Saturday night before last the Carrollton (Ala.) High School Class of 1954 held its Golden Anniversary celebration in the family life center of the Baptist church. Twelve of the 15 members of the class attended. Two had died, and one other was unable to attend.
Most seemed to be in good health, although one woman attended in a wheelchair and one of the men had his arm in a sling due to recent shoulder-replacement surgery. Only two members of the class live in another state. Nine live in their home county. Some of these, had in years past lived and worked in other places, but in more recent times they have returned.
Four of the six men attending had joined the armed forces shortly after graduating. The United States was at war in Korea in 1954. Three became pilots. This avenue provided opportunities for college training and good incomes for each of them. Another made a career as a fireman in Birmingham and retired as a captain. The other two found jobs in factories in the area. One was widowed a few years ago and has recently married a well-respected widow in the community. One of the others, divorced several years ago, brought his new wife to meet his classmates.
The six women all married before they were 20. None of them went to college. All of them have worked in factory, secretarial and clerking positions. Each one raised children. Two are widowed.
Several tables in the hall held pictures and documents from their days as students. All of the faces in the pictures are white. The pictures of the Carrollton High School class of 2004 will have 31 faces, more than half of whom are black.
After a season of random visiting, the leader gathered the alumni for a class picture. Then they found their placed with their spouses, six to a table, at four round tables. Each one was given the opportunity to share their life story over the past 50 years. Those who were in the know about the others noted that most of the failings and bad things that had happened to them, or to their families, were glossed over. The focus was upon positive and respected accomplishments. Interestingly, all 12 are active in their churches. Most have been so through life.
This time of “face making” was followed by a good county dinner featuring baked chicken breasts, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, rolls, salad and coconut cream pie. This food was prepared by two young sisters who are just starting out in the catering business.
The evening was capped off with entertainment by an area preacher who sang a set of popular songs from the 1950s, told stories about some of the funny things that happened to him while growing up nearby, and had everyone laughing about humorous happenings in his ministry. He concluded the evening by awarding little prizes to the alumni for some of the funny things that they had done 50 plus years ago as high school students. This led to an additional round of remembrances.
After promises to get back together in a year or two, offers to send pictures of the event to all of the alumni, a plea to contribute to the costs of the event, and a prayer, it was over. However, everyone stayed around to get the room set up for Sunday morning and to visit some more, sharing additional remembrances.
At this season of the year when the attention of the general public is on the young people graduating from high school and college, folks planning for work and marriage and families, it may be helpful to remember that there are also others, small groups of older folk, getting together to engage in what gerontologists call “life review”. What happened in Carrollton weekend before last will be happening in thousands of other places across the nation in the weeks to come.
A recurrent theme at the Carrollton gathering was “where did the 50 years go?” On the whole this group seemed to conclude that their lives had been pretty well lived. Of course, none of them became truly rich or famous. Rather, they have been good folk doing good work in a small place in an era of great change. Change in their town and their world was another recurring theme. Like most older folk, some of the changes were not fondly embraced.
And why was I an observer of this event? Well, on Tuesday I was preparing to teach the lesson for our Sunday school program to be broadcast on the local cable. The topic was “Nurturing Family Relations.” Among the biblical passages was First Timothy 5, where it talks about caring for the widows. In the midst of this the event organizer, Elsie, a widow, called and ask me to come and take the pictures and do a video of the reunion.
What was I to do? I was not planning to attend my own 50th this fall out in Kansas City. I could not think of many things I would less rather do than attending someone else’s.
But, I could not refuse. How else could I teach the lesson about helping the widows? So, I went. And I enjoyed myself, almost in spite of myself.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.