Reunions: Homecoming, Togetherness and Perspectives
– An essay by Bill Sullivan, Class of ‘80
The Class of 80 held its 35th Reunion last summer on August 14 and 15, 2015. Our celebration of togetherness was hosted by co-chairs Stefany Reed and Donna Nell Overton, along with committee members Maria Bennett and Chuck Wheeler. As has become tradition with our class, festivities began on Friday morning at Waveland Golf Course. Maria led an avid 12 players in a tournament with prizes offered by local businesses. But what was not so traditional this time, is that Maria was able to keep classmates advised of the progress of the tournament via social media. I was ducking the 95-degree heat by enjoying peach ice cream at Bauder’s when I learned who the stroke leaders were on my phone. Shortly thereafter on Friday night, our class gathered at Wellman’s Pub for an evening of catching up, renewing old bonds, and forming new ones. Saturday morning brought our tour of Roosevelt, which this time was followed by a South-of-Grand neighborhood walk hosted by Chuck Wheeler. Festivities concluded joyously on Saturday evening with a dinner and dance at the Wakonda Club, an event that was all the more special because it was held in an enclave not open to many of us during our formative years. Cutting through old mysteries can often be a reunion theme, and this was an especially lovely mystery for many of us to put an end to. A special thanks is owed to Bill Brenton for helping our class find such a special place to hold our formal gala, and to our reunion co-chairs for their tireless organizing and menu planning for our most memorable evening.
But while a recitation of reunion facts may be useful for journalistic purposes, it merely provides a frame of reference for the experience itself. Our reunion, like many reunions, was filled with many emotions, numerous themes and ideas. Together, we found meaning, feeling and many discussions as to why it is important for us to keep having reunions. Perhaps the very first observation that many of us have often made came on Friday night at Wellman’s. Over the years, we have frequently complained that reunions merely focus upon one class at a time. Yet, the reality is that many of our most precious high school memories center around classmates from other years close to us. Immediately, we were all grateful for the presence of Clare Wuellner (’83), Shelly Reed Thieman (’81), and Steve Higgins (’81). Now, if only, we thought, we could enjoy the company of more classmates from 1978 through 1983 – and not just on Facebook.
And then there is the confident adult social energy that we can now bring to reunions in our maturity. Kirby Davidson captured this aspect of reunion most effectively when he said, “Now that we are adults, we can be ourselves. We have become who we are and we no longer have anything to prove. Cliques have dissolved and we can all just show how much we care about each other, how lucky we were to have all grown up together, and how this has made us better people throughout our entire lives.” Kirby’s words proved prophetic throughout our entire charmed weekend together. Currents of affection flowed not only between old friends, but just as importantly between classmates who are just coming to appreciate each other for the very first time. As I have noticed at each of our reunions since our tenth, our gatherings help to reaffirm, renew, and strengthen old bonds that have helped to form the very core of who we are as adults. This empowers attendees to return to their adult lives around the country with a renewed sense of energy and purpose – as if we had attended a spiritual retreat. For those who are reaffirming friendships with old or new friends, the reunion experience can be a deeply nourishing and centering experience. Nothing, aside from ties within our own families, can exceed the value or importance of this, for the people that we grew up were so vital in helping us to form, and have therefore become a part of an extended family for us. And when reunions help us to form friendships with classmates that we never knew, our ability to grow in our appreciation of our roots can be broadly and deeply rewarding. Of course, as is often mentioned by reunion doubters, there are those of us for whom high school may not have been a happy time. Over the years, as I have attended my TRHS reunions, the Class of ’80 has constantly impressed me in its ability to be warmly welcoming and supportive of classmates who may not have found their high school years to be the most fun. I was one of those classmates. And for myself and others like me, Reunions have become a healing experience that have helped to bring overdue growth and fulfillment to inner gaps from long ago. As I have talked with friends from around the world in my adult life, I have heard varying stories about their reunion experiences from wherever they call home. But the TRHS Class of 80 has always distinguished itself by offering a warm welcome home to all of its classmates.
As we gathered at Wellman’s Pub, we were once again joined by classmate, David Higgins. Having recurring roles on three major sitcoms over the past 25 years, Dave has become one of the most successful comedy actors in Hollywood today. If there was a Smithsonian for comedy series episodes, Dave’s appearance in the historic Ellen DeGeneres coming- out episode, the “Puppy Episode” of April 30, 1997, would most surely be included. During the next decade, many classmates followed Dave on “Malcom in the Middle” for several years. And most recently, Dave’s role in “Mike and Molly” also brought him together with one of his own brothers – producer and TRHS alum, Al Higgins. One of the most memorable reunion moments for me came at Wellman’s when Dave had a very long conversation with his TRHS English teacher, Art Holcomb. After all of his decades of success, Dave shows no ego at our reunions. Instead, on our night at Wellmans, he showed only appreciation and gratitude towards a beloved TRHS faculty member, just as he always does towards his all of his classmates. Dave values that Art Holcomb’s commitment to the principles of education has helped to make him the successful Hollywood actor that he has become. As I glanced over at the two of them talking several times, I kept thinking that there has to be a teachable moment here that all TRHS alumni can benefit from.
