Still Going Steady: High School Sweethearts After 50 Years

A study in sweethearts: 36 members of the Washington-Lee High School Class of 1959 married each other. Nearly all have stayed together.

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By Judy Oppenheimer
Sunday, December 13, 2009

It's a cool night in early October when about 200 members of the Class of 1959 from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington -- nearly a third of the class -- gather for our 50th reunion.

At first, we're all milling around outside the ballroom at the Key Bridge Marriott. The lights seem exceptionally bright, but I realize they are glinting off what appears to be a solid mass of white hair. That's what hits me first. We are, after all, 67 or 68 years old. This should come as no surprise. But, of course, it does. Experts say we all see ourselves as at least 10 years younger than our actual age, but when it comes to high school reunions, we can't help expecting to see the faces we remember from that time -- in this case, a half-century ago.

Washington-Lee has received some attention over the years as the alma mater of entertainers Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty and Sandra Bullock. No one in our class achieved that kind of fame. We turned out a number of physicists, pastors, businessmen, teachers and career servicemen; one lobster fisherman, one sheep farmer, one felon (pederasty); a few professors, a handful of writers (including Tom DeBaggio, a local herbalist, who has written two books about his struggle with Alzheimer's); two artists, two musicians, two psychologists; a smattering of doctors, nurses and lawyers; and one service member who died in Vietnam -- Nick Krimont, a lovely guy everyone liked. No actors, no one famous.

There was, however, one thing exceptionally notable about us: the rate at which we married each other. Thirty-six members of our class married a fellow classmate. Three matches ended in divorce; one with the death of the wife. But 14 of the marriages are still thriving. When you include the union that ended in death, that's a marital success rate of 83 percent, significantly higher than the oft-quoted 50 percent national average.

Our high school years marked the heyday of marriage between high school sweethearts. The routine from courtship to the altar was set in stone and could involve as many as four pieces of jewelry, all hers: You dated, then went steady and wore a friendship ring on a chain around your neck; then you were possibly pinned with his fraternity emblem (though this practice was falling off a bit); then engaged; then married. And all by age 22.

"A traditional time," family psychologist Jessica Lippman, a classmate who lives in Chicago, says of those years. (She remembered almost no one in our class and had no intention of attending the reunion.)

"This was before divorce exploded in our society," she says. "No one lived together. The expectation was that people would marry, raise families. My guess is: These were all people with shared values."

Was Tolstoy right? Are all happy families alike? A large number of the classmates who married each other were among the brightest in our class. Five were National Merit finalists; several others missed that distinction by only a point or two. The couples include three physicists, several CPAs, at least five PhDs.

But the 1960s ushered in a generation of rebellion and change on all fronts. Not one member of Washington-Lee's Class of 1969 married another classmate (though three of them did marry people in other classes), according to the school's alumni database. The Class of 1979 spawned seven classmate marriages, but none came out of the classes of 1989 or 1999.

For better or worse, hardly anyone finds a lifelong love in high school these days.

"They tend to fan out and seek their fortunes, have adventures," says Pepper Schwartz, sociology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and AARP's relationship expert.

But on that cool night in October, my classmates and I traveled back to 1959.


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