BENNINGTON — The past collides with the present in many ways; some subtle, some dramatic. High school reunions fall somewhere along that spectrum.
That holds true not just for the actual reunions, but also the way in which they're organized. The long journey from diploma to retirement reflects multiple evolutions, for graduates who have progressed through careers and relationships, as well their means of tracking down classmates.
On June 14, 1969, 278 graduating seniors left the structured, predictable world of Bennington's Mount Anthony Union High School and into the start of adulthood. Some headed for college, some opted for the workforce, and some went into military service, with war grinding on in Vietnam. It was the year of man landing on the moon, of Woodstock, and the New York Mets winning the World Series. Unusual times.
Fast forward to this July 20, when the Mount Anthony Union High School Class of 1969 will hold its 50th reunion at the Mount Anthony Country Club.
The Class of '69 has convened there twice before. It's also gathered at what was then the Ramada Inn (now Grace Christian School) in 1979, and in 1989 at the Paradise Restaurant on Main Street, The 1989 gathering remains the Class of 1969's best-attended reunion. With most graduates not quite 40 years old, the dance floor was jammed.
But let's look behind the scenes for a moment. Every group, class, organization or entity needs a spark plug to get or keep the show going, and the Class of '69 has a handful who have stayed the course of organizing reunions the entire way. A few have worked on every reunion; others came and went and returned.
Times have changed since the first reunion was organized around a small mountain of file cards drawn up for each of the graduates of 1969, said Deb (Johnson) Cutler, one of those present at the creation. She and a small group of classmates wrote down the contact information and whatever else they could find out.
Those file cards still exist, and she has them all.
"We took the yearbook and tried to call parents if we didn't know where they were," she said. "We divided them up and phone calls were the thing."
"It was all calling family members and reading the phone book — that's how we started out," said Peg (Burgess) Sauer-Gagnon, another organizer who has been involved from the start, and who still works at MAU. "We had all the family relations written down on index cards so if they needed to be tracked down again there was a starting point."
In later years there was another secret weapon: Bennington Town Clerk Tim Corcoran, a member of the MAU class of 1968. "He knew everybody," Sauer-Gagnon said of Corcoran, who died in 2014.
Once that data base was established for the first reunion, keeping the file cards updated got a little easier, said Marge (Dawson) Robinson, another class member who has worked on all of them. (Why? "I'm a doer.")
But despite the arrival of the internet, email and social media, tracking people down is still a lot of work. Ten years ago, most 1969 MAU graduates were still working and many hadn't moved in a while. Since then, many have retired. They may or may not be in the same place, but many have abandoned landline telephones and rely on mobile phones instead.
That doesn't make the job of a reunion committee easier, Robinson said.
"One of the hardest ones right now is people retiring and then going off in different directions because their job isn't holding them there," she said.
For the 50th reunion, the committee - made up of the core group plus a few additional helpers, including, for the first time, some of the boys — has held meetings in downtown Bennington, usually at the Better Bennington Corporation in the Old Blacksmith Shop at the corner of South and Elm Streets. That's a change from the past, when the organizers would meet at someone's house and engage in a little gossip in between filling out file cards, Robinson said.
This year, some committee members connected remotely via conference calls, and "we don't seem to get a lot of chatting at our reunion meetings now," Robinson said.
Sharon Shea-Keneally has an additional perspective. She's experienced MAU not only as a student but as a teacher, a department chairwoman, assistant principal, and the school's principal from 1999-2003.
"I enjoyed being at the previous meetings; combination of: 'remember when,' and, 'Where is he/she now? You're kidding!,' she said. "The meetings were fun gabfests, and a throwback to the high school years."
It's been interesting to watch and hear of the trajectories of classmates' lives and career paths over the decades, she said, and heartbreaking that so many are gone. About 55 members of the Class of 1969, nearly 20 percent of the class, have died.
"Their passing is a glaring reminder of our own mortality. Also, our good fortune," Shea-Keneally said.
The sense of reconnecting to an earlier and seemingly simpler time and place (despite teenage issues they experienced, is something all of the core members have shared.