Shortly after Dave showed up, we were also joined by his Dave’s brother, Steve Higgins (’81). As the producer of Saturday Night Live for over 15 years, and now also the co host of “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” Steve has become a late night television figure of historic stature. Steve has become part of the firmament of entertainment stars that have distinguished themselves both in front of, and behind, the camera. Steve also joined our 20th reunion in 2000. Over the years, when I have seen our beloved “Higgins boys” at our reunions, I like to recall a favorite lesson from my junior high school idol, fellow Midwesterner, President Harry S. Truman. Truman often said that one of the truest signs of greatness in a successful man is that he never forgets who he is, or where he came from. And Dave, Steve and Al Higgins have come home to their beloved Iowa – often. Every spring, Dave returns to give back to his home state by appearing as a cast member in the telethon for “Variety, the Children’s Charity of Iowa.” In regards to Steve, one piece of gossip that is worthy of repeating – because I suspect it to be true – is that Steve likes to return to Iowa because he gains strength from being reminded of the nice people that he grew up with. In fact, I believe that is why many of us Roughriders also enjoy returning to Iowa and attending our TRHS reunions. And from our perspective as classmates who appreciate the entertainment that Dave, Steve and Al have given the world over the years, our message for the “Higgins boys” is simple: we would have loved you guys even if you hadn’t become so successful. We’ll forever be your homies – always.
Friday night at Wellman’s also brought to light another dimension of the reunion experience: sub reunions for members of student groups from our high school years. Many of us had our most important high school experiences not just within the classroom, but through the many student activities by which we expressed ourselves in the arts, athletics and clubs. Professional cellist Prudence McDaniel, and opera and choral director Jeffrey Jones Ragona, both made the long drive from Texas so that they could take part in a reunion of former orchestra members. I felt fortunate to be invited to join them next door to Wellman’s at Eatery A later in the evening. On Sunday morning, the orchestra group once again gathered for a farewell brunch which ended with a group plea for more orchestra reunions in the future.
Over the years, for many of us, returning for reunions has meant taking a vacation from our lives in the many parts of the country that we now call home. For me, reunion began on the tarmac at Burbank Airport here in Las Angeles, as a classmate and I exchanged loving and supportive messages. Then, a few hours later, as my connecting flight soared off the runway in Las Vegas and arced up over the Grand Canyon, a gentleman in the row ahead of me overheard me saying that I was on my way to my 35th TRHS reunion. He then announced that he was a member of the TRHS Class of ’75, and that he was on his way to his 40th. Next, his 1975 year book was handed over his seat to me, and I delighted in finding pictures of older siblings of my own Class of 80 friends, some of whom I was never even aware existed. “Thank you, and God Bless You,” I thought as I looked at pictures of an old next door neighbor and a babysitter, who’s more mature examples were role models to me in the context of what was then a more meaningful, five-year gap in our ages.
While reunions remind us that the past can be a fun and wonderful place, and that these memories won’t change, reunions can also remind us that in the present, we will indeed find change. As the Missouri River slid under our Southwest Airlines 737, within ten minutes, postage stamps of corn field were replaced by micro circuit boards of city. During the ‘70’s, Des Moines barely made it out to I-35 on what was then the far West Side. But “where was I-35?” I asked myself, as miles of city slid past my window, gently below. Then, the pilot slowed us down to what seemed like 200 knots at around 4,000 feet – standard hold protocol for larger, big city airports where planes must wait their turn to land. Could it be that Des Moines airport, which I would soon learn is now an international airport, has gotten busier? Next, a huge shopping mall with a fountain slid under the plane. “Jordan Creek?” I wondered, having heard of this relatively new and exciting shopping center that overshadowed Merle Hay and the now defunct South Gate, the gallant malls of our day. Finally, after nearly 5 minutes of city, there was I-35. “Oh, my,” I thought to myself. “Des Moines has really grown.” The pilot started my homecoming landing with a slow speed crawl up the 235 past TRHS and downtown, before a hairpin turn around the east side of America’s greatest state capitol building. Wakonda Golf Course, where we would have our reunion dinner, and which was never in an approach pattern in the 70’s, welcomed us in for our landing. As I landed, reunion was already reminding me of converging themes – while the cherished memories that shall forever nourish us are well worth celebrating and drawing strength from, those memories come from a city that is constantly growing and changing. That growth and change flows from the very vitality that once made Des Moines so special for us over a generation ago, and continues to make our city special to this day. Great cities are like great individual people – they are constantly evolving in their vitality, and constantly nourishing those in their presence.
