By Magic or Dumb Luck…

Somehow—through magic, happenstance, chicanery, divine intervention, or, most likely, just dumb luck—I’ve reached a milestone in life that most of us never thought about when we were young: The 50th year since my high school graduation.

This is the reunion weekend, a two-day gala. Our graduating classmates totaled 578. Sixty-five have passed away.

I doubt I’ll be able to instantly recognize many of the 200 who plan to attend the gala—you know, wrinkles come on with age; potbellies arrive; chins triple; hair, if any remains, becomes arctic white; backs hunch; strides slow down, maybe even canes.

Of course, I still look the same: fine, smooth skin; confident stride; hard muscles; the same handsome features…and, if you believe that, I have the proverbial bridge I’d like to sell you. I do not even recognize myself nowadays when I look in a mirror. My solution is simple: Turn all the mirrors around so I don’t see the stranger in the reflection.

Col. Van Horn, dead now these last 102 years. He is still present, though, in the name of my alma mater.

Our high school class has experienced a phenomenon that many high school classes in the U.S. haven’t: Large numbers of us have remained in contact with each other over the decades.

The availability of social media helps, of course. There are five Facebook pages dedicated to Van Horn friends, including a site for the Class of 1968. We gather for a monthly brunch at a local restaurant and, on a weekly basis, many of us show up for what we call Taco Tuesday at a local pub–$1 tacos, happy hour brew, can’t beat it!

I have never figured out what the exact glue is that makes us stick together in one way or another. The comfort of common backgrounds? The familiarity? Many of the same interests? Our careers in adulthood are widely varied, as are our political and religious views. The ‘ol opposites attract theory?

Last night, some of us attended a gathering at the home of a classmate who wanted us to meet the family of her grown son. The family was visiting from New York. The daughter-in-law’s jaw dropped in amazement when a couple of us mentioned how we all remain in contact.

“No one get away from us,” said a classmate, Vikki Van Trump Mitcheltree.

“Even if someone dies,” I added in, “they’re still stuck with us ‘cause we keep talking about them.”

Our high school—it’s named Van Horn—is located in Independence, a quiet suburb in the metropolitan area surrounding Kansas City, Mo. The school was opened in 1955 on the former site of a mansion nicknamed “Honeywood,” the residency of the late Col. Robert T. Van Horn, a newspaper publisher and Kansas City mayor during part of the Civil War. I’ve been unable to learn why Van Horn nicknamed it Honeywood.

Honeywood, Col. Van Horn’s mansion, torn down in the 1950s to make room for Van Horn High School. Photo from a newspaper circa the early 1950s.

Honeywood was in major disrepair by the 1950s. So it was razed to make way for the much-needed school to accommodate all the local kids born immediately following World War II. The major thoroughfare where Honeywood was located was originally called Van Horn Road in the late mayor’s honor, but it was eventually renamed Truman Road after Harry Truman, whose home, now a national historic site, is a couple of miles further on from the school.

Our class was one of the last of the Baby Boomer Generation, and therefore we had many students, almost 2,000, in our school. Now, Van Horn’s graduating classes average only about 200 students.

Like the population of Independence, the school’s student body was largely white back in my day—by this, I mean 99.999 percent white. We had two students with Hispanic surnames in our class and a wonderfully feisty black math teacher.

I have to plead complete stupidity here and a huge amount of blind unawareness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but back then we resided in what today would be called a racist community. I don’t recall ever seeing overt racism as I grew up, but later, in young adulthood, I realized it had been there all along, covert.

Van Horn back in the day, my day, that is. We used to keep dinosaurs and Dodo Birds in the field behind the school, that’s how far back my day was.

Independence and Van Horn = white. A few minutes away, Kansas City’s inner city = largely black. Even though our school was located in Independence, it was part of the Kansas City school district because the K.C. district lines looped into Independence land. The physical boundaries of K.C. and Independence marked not only the city limits but also the racial boundaries as far as residing, shopping, work opportunities, and education.

The only times most of my classmates and I faced black students were in the sports arenas: football, basketball, and track. The inner city schools always fielded tremendously talented athletes. We competed evenly in football, but we were, well, woefully woeful in basketball. Our tallest player was Jerry Kelsey, six-foot-two (maybe three on tiptoes). The rest of us were six feet or, mostly, less, much less.

