The Class of Forty-nine

Lowell L. Getz

The home-town weekly newspaper arrived today. In the obituary section was a listing for yet another of my high school classmates. After placing a cross beside his name in the yearbook, I counted the number of crosses that now appear there. Over half of the students in our class, the class of 1949, are no longer amongst us. A check of the actuarial tables indicates that the last of our class, most likely one of the girls, will depart in the year 2024, 75 years after our graduation.

As my eyes wander across the pages of serious, fresh youthful faces, my mind drifts back in time to the night of 1 June 1949. The floor of the brightly lighted high school gymnasium comes into view. In the front rows sits the Carlinville Community High School class of 1949, the "Forty-niners."  Behind the senior class sit the families—the fathers, the mothers, and the grandparents—whose beaming faces reflect the feeling of a job well-done. The pain of child-birth, the struggle of early childhood, the trauma of the adolescent years have paid off. The sons, the daughters, the grandchildren are now ready to assume the responsibilities of life on their own.

All eyes are focused on the stage where the class valedictorian, Frances Ryan, has just finished her "Farewell from the class of 49" and the Superintendent of Schools, Mr. H. S. Littlepage, is making his comments to the graduating class and to their families. Most of our thoughts are elsewhere, however. Some are feeling a sinking pang of nostalgia as they realize the carefree part of their life is over. Others are excited as to what lay in store for them the next few days or weeks—marriage, moving away from Carlinville (Finally!) for their first job, leaving home for college next fall, or leaving for active duty in one of the armed services. A few know they will remain at home to work the family farm or at one of the local businesses.

As our minds wander during Mr. Littlepage’s comments, none of us can in our wildest dreams imagine the technological advances we will live to see. In June 1949, the country is still trying to catch up with providing the basic material needs that had been diverted to war-time efforts. Television is a small nine inch black and white novelty, DNA is an unknown biochemical molecule, we have to go through an operator to make a long-distance phone call (for many on a crank, party-line, phone) and cell phones are an unknown, McDonald is only a man who "had a farm", penicillin is a new, and only, wonder drug, DDT is the answer to all our pest insect problems, turn signals and seat belts in the auto are unheard of, letters and papers are written on manual typewriters, a single computer fills a small room, "made in Japan" is a synonym for "cheap junk", and the only thing we attribute to being made in China are dolls.

Mr. Littlepage finishes with the usual challenge for us to go out into the world, a world that is "at our feet", and make it a better place for our having passed through it. Mr. R. E. Leasman, the high school Principal, then steps to the microphone and presents to Elmer Loehr, President of the High School Board of Directors, the Class of 1949, all of whom have met the requirements for granting of the High School diploma. Mr. Leasman looks down at the list of names before him and calls out, "Edwin M. Allen."  Ed quickly walks up the four steps to the stage, takes his diploma from Mr. Loehr, and walks to the four steps back down to the floor of the gym.  Mr. Leasman calls, "Mildred Eloise Arnett." Mildred follows Ed up the steps, receives her diploma, moves on to the steps from the stage and with a sheepish smile of satisfaction on her face, descends back to the floor.  Mr. Leasman calls the next name, the next, and the next. The class of forty-nine begins its entrance upon the world scene.

Members of the Carlinville High class of 1949 will fare no differently than any other such group of young adults as they live out their lives. One of the girls will be married, have a baby, and die of polio, all within less than two years, only four years before a vaccine that would have prevented her death becomes available. Some will marry early and spend the rest of their lives together. A few will find the first marriage not to work, but will find someone else with whom to live their lives. Others will struggle through several marriages, finally living out their lives alone. Some will choose not to marry at all. Several will go on to college and have careers as lawyers, as nurses, in business, as academicians, and as school teachers, while others will remain with the family farm or business. Some will struggle with health problems while living lengthy lives, whereas others will succumb at an early age.

The names drone on—Lenny Reeser, Victoria Link, Bill Denby. The names no longer are alphabetical. We are now hearing the sequence of names as the class of 1949 leaves the world. Finally, the last name is called. As if in a trance she slowly ascends the steps, seems to glide across the stage, takes her diploma, and moves towards the steps. As she touches the first step, the lights in the gymnasium begin to fade, on the second step, the faces of the parents and grandparents freeze. On the third step the lights fade further; the stage and all the seats are now empty. Mr. Littlepage, Mr. Leasman, Mr. Loehr, the parents, and the grandparents have long since left this world. As she steps down onto the floor, complete darkness enshrouds the gymnasium and she vanishes into a void. The Class of Forty-nine has entered history.

Did we make a difference? Is the world better for our having passed through it? What was our legacy? Most likely we did no less and no more than thousands upon thousands of other high school classes that have gone before. We did what was given us to survive as individuals.  Hopefully, in the process of living out our own lives we also made life a little better for others while we were here and left a legacy of fulfillment. There is a rustle. Once again the gymnasium is flooded with light. On the stage the class valedictorian is finishing her "Farewell" from the graduating class seated in the seats below. The class of 2024 is making ready to enter the world. Behind them are seated the mothers, the fathers, the grandparents, their faces aglow as they reflect upon jobs well done. As we of the class of 1949 could not anticipate, neither can the class of 2024 fathom the changes in the world they will be witness to in the next 75 or so years. Some may contribute to those changes, others may simply use them in their own lives.

The Principal approaches the microphone and introduces the graduating class to the President of the Board of Directors. He looks at his list and speaks into the microphone—Kalie Leslie Abott. Kalie rises, walks to the stage, ascends the steps, quickly walks across the stage, takes her diploma, smiles to her parents, and descends the stairs back down to the floor. The class of 2024 has begun to take its place in history. And so the generations begin anew.