There is also something special about coming home to the center of America. Following our 30th reunion in 2010, I commented in my Facebook album that “After 25 years of California sage brush and ranch homes, the deep woods and European elegance of many homes around Des Moines seemed like a fairy tale to me. It was then that I realized that I was vacationing in my own home town.” Returning to Iowa is indeed, always special. It means returning to a part of America often referred to throughout our great country as “the heartland.” For our 35th reunion, I was touched when our co-chair, Stefany Reed, asked if a picture that I took of Roosevelt during a visit in 2013 could be used as our reunion logo. “Of course,” I said gladly, feeling happy that there was some small way in which I could help. When I posted this picture in 2013, and tagged a few hundred TRHS alumni in four repostings on Facebook, I wrote this essay about the centrality of Roosevelt. I wonder if it reflects how other Roughriders that have moved on to other cities feel about both Roosevelt and Iowa – that both are in the center of country and our hearts:
Roosevelt High School – the Cosmic Center of Truth: Along with lunch, Randy took me on a driving tour of my old home town. One of our stops was at the world’s greatest high school, Theodore Roosevelt High School. To this day, it remains firmly anchored in the upper tier of all American schools in terms of scored educational quality. Ever since I was a child, I have always entertained the very naïve notion that any school of mine was at the center of the universe (accept for junior high school, of course, which is not at the center of anyone’s anything). I suppose that any quest for knowledge always seems to be in the center of everything. But Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa may have an actual case for being at the Center of the Universe: for Roosevelt is in the center of the city, in the center of the state, in the center of America, which seems to be at the center of the world over the past century or so. And, until life is discovered on other planets, the world will remain at the center of the universe (in the sense of living consciousness, and discounting the Big Bang Theory, of course, which states that the center of the universe is somewhere about 20 galaxies to the left of the Milky Way). And while some may argue that the center of America technically falls somewhere in southeast Kansas (probably on a farm), in the spiritual sense, I believe that Iowa is more at the center of America’s soul. And it is this heartfelt, spiritual, inner definition of centrality that forms what it truly means to be centered, and therefore – matters most. Roosevelt High School is, therefore, at the Center of the Soul of the Universe.
I rest my case.
But this centrality about Roosevelt is something far more important than mere geographical centrality. For it refers to the center of the human heart itself, and to the special values that we follow as Americans, and that make coming from Iowa special in its own way. Over the past three and a half decades, as I have lived in Los Angeles amidst other peoples from around the world, I have been deeply fulfilled by appreciating the many cultures of our planet. But I have also felt deep pride in sharing the values of my own Iowa culture with immigrants from every continent on this earth, as well. For me, sharing Iowa values have included simple things like smiling warmly and saying hi to people as I walk past them; to more advanced issues, such as being a caring and supportive neighbor and friend; to possessing a strong work ethic and core set of principals centered around compassion, unity, tolerance and honesty. To this day, I proudly tell people in Los Angeles that in 1979, a mostly white student body at TRHS elected a black homecoming queen during a time when many Americans were still deeply divided. This was a powerful example to me during my formative years, and was just one aspect of my Iowa heritage that helped me do well as I met people from around the world in the decades that followed.
As I arrived at TRHS on Saturday morning for our alumni tour, I was immediately impressed by how the beauty and grandeur of our school has remained unspoiled across the decades. The façade of Teddy’s House still reigns in stately elegance above the great lawn in front of it. The beautiful brass engravings of Teddy’s victory as the original Roughrider at San Juan Hill still adorn the front foyer. Entering the newly restored auditorium, principle Kevin Biggs addressed the Class of ‘80 regarding the current state of affairs at our beloved alma mater. At our most recent TRHS graduation, the flags of 22 nations graced the stage in representation of a much more diverse student body than we ever knew during our time as students. For us, it was a landmark event in our senior year in 1980 when Des Moines finally had a Chinese restaurant. I fondly recall leading a student event for my Asian Studies class , with teacher Keith Carlson, to eat there in the spring that Jimmy Carter defeated Ted Kennedy for the Democratic nomination. My desire for a more international environment was part of what called me away to the Big City all those decades ago. How heartening it was for me at our 35th reunion to see that Des Moines, with its now “International Airport,” is coming to join the world community.
