In June 1949, 70 young people marched across the stage of the Athens High School auditorium on Maple Street to be awarded their high school diplomas by Principal Irving W. Hazard.
That anniversary normally calls for a celebration. However, a traditional reunion party for us now is impractical. Instead, the few paragraphs compiled below may give us few survivors a chance to reminisce quietly about those unique four years that the forty-niners shared.
Our class of about 100 ninth graders assembled for the first time in the fall of 1945. Students had completed the eighth grade at junior highs in Litchfield, Ulster, Ghent, and the Athens Main school.
A historical event of major importance had occurred in August 1945, the surrender of Japan, bringing to a close the horrors of World War II. Patriotism was sky high, and the war effort was the number one priority item with everyone.
All our homes with someone in service displayed a star in the window, blue for home service, silver for overseas and gold for killed in action. Everyone shared the grief and sadness of the gold star families. The strong patriotic environment and support for the US military effort persisted for several years after World War II ended, including the new members of the class of 1949.
Our first item of business was to choose a four-year curriculum. Boys picked academic, general or agriculture. Girls picked academic, commercial, or home economics. Teachers’ help was vital. In fact, support and guidance from our teachers over those four years were what made it possible to survive and succeed. Disciplinary trips to the office took place very infrequently. Teachers deserved and received our respect in helping maintain orderly classrooms, an event that happened with little fanfare.
Most students took part in extracurricular programs. The Hi-Y (boys) and Tri-Hi-Y (girls) had large memberships. They were religious, charitable organizations promoting “pure thoughts, words, and actions.” They had such strong alliances with formal Christian groups that they didn’t survive later separation of church and state mandates, in spite of their voluntary membership status.
We had a Senior Class play, a Junior Class play, several choruses, art clubs, language clubs (no Latin, a surprise), a large future homemaker group (all girls), and a large Future Farmers of America group (FFA). Athens was surrounded by small dairy farms, so that’s no surprise.
The FFA curriculum was ably led by Marshall van Scoten. He was a kind, competent man. We dedicated our 1949 annual yearbook to him (Athenian). Our class received a number of accolades for the Athenian, in part because of the outstanding art work contributed by an extremely talented, versatile artist Bob Southee.
Band and Orchestra were led by Dante Coccagnia (Tony). Athens High did not have a music program until 1938 when Tony came aboard. He had the patience of Job, his senses numbed from the countless lessons he gave to beginners desperately trying to extract pleasing sounds from balky musical instruments.
Traditional sports like football, basketball and baseball were well supported with football probably the most popular. We were Bulldogs. We beat Sayre our senior year, 19-0, a long time coming. Our new coach, John Childs, introduced the T-Formation offense. Previously, we used Knute Rockne’s single and double wing offenses.
Another activity was our Minstrel Show. Some acts were dreadful but the overall effort was so much fun to be part of. Other acts revealed talents hidden away until that moment. We had an “End Man” act, white guys made up in blackface, popular then in the entertainment business (Al Jolson). They would fail present-day standards of political correctness but there was no malicious intent.
How about things we did not have?
Reliable transportation: the new automobile inventory was still catching up from WWII, when no cars were made. New tires were hard to find.
Entertainment broadcasting: consumer TV was unavailable in our area. AM radio was the standard, not FM.
Effective disease vaccinations: polio was a dreaded threat every summer, usually with tragic results.
Preventive treatment of the major causes of death, heart attacks, cancer.
Computers, and all their ramifications including data transfer, document preparation, Facebook, Twitter, games, Google, e-mail, etc.
Access to tattoo parlors and exotic hair parlors.
The academic achievements by our class were good. Many students went on to higher education schools after graduation. However, scholarship money was scarce. In today’s times, many, many more opportunities for higher education with good grant money are available, a sign of real progress. Downside: death of the art of cursive penmanship, something most elementary teachers excelled at. Pity.
This has been a small sampling of things I recall from 70 years ago. All our teachers are gone, most of our classmates, many of the townspeople who generously supported us, and even the school building itself is gone. Sadly, It was transformed overnight from a revered, historical treasure into a pile of broken up bricks.