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.
Late in the evening, the music comes on -- our music, pre-Beatles, pre-Stones, pre-heavy metal, pre-rap. The Searchers, Temptations, Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino ... the good, early stuff. It's close to midnight, later than many of us are used to staying up. Yet, we're reluctant to leave and say goodbye -- maybe for the last time -- to one another. Who else, after all, knew us when we were still unformed by time, on the brink of our lives?
The Platters' most famous song fills the ballroom, as if to answer: "Only You." The dance floor is crowded with couples. Some first danced together when those sounds were brand-new. The couples' glow lights us all, reminds us of that innocent time when high school love was supposed to last forever. And sometimes actually did.
Bob and Jane Lanham head the reunion committee and have served as dedicated class archivists, keeping up with an extremely thorough alumni database. Welcoming everyone, they radiate a strong sense of connectedness. Bob is rounder than he was in high school, while Jane is one of the rare ones, still slim, still brunette, instantly recognizable.
They fell in love near the end of senior year. She, then Jane Gholson, was asked to read a paper she'd written about English tea houses to another English class; their eyes met, and it was kismet. Or so Bob recalls.
Actually, it took some orchestration.
"I noticed him right away," Jane says. "The teacher asked if I'd like to stay for the rest of the period. I said yes and went and sat behind him. I thought he looked familiar, and when I got home, it dawned on me. He worked at the grocery store."
After school, Jane immediately ran to the store: "I went through the line. There he was. He had no chance."
Their first date was the following weekend, a picnic at Great Falls, "a perfect day," Bob remembers. "That May day, I knew I had found my love."
They were together from then on.
"We were different in many ways but complemented each other," he says. "She was in the top 20 percent of our class; I wasn't. She was involved in clubs and school activities; I wasn't. I was a very self-conscious guy. But she gave me confidence."
Jane saw something special in Bob. "He wasn't full of himself like most of the boys seemed to be," she recalls.
They married in August 1962, had their first son a year later, their second a year after that. Their daughter was born in 1970. "We finally showed a little restraint," Jane jokes.
Bob worked in finance; Jane taught preschool for several years, then ran the computer lab in an elementary school. They lived in Vienna for 37 years, relocating to North Carolina in 2005 to be near their daughter. They have five grandchildren.
There have been low points, of course. At 5, their older son suffered a rare form of meningitis that kept him in the hospital for weeks and left him with a hearing problem; their daughter survived a terrible car accident. "But we've always been in step as to what to do and how to care for our children," Jane says.
The cataclysmic societal changes of the past 50 years had little effect on them, Bob says. "I think we just rolled with the punches, accepted things, moved on."
Lynne Vogel and John Wood met at an auspicious moment -- the night Sputnik was launched in October 1957.
John and several friends dropped by a slumber party, and Lynne was there. She was wearing a red sweater; "You Are My Special Angel" was playing in the background.
"I can't believe you remember that," Lynne marvels.
"I had never seen her around school before, but after that, I kept running into her," John says.
Of course, there was a reason for that: Lynne had looked up his schedule and began purposely bumping into him in the hall. It worked. The two were married in December 1962 and spent several years in starving-grad-student mode: John working toward his doctorate in physics at Virginia Tech, while Lynne, a math major (and one of those National Merit finalists; John was a near miss), got a job with the U.S. Army.
John was hoping to work in the space program (that Sputnik launch had made an impression), but "he got his doctorate the year the space program was scrapped," Lynne says. He ended up at the University of Southern Mississippi, in the physics department.
The couple spent five years in Mississippi. Lynne hated every minute.
"John is happy wherever he goes. But I didn't care for it. Very hot, humid ... a very closed and backward, prejudiced society." Their son reported seeing Ku Klux Klan sheets hanging in the closet at a friend's house. When Lynne campaigned for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, the butcher refused to cut meat for her. She was thrilled when they left for Texas, just outside Dallas. John went to work for the Department of the Interior, and Lynne worked in data processing.
Lynne says two things helped their marriage. Both of their mothers worked, which gave them a healthy paradigm -- shared responsibilities around the house -- to follow in their own home. And John's mother was a terrible cook. "I never got that good myself, but the bar was so low!"
There was another factor, too. Early in their marriage, Lynne was trying to use a Tupperware device she had bought for taking lumps out of gravy. She shook it, and a few drops of gravy flew out. John, watching her, snorted. Instantly, Lynne tore open the container and dumped the remaining gravy over his head.
"Some time later, she served fish sticks that were still frozen in the middle. I kept quiet," John muses (eventually, Lynne noticed the frozen fish herself). "This is probably the answer to why we're still married. I don't say everything I think anymore."
Together, they raised a son and a daughter. "One's a starving artist, the other, an anesthesiologist," Lynne says. "I tell people they average out to normal."
They also have two granddaughters.
Gay Calloway was a very pretty and popular girl back in the day -- always laughing. But that was not the whole story.
"I was a really unhappy little girl," she recalls. Her parents had seen their lives collapse before she was born: Her father's lumber company went bankrupt, and their first baby died. They relocated to Washington, taking jobs with the government, hoping to change their luck. But both became alcoholics and died young.