Strolling the halls brought back more revelations of things past and present. Our once valiant awards case has now swollen considerably with still more Roughrider triumphs in both athletics and academics. The once beloved “Little Theater” is now the Myron Blank Theater, and is fully equipped to give present day drama students the most state of the art experience possible. The art room remains in its romantic, loft-like location on the upper level of the school. As skylights continue to stream heavenly light in for young Roughrider artists, the allusion to the creative lofts of the great Parisian artists has not been lost. The classroom is now one of the few that still features a now old fashioned chalkboard alongside a contemporary “HDMI” console. In the eastern wing, our band now has a beautiful practice room all for itself, and the orchestra enjoys a beautiful rehearsal facility. Athletics have also been beautifully updated. Marvin Pomerantz, father of our classmate, Lori Pomerantz, gave a landmark gift to our athletics program, and today the entire gym is named in his honor. Future generations of Roughriders will forever celebrate every basket that is scored, and every stride towards victory, while looking up and seeing the Pomerantz name adorning our court of glory. Lori and her father were recognized at our formal dinner on Saturday night.
As we walked our beloved old halls that morning, there was one image that struck a very special place for me. My years at TRHS were deeply influenced by my involvement in our drama club. For two years, after class, I would join my fellow thespians for rehearsal in the auditorium, which has now been named for one of its most illustrious alumna, Cloris Leachman. Each day after class, our view of an empty auditorium from that great stage became our rehearsal view. Standing on that empty stage that reunion morning, and once again beholding that view of an empty auditorium, brought back a flood of feelings and experiences for me. In memory of that special rehearsal view, I took a picture of it as it appeared that morning, and wrote this tribute to share on Facebook:
An empty theater is to an actor or musician what a blank canvas to an artist. Through long rehearsals, actors work through scripts preparing what they will project in to this space, and in to the consciousness of their audience. It is in the magic of this vast, empty space that many of the young actors at Roosevelt who go on to careers in entertainment, first experience the growing process of rehearsal. For our class, it was here during afternoons long after other students had gone home, that young actors would hone the skills of their craft and gain confidence as communicators of a great art form. I shall never forget the time that I first experienced the excitement of this empty theater view. It was my first rehearsal for my very first student production in September of 1978. A small group of us had to learn a set of songs from the 1890’s, which included gems like “After the Ball is Over” and “Bicycle Built For Two”, to be included as a prelude to our production of “Pure as the Driven Snow.” I was sitting on the edge of the stage when Heather Stanfield Anderson (’79) and Carol Blome (’79) walked to the front of the stage from behind the curtain. As Heather stepped through the curtain she looked up and beheld this view. “The aud….,” Heather said to Carol in loving reverence with a soft smile. “I know,” replied Carol, as she smiled back. I shall never forget the happy, yet reverential tone in Heather’s voice. Captivated by the simple power of their words, I have never forgotten them. But I was every bit as captivated by the silence that followed, as we all looked towards the empty theater in admiration. For in its magic, we knew that many special experiences were in store – both with drama, and with dramatists; and with music, and with musicians. And on a deeper level, perhaps we knew that as actors we would work hard to liberate the meanings and messages of playwrights, so that drama could do what it is meant to do – to unify all people across all time and all space, in laughter and in sorrow – and in so doing, to make us all more complete as human beings. And yet, during our student years, it often seemed like it was the fun that pulled us along through the long hours of our preparations. It was as if many of us were only subtly aware of the profundity dwelling in our theater’s magic. But throughout my adult life I have come to believe that that is often the case with young artists. Education in the performing arts pulls students along in the right direction, so they can be in a better position to appreciate the deeper realizations that for some may only come years later. So this theater view seems even more special and more magical today. It is the sacred reminder of the many brilliant performances that followed for us, and shall follow for Roosevelt students in years yet to come.
-With affection and respect for all of our classmates who have devoted themselves to careers in the performing arts, and to those who participated in drama and music at Roosevelt – all of whom were forever enriched by these experiences in all that they have accomplished in life.
