At 17, Tommy Hartman was hardly a big man on the Montgomery Blair campus. He had boyish looks, a small thin frame and red hair slicked back with Brylcream. Like most of his friends in the class of 1961, he dressed in the fashion of the day: Khaki slacks and button-down shirts and penny loafers or moccasins. He was not an athlete, or a student leader, or anything beyond an average student. He had no interest in college and, in that regard, was in the minority in his senior class.
His friends used to say he was shy. But everyone knew Tommy Hartman for two reasons: Because he drove to school. Drove to school in a '55 Ford! And because he dated Sandy Hall. And if Tommy Hartman was not a big man on campus, Sandy Hall was definitely a big woman on campus.
Sandy Hall was a vivacious five-foot, five-inch bundle of energy, a walking, living, breathing Blair partisan who took advanced French and wanted to go to college. She was a member of the Future Homemakers of America and a majorette who had practiced baton-twirling and toe touches since junior high school and who would never forget the thrill of "twirling fire" at a night-game at Northwestern.
She and her girlfriends adhered to the prevailing code of dress: Saddle shoes, hose with seams up the back ("it was a big thing when seamless came in"), white cotton sweat socks, button-down striped shirts and skirts. Girls were sent home from school if their sweaters were too tight or their skirts too short. They only wore high heels to Blair one day each year, on "heel and tie" day. Slacks were reserved for Saturday football games.
Sandy and Tom sat together in homeroom and started dating in their sophomore year, in February of 1959. For the two of them and the rest of the class of BLAIR HIGH A CHANGINGUNIVERSE '61, high school was sheltered--events in the outside world left little imprint on the Silver Spring community where they lived.
Dee Hedgcock, a blonde cheerleader who was a member of the elite O'Debs sorority and one of the most popular girls in the class of '61, thought "big news" was when Elvis Presley was inducted into the army and had to get his hair cut. "And also when Sputnik went up, around Easter time in 1958."
Like Dee, most students at Blair showed little interest in political or global issues. For most students, immediate worries ranged from trying to prevent a severe case of acne the night before a formal dance to figuring out how to explain to dad about the dent in the side of his car.
Blair students were taught the full range of academic subjects and exposed to the standard array of after-school activities. But none of their high school experiences took them beyond the borders of the suburban way of life. School was an orderly and predictable world in which success depended largely on one's ability to conform.
In the narrow and structured world in which the class of 1961 began its senior year, everyone knew that Bette Jones would be named homecoming queen. She was, the boys said, "a real looker" who could "move a bulky knit sweater." She was captain of the cheerleading squad, and "a friend to everybody." There was a Bette Jones in every class. But for the class of 1961, this Bette Jones was a legend. And, as expected, she achieved real status by becoming Homecoming Queen and Christmas queen, and she dignified the later occasion by wearing a white strapless formal hooped skirt and pearl necklace.
The social hierarchy at Montgomery Blair that placed Bette Jones at the top was determined by the standard all-American high school credo. "Status," according to Sandy Hall, "was being a majorette or pompon girl" or dating one. Or being a football player. Or owning a car. It was not status to be a flag carrier (which happened if you failed to make majorette in your senior year). Or to be in the marching band, which, Sandy Hall thought, "was good, but not wonderful status."
Success at Blair was having the right kind of looks or the personality or the talents that were coveted by almost all of one's peers. Everybody tended to agree on what status was. Just as most students knew Sandy Hall and Bette Jones and Dee Hedgcock, they also respected Ron Orleans, who was one of the academic standouts of the class and also a member of the Key Club, a prestigious boys' service club. And Pete Blackwell, the good-looking senior class president whom everyone expected to go on to future success (he did). And Bob Windsor, the star of Blair's celebrated state championship football team, who later played professionally with the San Francisco 49ers.
Success at Blair did not depend on class or ethnic distinctions because, unlike the Blair of today, such distinctions were few. If there was any of that kind of diversity among students it was, at best, subtle.
Silver Spring had a substantial Jewish population, including some well-to-do families who lived in the now black and Hispanic Summit Hills section of 16th Street. The Jewish kids dominated academically and formed the bulk of the college-prep group. But if there was a conscious recognition of this among their peers, it was seldom articulated.
