They were the boys of summer in 1929 - the 49 brightest high-school graduates in the country - who stood on the sweeping, sun-drenched lawn of Thomas Alva Edison on a high August afternoon 50 years ago and shook hands with Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone.
Seventeen of them returned to the same lawn on the same kind of day yesterday - the brightest and the best half a century ago, now grandfathers with pensions and liver spots - drawn by the curiosity and need to belong that fuels all reunions.
"Ford and Edison had a high-kick contest," recalled William Evans, who represented Texas in the Edison Scholarship contest that year. "They were over there on the lawn. Ford won, as I remember. He was a younger man than Edison. I think it was Ford's 74th birthday. Edison was in his 80s."
"I came from Utah," added Edward Eardley, one of the organizers of yesterday's events. "I couldn't get over seeing all of the servants in uniform running around. I'd never seen anything like that before."
It was Eardley and Robert Rawlins, originally from South Dakota, who thought up the idea earlier this year of assembling all the original 49 candidates for the short-lived Edison Scholarship for a reunion. (The contest ended after two years in 1930 when Edison died and the Depression was born.)
"I served on the committee for my high-school 50th reunion, and I remembered that it has been 50 years since the contest here had taken place," Rawlins said. "Eardley was the secretary of the '49 Club", as we call ourselves, and I decided to get in touch with him. The fourth "Eardley" I called in the Salt Lake City phone book was a relative of his, and I finally tracked him down in Annandale, Va."
With help from the Charles Edison Fund and a good deal of detective work, Rawlins and Eardley located all the surviving members of the original 49. The money problems that confront the elderly in this country living on fixed incomes stopped many from returning, though. Some had other commitments. Still others didn't feel they had measured up to the expectations they acquired half a century ago.
"A couple of guys haven't realized their life ambitions and chose not to come," Eardley said. "One had a lot of marital problems, and I guess he felt that he had failed in that part of his life."
Those who did appear in West Orange, N.J., for the two-day event said that they never felt any particular pressure to succeed, despite the limelight 50 years ago. That, perhaps, is why most of them did succeed, in unspectacular fields like chemical and electrical engineering.
Eardley, for example, was chief engineer in the Division of Power of the Department of the Interior before forming his own consulting company. Roy Power, who now lives in Arlington, Va., was chief scientist for the now-defunct Ordnance Corps within the Department of Defense.
The third Washington area resident participating in the reunion is Wilbur Huston, the winner of the 1929 competition. Huston spent 30 years in government, rising to project manager of the Nimbus meteorology-satellite program of NASA before retiring in 1974.
"Who can say what this did to my life?" observed Huston, now a Bowie, Md., resident and a consultant for a computer-software company outside Washington. "It certainly opened some doors for me. I know that I never could have afforded MIT without this.
"I never even had to take any entrance exams there," he continued. "They figured that if I'd passed Edison's test, I didn't have to take theirs."
Huston and the others returned yesterday after lifetimes at the upper levels of middle management in private industry and government. Now semi-retired, they talked of their grandchildren and the inordinate attention they received as 18-year-olds in the halcyon days before the roof caved in on Wall Street.
The chosen 49 were also squired around New York in style. They met its flamboyant mayor, Jimmy Walker; saw Babe Ruth strike out in the Bronx, and were exposed to the inefable wonders of Coney Island. They were the guests of Thomas Edison, they were smart as hell, and they were on top of the world.
"I guess it was the last hurrah," Huston concluded.
It was also grueling work. "We had four days of tests and interviews," he recalled. "The written examination took all of one day. Then we had people like Edison and Ford and Firestone asking us general questions about ethics and things like that to draw us out."
Most of the 49 Club, like Gustav Grab, a former engineer with Pan American airlines who now lives in Mexico City, returned to find a group of elderly strangers. "I didn't remember any of the faces when I got here," he said. "And you've got to remember, it was 50 years ago. None of us looks the same as we did then."
The group spent the better part of Tuesday evening talking informally about their lives since they last met. What was to have been a short discussion turned into a marathon group session, which perhaps says best what the aging boy wonders came to find in West Orange.
"This isn't like a high school reunion," explained William O'Donnell, the Wyoming representative, who now hails from Mexico. "We don't have roots in the same place. No one here knew each other except for four days 50 years ago." CAPTION: Picture, Wilbur Huston, by Donal F. Holway for The Washington Post