Just as every reunion tour of Roosevelt has brought revelations about the special quality of our school, every return to TRHS over past years has also brought new revelations about the high quality of life in our hometown as a whole, and the remarkable achievements of our classmates beyond graduation. This special energy can be found not only at Roosevelt itself, but in the neighborhoods that surround and contribute to our great school. When I returned for our 30th Reunion in 2010, I felt so inspired by the energy of the community around Roosevelt, that I wrote these words for a Facebook essay:
….thank you Roosevelt High School for giving us an education, arts and athletics – with parents teachers and a community that cared for us. Thank you most of all for giving us each other. Many of our classmates want what you gave us for their children – and for their children’s children. Bill Lange (RHS ’78) mentioned that he can recall when these trees were still in pots. One of the neat things about returning to Des Moines is that I can remember when so many trees, including one in my old front yard on Lincoln Pl Dr, were just saplings. They seem like a living metaphor for how so many of us who were once small, have now grown to achieve our own forms of stature. We recognize in our shock of how much those trees have changed, how much we ourselves have also changed. I was just remembering my visit to Roosevelt for reunion last summer. I was thinking about how when I drove through the neighborhoods around TRHS, that I noticed a magical, cultured feeling in the air similar to parts of Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles. Yet, I was amazed that I felt such Renaissance energy in an area so small, and so seemingly unnoticed by the bicoastal salons of cosmopolitanism. Then, I recalled how I had visited Florence, Italy years ago, and stood atop the hill, looking down upon the cradle of the Renaissance that had once changed the world. I was amazed at how tiny Florence is – such an intense concentration of amazing quality in an area the size of a blink of an eye. For, if one were to stand in the Piazza della Signoria in the center of Florence, and to draw a circle in a one-mile radius in all directions, every great Renaissance artist and thinker who changed history once lived and worked in that tiny little area. And then, my entire understanding of Roosevelt and Des Moines came to me: if one were to stand on the steps of TRHS, and were to draw a circle in a one-mile radius in all directions, so as to include the school districts of Franklin, Merrill and Callahan, another magical area would also be carved out. For from the small area served by Roosevelt, leaders demonstrating excellence in every profession have been sent forth to shape our world. Roosevelt produces leaders in business, government, law, finance, non profits, health care, entertainment and all fields. And especially those demonstrating excellence in the two most important professions of all: those of teaching and parenthood. With Roosevelt, so much comes from a magical place, as small as a jewel. And so it is with our Roosevelt, our Des Moines – our own Florence, our own Renaissance. I only wish that I could tag more than fifty people to a picture. For each of the over 400 members of our class and other classes is a Roosevelt Renaissance person, and my friendships and associations with each of you have given me a strength that has shaped and formed me throughout all of my days. My words are inspired by each and every one of you.
And for our 35th Reunion, the community surrounding Roosevelt is thriving more than ever. In celebration of the greater Roosevelt community, committee member Chuck Wheeler led any willing reunion attendee on a neighborhood walk of the area surrounding Roosevelt immediately after our school tour. Starting on the Roosevelt front lawn, Chuck led his Roughriders down Polk Blvd, with its two-sided, stately elegance, to the Des Moines Art Center, which has grown considerably with new wings over the years. Classmates socialized in the Rose Garden while posing for group pictures, before heading down the hill towards an eerie sight – a drained Greenwood Lagoon, seemingly under some sort of repair with a large steel pipe resembling a drain in its mud encrusted middle. We could only hope that it would be refilled with water in time for the winter ice skating that once graced so many of our childhoods. From there, Chuck led his band of Roughriders up the steps to Greenwood Drive. As we then entered the residential part of our tour, Chuck led us through heavenly streets with the beautiful architecture that makes the South of Grand one of the best kept secrets in all of the Midwest. Chuck even arranged for a water and rest station at the home of Tom Donnelly (’78) on Foster Drive. Tom was a great host to us battle-ready Roughriders, providing ice chests full of water to both cool and empower our determined platoon. Then, at our most triumphant moment, and in respect to the uphill charging Teddy Roosevelt himself, Chuck challenged his 53-year-old classmates to a roller coaster of climbs and descents: first up 30th, then down 29th, and then all the way up from the very bottom to the very top of 28th St – which may well be the longest and steepest hill in all of Des Moines. As we sweated and huffed up this cardiac ridge, I began to see the genius in Chuck’s conception for this event: as reunions are meant to mark the passing of age, why not create an event that forces us to DEFY age?! “Pure brilliance,” I thought, as victory at the summit near Grand Avenue loomed ahead of us. Indeed, my classmates were so committed to the principles of good health, that they couldn’t even entertain my suggestion that we hold a victory celebration with Bauders homemade ice cream. I immediately wondered if other classes might accept Chuck’s 28th Street Challenge at their own reunions. How healthy, both physically and even more psychologically, to remind our fellow Roughriders that a good part of what we regard as aging can be well managed, and to a some extent conquered, through proper diet, exercise and outlook. Chuck is a reunion genius.