Betty Graves and Kenny Folstein came from less well-to-do circumstances than Ron Orleans, whose father was a doctor and whose mother was a two-time candidate for county school board. Kenny came from Langley Park, where he lived with his widowed mother and brothers. Betty lived with her parents and two brothers in an apartment on Manchester Avenue, one block from Blair (she could hear the band practicing from home). Her father ran the health club at Columbia Country Club and worked as a masseur downtown. Kenny could not afford to go to formal dances, and Betty never went to any until the senior prom.
But in most respects, Kenny Folstein and Betty Graves say they had comfortable niches at Blair with all of the order and security afforded most other students. They were no different from their classmates in dreading class with Miss Trottnow, the typing teacher, or in making sure they knew all the words to the Alma Mater, which students sang before games and at assemblies. They did their homework and obeyed their teachers.
And, like their peers, they spent hours at the Hot Shoppes and made an occasional foray to Phil's Restaurant, right across the District line, or Benny's on Riggs Road or The Alpine Hut, where 18-year-olds could drink beer (preferably Old German).
But the intense pressure to conform had some drawbacks, too, for everybody.
What most Blair students knew about Sandy Hall was that she was a majorette and that she dated Tommy Hartman. What was rarely mentioned, however, except among friends, was that her parents were divorced and that she had lived alone with her mother (Eleanor, Blair class of '41) virtually since infancy.
In 1961 there were lots of secrets. Sex, a staple of teen-age conversation nowadays, was not discussed. The only public acknowledgment of high-school sexual behavior came during one week in 10th grade, when the girls' gym classes were converted into a brief course in "health." The information passed on was primarily hygenic advice, leaving sex the same mystery it had been to most students when "health" week began.
If a Blair student was sexually active (which, particularly among the girls, would never be admitted), she could not seek counsel from the school nurse, whose primary function was to dole out aspirin for headaches and take temperatures when flu set in just before a big math test. If, as happened ever so rarely, a student "was expecting" (the word "pregnant" was never used) the nurse had little advice. The student simply disappeared for a few months, usually "to live with an aunt or grandmother," only to resurface later in her normal incarnation.
Blair in 1961 did little to prepare its students for sexual intimacy or the ethnic diversity of the real world (Betty Graves remembers reading Peyton Place with her friends, a book they found "really racy").
What it did do was reinforce the values that most students brought from home. School was a nucleus of activities ranging from writing for the newspaper to playing in the marching band to performing in the school's triumphant production of "The Happiest Millionaire." Students such as Pete Blackwell, the senior class president, who were inclined toward "leadership" or politics, found their place in a well organized and well respected student government, or in the Citizenship Committee, which was responsible for regulating traffic in the corridors, maintaining good conduct in the cafeteria and keeping unauthorized students off the campus.
There were future doctors and future nurses' clubs, and ones for students interested in astronomy, the Civil War, or learning to apply stage make-up (the Powder Puff Club). There was the Keyettes Club (the youth counterpart of the national Kiwanis Wives of America), the Pep Club, the Bowling Club and the Broadcasters Club.
Since there were no varsity sports for girls, there was a club for aspiring physical education teachers called the Junior Majors Club.
Blair also provided a better-than-average education. The school was considered among the best in Montgomery County, which already had a reputation for top-notch academics. Blair was one of the first county schools to offer banking courses, and Spanish as a foreign language. By 1961, students could take French, Spanish, Latin, world history, physics, chemistry and trigonometry, to name a few. Students in noncollege prep--roughly one-fourth of the student body--could study salesmanship, shorthand, business law and consumer math. Even if they did not plan to go to college, most students knew they could get a job with their high school degree.
But more than 80 percent of the class of '61 planned to get further schooling, and about 60 percent went on to four-year colleges or universities.
The school had 111 teachers who, on the average, had taught at Blair for seven years. For them, too, there was a strict code of conformity that consisted of conservative dress and authoritarian rule.
The parents of Blair students were actively involved in school affairs, too, raising money to publish a literary magazine and to buy new band uniforms.
Blair in 1961 was one of the schools that everyone wanted to go to from the time they enrolled in junior high school. And it was the sort of place that parents all over Montgomery County were proud to send their kids.