places such as Arizona, Florida, Washington, Idaho, Missouri, Minnesota, California, Alabama, Georgia and Texas.
Some who grew up on farms have moved to the city. Some who grew up in the city have moved to farms.
There are small families, there are large families. There are some very interesting stories.
Included among the family of one ’53 graduate are 28 great-grandchildren and three step-great-grandchildren.
In the book that summarized a half-century of what the class members accomplished and was so well done for the reunion, the woman I just mentioned writes that she lived on a farm for 28 years with her husband, then was divorced. She remarried, but that man died 41 days later. She remarried again seven years later.
The good thing is that she’s still hanging tough, glaucoma treatments and all. Good for her.
A man says he and his wife have 5 daughters, 3 sons, 14 granddaughters and 20 grandsons.
"We turned Mormon in 1967 and it changed our whole life," he writes. "We adopted five of eight children, which we never would have done if we hadn’t joined the church."
An interesting story that developed since the 40-year reunion was held involved a man and a woman from the class who live two time zones apart. The man’s wife had died and the woman’s husband had died. Now they have become an item.
Good for them.
Then there were the two people who hadn’t spoken more than four or five sentences to one another in the six years of junior high and high school at Wilson. A few weeks after the 50-year reunion was held, they met in a coffeehouse in an attempt to jam 56 years of memories into two hours of conversation.
Good for them, too.
Our foreign exchange student was Phillippe Faure from the Paris suburb of Montrouge. I didn’t know him well when I was in school and, because I had to miss the reunion, I still don’t know him. But I’ve been told that he is a success.
At least he gave the impression at the reunion that he is quite successful, and someone said that Faure’s year at Wilson no doubt had a lot to do with it.
Let’s hope that’s the case.
Before I go much further, I need to mention one thing that happened at the reunion that might qualify it for the Guinness Book of World Records. Until someone can prove otherwise, it’s likely the only 50-year reunion that saw a member of the class bring a trampoline out and begin jumping on it.
"Picture sitting in a banquet room, having just finished your meal and enjoying small talk," someone explained. "Enter Mr. Trampoline Man in jogging clothes, carrying a personal trampoline. He steps up on the thing and begins bouncing away while telling us the advantages of doing this for a few minutes each day.
"It’s going to improve your cardiovascular system, your bones and gizzard—anything else that might ail you. Someone in the group asked if there was a motorized model. Nobody took him very seriously, but he was dead serious as he bounced away."
Joe Pelisek, the retired teacher and football coach who still works out regularly, didn’t come down nearly as hard on the guy who brought out the mini-trampoline.
"One thing that kind of impressed me was that you can walk on it or jog on it," Pelisek said. "The logic behind it is simple—you don’t put as much strain on your joints."
Suits me fine. I was never one interested in straining any of my joints.
Pelisek was a hit at the reunion all night. He was invited to speak to the class, and got lots of laughs with a couple of stories he told.
"I used the names of a couple of the kids from the class," he explained.
"I used Lyle Shook’s name for this one:
"I want to tell you a story about Lyle when he was in elementary school. The teacher had this deal where you learned how to spell it and you learned the meaning of it. You learned how to use it in a sentence.
"The word was definitely.
"Lyle was ready to use it in a sentence, and he said, ‘Snow is definitely white.’ The teacher said, ‘That’s pretty good, but not right because sometimes when it’s been on the ground for a while—particularly in the cities—it gets pretty gray and black-looking. So maybe you can come up with something better.
"So pretty soon he raised his hand and said, ‘The sky is definitely blue.’ The teacher said, ‘Well, before it rains, it’s kind of black with the black clouds and everything. Maybe you can come up with something better.’
"So a little while later, Lyle raised his hand and said, ‘Teacher, does gas have lumps in it?’ She said, ‘Why, no.’
"Lyle said, ‘Well, I’ve definitely shit my pants.’"
Pelisek said his other story was this one:
"I used Vance Blue’s name in this one.
"The assignment was in second grade. They were supposed to come to school with their name and what their ambition was in life.
"So they came, and the first boy was Dan. He said, ‘My name is Dan and when I grow up to be a man I want to go to Japan if I can, and I think I can.’
"The teacher said, ‘Very good, Dan. Very good.’
Then she called on a little girl. She got up and said, ‘My name is Sadie. When I grow up to be a lady, I want to have a baby and I think I can.’
The teacher said, ‘Very good, Sadie.’
Then she called on Vance, and Vance got up and said, ‘When I get to be a man, I don’t want to go to Japan like Dan. But I want to help Sadie with her plan.’"
Hey, that’s what 50-year reunions are all about, right?
And, confident bunch that this ’53 gang from Wilson is, they’ve definitely (as Lyle would say) scheduled the next reunion.
No doubt taking into consideration that 18 members of the class are already holding their reunions at that big, exotic ballroom in the sky, the planners have already decided that the next one for those still hanging around these parts will be a dinner-only deal on the third Saturday in September, 2008, at the Clarion Hotel in Cedar Rapids.
Let’s hope everyone makes it, including Joe Pelisek. Furthermore, let’s hope ol’ Joe hasn’t run out of stories.
[The 1953 class of Wilson High School in Cedar Rapids has had an 11-year reunion, a 20-year reunion, a 40-year reunion and a 50-year reunion. "We were one year late for our tenth," it was pointed out by a member of the class. (Please, no jokes about what kind of math they had been teaching at Wilson, Ron Maly points out). Maly made it to only the 40-year reunion, which was held on a very hot July night at a Holiday Inn. He recalls having a very good time. Eighty-three other people attended that reunion. To e-mail Maly about class reunions or anything else, his address is firstname.lastname@example.org]
Vol. 4, No. 4
Jan. 17, 2004