Chuck did a marvelous job leading our neighborhood walk. Yet, there is another aspect of Chuck’s leadership that makes Chuck special to me, and I believe, to all of us in the Class of ‘80. Reunions have a way of making us think about classmates who have achieved success in the most commonly recognized terms. Aside from Dave Higgins with his entertainment success, our reunion was also attended by Mark Jacobs, a retired Fortune 500 CEO, who recently made a run for Iowa’s US Senate seat. But reunions also need to remind us that not all success is to be measured in terms of career. Chuck Wheeler is a hero to me, and I believe to many of our classmates, because he has become a reminder of the Midwestern values that make coming from Iowa so special. Chuck is a man who has been successful in life not because of the screens he has graced or the boardrooms he has sat in, but because he has been devoted to his family, loyal to his friends, and honorable, caring and decent in all that he has done. Chuck reminds us of what matters most in life – of the Midwestern values of caring and respect that make us all equal to one another – regardless of what we have accomplished in our careers. For when we all care about one another – and reunions bring this out in us – we can feel neither condescending nor inferior in regards to anyone else – regardless of our achievements, or lack of them. Because we have learned the value of caring and mutual respect, the Middle American values that we have carried throughout our adult lives have helped us to live with comfort and confidence, regardless of where our paths have taken us. Chuck reminds us all of our truest selves. And so I honor Chuck with this simple poem, which I shall post on Facebook and includes several classmates:
Chuck Wheeler – The Greatest Roughrider of Them All
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
And so it was in this spirit of unity and mutual affection that the Class of 80 assembled at Wakonda for our final celebration on Saturday night. Reunion co-chairs Stefany Reed and Donna Nell Overton presided over a lovely dinner and open bar in the glass walled ballroom overlooking the great golf course. Classmates mingled and shared stories. All of us sang “Happy Birthday” to Joel Bader (’81), who was the guest of Dana Mintzer Leman. Marvin Pomerantz and his daughter – our classmate – Lori, were honored with a toast for his gift for which the gymnasium has been named in his honor. And then came the dancing. Ours has always been a class that loves to dance. Many a talent graces our dance floor. But this year, it was Kirby Davidson and Sam McCrorey who were unrivalled in stealing the show. Like Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray (we can’t say who was who), Sam and Kirby moved in perfect synchronicity as one hoisted the other up off the floor, and then swirled the other around in midair. Theirs was yet another defiant declaration of youth by graying 53 year olds, which was every bit as rewarding in its youthful spirit. Our class continues its wonderful way of forgetting its age in many ways. And when we needed another $100 to keep the DJ until 11 pm, a classmate who wishes to remain anonymous stepped forward. And it was a great investment, as the last hour of dancing is often the best. For our finale, our classmates all joined hands in a circle to sway and sing along to “Piano Man” by Billy Joel. It was a joyous celebration of the loving energy that had brought all of us together from so many parts of the country, so far apart, to be renewed by feeling as one again. As the song, and our formal reunion ended, we knew that our mutual love for one another will always keep us close in spirit. Hugs and good-byes followed as we all expressed our gladness in having attended another reunion. As always, we missed those who never have. Reunions forever remind us of the closeness that we share, and in so doing, send us all back to our respective lives feeling renewed and refreshed until our next reunion calls us home. Reunion co-chair, Stefany Reed, captured the spirit of reunion perfectly with her own words a few weeks later:
Until the next time, keep on keeping on- do great things. If you ever have one of “those days,” smile…honk a Roosevelt Beep and remember, you’re a Roughrider- member of the Class of 1980!
Now, several months after our reunion, there are many things that I continue to recall as I look back. Many of our reunions include classmates reaffirming their shared, lifelong affection for one another. For me, one conversation with a friend ended with me saying “I love you,” to which the friend replied, “I love you more.” As I ended this treasurable conversation with a beloved classmate that I might not see again for another five years, I felt deeply nourished by those words spoken to me by one with whom I share such youthful ties. Moments like this justify the time and effort of these reunion vacations. I asked myself, “is there anything that could possibly have made this reunion any better?”