By the way, I remember Kelsey not only because of his height and prowess on the court but also for his prankster ways—you probably recall such classmates from your own high school. One day I was shooting free-throws prior to basketball practice. Kelsey tiptoed up behind me and yanked down my gym shorts. As I fumbled trying to get them back up from around my ankles, I noticed a girl, a pretty classmate, watching from the gym’s doorway. She rolled her eyes, shook her head in disgust. I could almost hear her thinking, “Those stupid boys.” It was an embarrassing moment that still haunts my nightmares.

Van Horn today: A pretty good place.

Nowadays, when I’m around Kelsey, I always keep a hand tightly gripped onto my pants belt. I’m more than well-qualified and experienced enough by now, all on my own, for ladies to think “that stupid boy” about me even without the assistance of Kelsey’s prankster ways.

The inner city schools put giants on the court. Some were nearly seven tall. Many went on to college scholarships, some into the NBA. Our school gained the record for the lowest points scored in a league game. This was against Central High School. They scored the highest on record: 116. We stumbled in at 26, and only then because Central put in its third string for the last quarter (Huh, I think they may have even put in a couple of their lady cheerleaders, too, and I think I saw an ancient janitor dribbling a ball on the court.) As far as I know, the records—both for Central and Van Horn—still stand. Our season: two wins, 17 losses.

Nonetheless, it was a mightily fun season. I learned a great lesson that would help me through life: humility. I’ve also learned since then that I missed out on a lot of fine people and experiences because I was tucked away in a nearly all-white school and community.

No high school remembrance (at least one written by a guy) is complete without a photo of the cheerleaders. From left: Nancy Copeland, Nancy (Windler) Reeves, Stevie (Shipley) Pepitone, Pam (Mayer) Bell, Patty (Abreo) Kimsey. Center ground: Kathi (Gerard) McKee.

Thankfully, that scenario has largely improved in both the school and community. It was a tough road, though. I was a reporter for the Kansas City Star when federally mandated busing was finally forced upon the Kansas City area in the mid-1970s. I had the opportunity to write about the issue. Students from the inner city were required to sit on a bus—in some cases, an hour each way—to ride to Van Horn, and vice a verse with students going to inner city schools. Nobody was happy.

It was an extremely complicated issue that involved equality, public education, and economics. I won’t go into all of it here, other than to mention a couple of points. The Missouri state school board revoked the Kansas City school district’s accreditation due to lack of meeting proficiency stands. Van Horn left the Kansas City district and moved in 2008 into the Independence School District.

The move was a major game-changer for our alma mater. The school building had deteriorated over the years, so good-spirited Independence community members took up paint brushes and made repairs. Independence voters approved a couple of bond issues for the school district, respectable portions of which went into remodeling and expanding Van Horn. Minority families moved into the suburb to gain access for their children and for other reasons. The quality of education greatly improved and has become innovative.

When I was a student there, Van Horn offered a good education. I think. ‘Tweren’t my bag, unfortunately. I sat through all the right classes to be able to get into college: algebra, geometry, beer-drinking 101, trig, biology, beer-drinking 102, chemistry, and physics.

Jerry Kelsey himself. That is, how himself used to be…!

I made it through physics thanks to Valerie, a foreign exchange student from Italy. We sat next to each other at a table. She whipped through tests with ease while sweat poured off my answerless brow. As I struggled and grunted and nervously chewed on my pencil, she kindly inched her completed answer sheet a bit my way. She softly tapped the tips of her fingers on the table to wake me up from my engrossed state of self-imposed disaster.

I passed the class. My final grade? Let’s just say, well, I passed the class.

Valerie went on to become a successful physician in Italy. I’ve spent my life since our physics class avoiding Tasmania Devils like physics, chemistry, biology, and math. I have excelled, though, in beer-drinking 102 through 150, and I do know how to balance my checkbook, sometimes.

The year 1968, when we graduated, was a watershed time for America. Our nation had been mired down in foreign wars for many years. The environment was crumbling. Women earned far less than men. Minorities were disrespected and often in danger. Certain religions were targets of hate. Politicians were dirty. The president was a….

Huh, hey, wait just a senior moment. Isn’t that 2018?