The three women had outgrown the little wooden chairs in their third-grade classroom at John Eaton Elementary School. But they did not notice because they were too busy sharing remembrances of their first meetings there some 30 years ago.
Reunions such as that of Carolyn Gichner-DeGaglia, Lela Palmer and Sherry Sundick were duplicated throughout John Eaton last Wednesday night as the Cleveland Park school celebrated the first alumni gathering in its 72-year history. The reunion coincided with the completion of the school's $3.9 million renovation.
More than 250 former graduates, representing classes from l9l4 to 1982, returned to the school at 34th and Lowell streets NW. They roamed the halls, shared warm embraces, looked for their old classrooms and tried to identify the faces in faded yellow class pictures.
"I won the regional spelling bee when I was here," Sundick said. Palmer reminded the group that except for a brief bout with poison ivy, she had a perfect attendance. "And don't forget we were all in the glee club," she added, and they laughed together. Like many at the reunion, the three women have maintained their friendship over the years.
Two well-known John Eaton alumni, local developer Oliver T. Carr and former City Council president Gilbert Hahn, Jr., also were in the crowd. Two other famous graduates--Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) and actress Helen Hayes--sent letters of regret that they could not attend.
"I have only happy memories of my classmates, teachers and particularly John, the janitor," Warner wrote. "John was an excellent disciplinarian as were the teachers in the true, old-style American tradition."
Hayes recalled in her letter, "I went to John Eaton because I wanted to be in a co-ed schoool. I was a little bit boy crazy at the time."
Some in the crowd remembered Eaton as progressive for its time, with a cooking class for boys, a kindergarten band that took field trips and a 5-cent newspaper called the Eaton Echo. Copies of the Echo, some dating back to 1928, were posted along the second-floor hallways.
"The teachers were extremely good and very involved," recalled Richard Hollander, class of 1924 and former editor of the now defunct Washington Daily News. Parents so respected his fifth-grade teacher that they arranged for her to teach him and his classmates through the seventh grade, Hollander said.
Hollander, 72, also remembered when he was ordered to stay after school because he had failed to learn the preamble to the Constitution.
He spent two hours memorizing it that afternoon more than 60 years ago. "I can recite it for you now if you like," he chuckled.
His 35-year-old son, (Richard) Jackson Hollander, a mechanic, also attended Eaton and accompanied his father to the reunion.
The younger Hollander said he and his wife still occasionally attend Eaton's annual Halloween celebration, which reminds him of the times when he and the other neighborhood children would dress up in their Halloween costumes and go to the John Eaton playground.
"They had all kinds of stuff set up there," Hollander said. "They blindfolded you, then stuck your hand in different things. Somebody would say, 'These are the eyeballs of the devil,' " he said, referring to what he later discovered was a jar of olives.
The school's once all-white student body has become multinational and multilingual in recent years. "We have 325 students representing 40 countries and 20 languages," Eaton principal Patricia Greer said.
About 60 percent of the students are white, l5 percent Hispanic, l0 percent black and the remainder a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, she said.
John Eaton was named for a brigadier general and chaplain, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War and was later appointed commissioner of education by President Ulysses S. Grant.