"There is something really neat — and special — about sharing a story or memory from childhood or adolescence with the people who were there and lived the moment with you," said Peg (Brunina) Murtaugh, who has been there for all the reunion efforts.
Each reunion has been a little different, she said.
"The first one was pretty wild - ending with Eddie Ballance in the pool," Murtaugh said of the 1979 gathering at the former Ramada Inn. "Many more of our classmates were still in contact with each other and it was pretty easy tracking people down," she said. "Each succeeding reunion has required a little bit more digging.
"I like being on the reunion committees because I enjoy coming back to Bennington to see old friends. I've lived in the Albany, N.Y. area over 25 years now and it's hard to see people when I am in town," Murtaugh said. "When I see Marge, Anna, Deb, Peggy and the rest of the gang we pick up where we left off. Sometimes there's a few years in-between, but it doesn't matter."
A new start
The class of 1969 was the third to graduate from the then-new Mount Anthony Union High School, which opened in the fall of 1967. Technically the class of 1967 was the first to graduate from Mount Anthony, but those students never attended classes in the new building. Since the new union school district was officially in place the exercises were held there instead of the old Bennington High School building on Main Street where they had attended.
The class of 1968 was the first to graduate from the new building after having spent at least their senior year there. But meanwhile, there was a big and shocking development that altered the entire school's dynamic: the closing of Bennington Catholic High School.
Suddenly, instead of Bennington High and North Bennington High merging into one school, students from three separate schools would need to find a way to integrate.
Having their school close midway through high school was a tough pill to swallow, said Michael McDonough, and it took a while for the shock to wear off. Many of those students had already been through another major shock: the September, 1965 plane crash that killed Bennington Catholic principal Rev. Vincent J. Spinelli, 39, MAU principal Ralf S. Kates, 32, Molly Stark principal W. Philip Walker, 46, and James. H. Morgan, 28, director of a curriculum improvement project.
Bennington Catholic was a smaller, tightly knit school. The change to a much larger public high school environment took some time to get used to, McDonough said.
"We were rivals, and now we were classmates," he said. "The integration happened - certainly by the time we graduated. We became friends."
But it left its mark. "We were involved in everything at Benn Catholic, some less so at MAU," he said.
The 50th reunion will also be a special one for the class president, Tim Morrissey, and his wife, Deb (Grant) Morrissey. They reconnected at the 40th reunion and wound up getting married a few years later. They now live in Florida but have been actively involved by conference calls at the reunion committee meeting.
"You stay involved in class reunions to reunite with people who were a real important part of your life," Deb said. She was one of the group that helped organize the first reunion and was involved in several after that.
"You get to see where they've been and where they are now and it's a good way to reunite with old friends," she said. "I think it's an opportunity, sort of a last hurrah to really get together with old friends."
Tim Morrissey has been serving as the reunion committee chairman and meeting agenda-setter long distance over cell phone conference calls. He recalls growing up in Bennington fondly but sees a somewhat different town when he visits now.
"I think we were lucky to grow up when we did ... I think Bennington was a spectacular town," he said. "You could go there (downtown) and hang out and feel a real sense of community. Unfortunately, that's changed."
Tim left Bennington after graduation while Deb stayed there for most of her life. They both still feel a connection with the town, however.
"I always felt it was home and still feel like it's home," Deb said.
This year's reunion will include a casual social get-together at Ramunto's on Friday, July 19, before the main event Saturday night at the country club. A golf outing is also being planned, along with tours of the expanded high school and Career Development Center. A website has been set up (mauhsclassof1969.com) to help spread information, another change from previous years. Previously booklets and then a CD were created to compile information on classmates and distributed at the reunions.
And will there be a 60th? Maybe. One thing's for sure: the telephone won't be the main link up.
"I'm hoping this won't be the last reunion, but I'm pretty sure the committee will continue to 'meet' and 'catch up'," said Sharon Shea-Keneally. "Wishful thinking?"
We'll find out in 2029.
Andrew McKeever is news director of Greater Northshire Access Television and a freelance writer.