"God decided since I had a childhood like that, things would be different the rest of my life," Gay says. "All I wanted was a happy family."
She met Bill Yelverton at her church when she was 10; they started dating in fall of their senior year. He made her laugh and still does.
"My husband is a very funny man, and the kids [two girls, two boys, eight grandkids] are funny and successful. They never burned it up in the grades department, but I didn't care. I wanted happy kids. A happy life."
Bill didn't burn it up in the grades department in high school, either, but he hit his stride later, eventually becoming chief executive at New York Life. Gay was a corporate wife, she says, and perfectly happy with that role.
"People say, 'What have you done with your life?' I say, 'I've followed Bill.' But it's been a good life!"
Bill, now retired, still has some of the chief executive air about him -- he glances at his watch when being photographed at the reunion, as if another appointment is imminent. But in conversation, he shows a distinctly thoughtful side. "I'm fond of saying everything in my life is former," he says of retirement. "You have a car, a driver, a helicopter, a plane -- and then it goes. And the day it goes, it is flat over, all of a sudden."
His work life was akin to that portrayed in "Mad Men," he says, especially during the years he commuted into New York City from Darien, Conn. "You walk in, people genuflect, and if you're really stupid, you start believing it."
His kids have asked him about his experience of the '60s. "My answer is, we missed it. I was just trying to make a living; Gay wasn't burning her bra. We had values; we pretty much did what we were told. A lot of what I am comes from the values of church, school, parents."
Bill had been a popular athlete in high school, with scores of friends. At the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, though, he found himself on the sidelines. "Nobody gave a damn one way or the other," he says. Then, Gay came down for a visit, and his stock shot up considerably. "I was much more successful the moment she walked in," he recalls.
Bill pauses, reflecting. "You don't stay married to anyone 45 years without issues," he says. "But we've been pretty lucky."
The couple divide their time between Arlington and Spring Island, S.C., where Bill plays golf "as much as I can." Gay isn't much good at it, but, as always, she often accompanies him.
Bob Murphy is a scientist, and so it seemed quite natural to him to approach marriage the way he does everything else: rationally.
By college, it was clear to him that he should marry Nancy Hybner, whom he'd known since fifth grade. They had been in the high school band together, and both played French horn. They attended different colleges but often exchanged letters and spent good pal times together. One day, while the two were sitting on a hill at Georgetown University, where he was taking a summer course, Bob laid out his future, a gracious life spent in some sheltered grove of academe. But there was one subject he didn't broach: his intentions to marry Nancy.
"I couldn't figure out a way to get this thing started," he says.
Finally, while visiting her at the University of North Carolina, he knew he had to make his move. But putting his arm around her was too much of a risk. "I could've gotten slapped," he says.
Instead, he used logic: "I presented her with my engineering analysis of the situation. I said I thought we should get married, and it would be necessary to date first."
Her reaction was dropped-jaw shock. "Are you out of your mind?" she asked.
Bob shrugs. He still sees nothing odd about his method. "I am a consummately rational creature," he offers.
Nancy scoffs at that. "Nothing he's said gives any evidence or credence to that statement," she says.
But his campaign worked. "I don't know, it just seemed ... reasonable," Nancy recalls. They had known each other 13 years, after all (when their kids announced their plans to marry people they'd known only two or three years, the parents were taken aback).
"Of course, he totally pulled the wool over my eyes about our future life," Nancy adds. "That conversation at Georgetown? Nothing was mentioned about moving eight times in eight years, him flying to Russia 30 times, going to Africa, getting caught up in a revolution, camping out in the bush, eating raw fish. ... I do feel I was somewhat misled. But I've done things no way in the world I would've done if I hadn't married Bob."
The couple lived in Cleveland, then Hawaii, where Bob, working on a post-doctorate in astrophysics, managed the observatory at Mauna Kea. They settled in Towson, where they remain. He served as executive director of the Maryland Science Center.
Most of his career, though, has been at NASA, in scientific management -- "a perfect environment for someone who's energetic, bright and doesn't like to do things to completion," he says.
Much of Nancy's work has been with teens at their church. They have a daughter, a son and two granddaughters. Both Bob and Nancy say they were determined to set a better example of marriage for their offspring than what each of them witnessed as children.
"I came out from my parents' broken marriage with a vow: It was not going to happen to me," Bob says. "I took very seriously the idea of having a sacred commitment."
Nancy was just as resolute. "I don't remember my parents ever really having conversations," she says.
Now, people often ask the couple how they have stayed together. "I say things that irritate you the first 20 years become funny around the 25th year, and really important, absolutely essential at 35," Nancy says. "So just hang in."
Oh, and Bob's scientific detachment isn't all that impermeable, either. At their wedding, he admits, he was the one who cried. Not a full sobfest, but there were actual tears.
Nancy seemed like a vision of beauty and tranquillity, walking down the aisle, he says. The tranquillity part he's had occasion to doubt over the years, he jokes. But not the beauty.
Judy Oppenheimer is a freelance writer based in Washington. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.