Actually, there is just one thing that might have made it better. As I heard TRHS principal Kevin Biggs describe today’s Roosevelt to our class, he spoke of the many wonderful programs offered for current students. But as my classmates and I wandered the halls on our Saturday morning tour – the halls, once teaming with life like a giant coral reef– were empty. I recalled my alumni trips to my college alma mater, The University of Chicago, and how excited and inspired we felt by seeing today’s students on campus. My fellow Chicago alumni and I said of the current students that “we love each and every one of them.” And so it occurred to me, that if my own TRHS classmates and I from the Classes of ’78-‘83 were to look in to the eyes of today’s current students and see the same spirit that once gave us our spark as Roughriders – that we would love each and every one of them, as well. But how would we deal with this inevitable feeling? For as a life lesson, I have often recalled the words of one of my favorite opera conductors, Sir Georg Solti, who states in his memoirs that “our children (or the younger generation) will never love us as much as we love them. In fact, they might not even understand our love.” But I have also learned a related life lesson – that younger people will respect our feelings, provided they sense our sincerity. And the venerable maestro makes a valid point. For if the alumni of the classes of ’78-’83 were to wander the halls of TRHS today, and tell the current students that we love each and every one of them – they might look at us rather oddly. In fact, they might just laugh us out the doors altogether. So it was then that I recalled another favorite life lesson: sometimes it’s more important to show people that we care for them not with our words – but with our actions. One of the celebrations in every reunion is the realization of how lucky we all are to have come from a school with parents, teachers, alumni and a community that cared for us. For our TRHS classes in the 1970’s, the older generation loved us as the younger generation, and because of how they showed that they cared, we were able to grow. They often never told us of their love with words. But we saw it through their actions towards us. And often those actions included financial support and donations towards Roosevelt so that we, as young Roughriders, could have the education and extracurricular programs that we needed in order to grow and pursue our dreams. And at our reunions, we learn that many of us did pursue our dreams, and we can trace a crucial part of our success back to a group of older adults in the greater TRHS community of alumni and friends that once cared for us many years ago – and that we did not even personally know. As I listened to Principal Biggs talk to us that morning, and I gazed up at the newly restored Cloris Leachman stage, I wished on the spot that I had become rich enough to write really large checks to Roosevelt so that today’s students could reach for their dreams as we once pursued ours. But alas I, like many of my other classmates, am more humble in my financial success, and so a more modest gift would suit my abilities. But yet another life lesson comes here, as well. For charitable giving is like voting in an election – every last gift counts, and enough small ones can still add up to a big victory. And still there comes yet another lesson from the world of philanthropy – that if a large enough percentage of alumni participate in making even a small gift, that percentage of participation could help a wealthier donor to see that Roosevelt is worthy of having a much larger check written for it by one who can afford it. But where were these current TRHS students to bring the bricks and mortar we were enjoying on our tour that morning – to life? Where were these current Roughriders to stir the same spirit within us that Roosevelt once nourished so that we, ourselves, could grow?
And so, as I ended my conversation with my alumni friend, and the phrase “I love you…I love you more,” echoed in through my head, I returned to the front of Roosevelt where our tour had begun – and there was my answer. Almost as if on cue, there appeared to be a current student perched upon one of the noble balustrades on Teddy’s front steps. The current student was a young woman. I approached cautiously. I didn’t want the site of an aging, unknown man to make her feel uncomfortable. But like all Roughriders, she is smart – my attempts to hide my gray hair with my baseball cap weren’t fooling her. As I drew closer, there was much more that caught my attention. This young woman appeared to be reading. She was engaged in actual reading, not video gaming or texting. She was attentive, silent, and thoughtful as she looked at the text that she was holding. I soon confirmed that this was not the passive flirtation with a video game that has been ruining the attention span of today’s youth. I often think of how the art of reading has been jeopardized by the mobile devices that have taken away the reflective solitude that we need in order to read well. This young woman seemed to understand the solitude needed in order to read and study. But I knew that if I opened with a philosophical remark to show my appreciation for this, that I might turn her away. So, I reached for a more standard opening. “Are you a current student here?” I asked. “Yes, I am about to start at Roosevelt as an incoming freshman for the class of 2019.” “That’s great!” I answered, genuinely excited. “I am also a Roughrider. I am here for my 35th Reunion with the Class of 1980. You probably weren’t even born then…” “No, I was born in 2001.” “Oh my,” I thought to myself. Today’s newest Roughriders weren’t just born in another century – they were born in a whole different millennium. “Are you excited?” I asked her. “Yes, I am very excited. I want to join the debate team,” she exclaimed. “How wonderful! When I was a student here, our debate team won state and national championships. I know that today one of our former debaters is an attorney, another is a doctor, and yet another, our valedictorian Kristin Kalsem, is very happy in her career as a law professor.” “That’s wonderful,” she replied, with wide, fascinated eyes. “That’s one of the many reasons that I want so much to pursue debate…” We continued to talk for several minutes. We talked about her interests and about her hopes and dreams as a new student at Roosevelt. When the conversation turned towards me, I explained why I have felt so motivated to return to Roosevelt for all of my reunions over these past four decades.
As I spoke with her, she came to remind me of the young women that I had grown up with at Roosevelt four nearly four decades ago. She is intelligent, articulate, confident, strong, compassionate and filled with dreams that connect an exciting future to educational opportunity. I realized that our newest Roughrider emanates a noble beauty that matters because it flows from a single, centralizing spirit of core values from deep within. I recognized this, in part, because it is not a new trait for Roughriders. This brand of beauty based upon inner substance was a powerful lesson about identity that the young women and men of the classes of ’78 through ’83 taught me decades ago. My female and male classmates continue to remind me of the importance of inner beauty as adults in our Facebook and reunion conversations decades later. As we spoke, it was so reassuring to me to find the same virtues that had once inspired me in my classmates long ago, still dwelling in the spirit of the youngest of all Roughriders. As we ended our talk I asked her name. “My name is Camryn Hoops,” she replied. “Camryn, would you mind if I took your picture? I have been asked to write an article about my reunion experience for the Roundup. I think the alumni would just love to meet you, if even just through a few words and a picture.” Surprisingly, she didn’t seem the least bit taken aback. Perhaps, as that life’s lesson had taught me, she respected my sincerity. As I said good-bye to Camryn, I thanked her and said, “perhaps, Camryn, when your experiences at Roosevelt have helped you to bond with the school and your classmates, you’ll return for your own 35th reunion, 39 years from now, and you’ll find the same sense of continuity in an as yet unborn Roughrider that I am finding in you now.” “That would be incredible,” she said, as she shrunk back to where she had been sitting and reading. Later, as I worked over the math in my head, I realized that if Camryn were to return in 39 years for her 35th reunion, and were to meet an incoming freshman in the year 2054, that that incoming freshman would be graduating from TRHS in the year 2058 – nearly a full century after the members of my Class of ’80 were born (b. 1961-62). And if 35 years ago doesn’t seem so far in the past, could 39 years in the future be that far away? We had best make the most of our lives while we can, I then thought – which only made me all the more glad for attending my reunions and renewing bonds with classmates I have known clear back to kindergarten.
And then, almost as soon as I had come, it was time for me to go. Time for me to leave my beloved old school and to head back towards my life in Los Angeles. Within 24 hours, our reunion would be over. My classmates and I that had moved away would all be leaving the home of our hearts, via what is now known as Des Moines International Airport, or on our interstate highways, and returning to the many cities that we have chosen to fulfill our individual adult identities in. As I strolled across the great Roosevelt lawn towards my rental car, I admonished myself – “remember, Mr. Writer, sometimes it is best for one generation to show its caring for the next generation through its actions – not its words.” There were so many qualities in this young woman so devoted to excellence that made me want to write a check to Roosevelt to help fund the debate team – or drama, art, science or athletics – or any program through which aspiring young Roughriders could grow and come to fulfill their many, varied and precious dreams. If only more alumni could meet Camryn and other current Roosevelt students. “Good parents…Camryn must have good parents,” I thought silently to myself. “Fine young people come from good parents and supportive communities,” I whispered to myself in my thoughts. “It all makes sense, just like it did in our class at Roosevelt 40 years ago,” I thought as I felt the grass crunch below my feet.
And then, one last reunion lesson came to me: the more we see that things have changed when we come to a reunion, the more we also see that things have remained the same. And often it’s the things that always remain the same that matter most. For over the decades, trees will grow taller, technology will evolve, and words and fashions will all change; but human relationships do not. Parents must still love their children. Communities must still care about their youth. Children will still dare to dream and in so doing, will grow to change the world in countless, wonderful ways. But our ability to bring about positive change in the world will always flow from our ability to support one another, and our young, in particular. As I walked away from this youngest of Roughriders, I realized that perhaps there is hope. Perhaps the future really will be better than the past. If we can continue to support our young people and their education and activities, then perhaps the riddles of the universe will someday be solved. Challenges of science, business, art and society will continue to be conquered. Perhaps Roosevelt, with its students from 22 different counties, will promote the human values that will someday bring our planet together, and will render the borders that separate the nations of the world as meaningless. Perhaps in this better future that begins with education, peace really can win out against all odds. Maybe the world may someday be a more peaceful, cooperative, prosperous and loving place. At last, my purpose in reunion had been fulfilled. As I opened the car door, I took one last glance back towards this youngest of Roughriders. She had returned to her reading. There she sat, in her silence and thoughtfulness – perched on the bow of the Great Ship Roosevelt, as it sailed her forward into the future’s vast blue sea.
– Bill Sullivan
Class of ‘80
Los Angeles, CA