My assignment: Report on last Saturday’s 50th high school reunion gathering of the MVRHS class of ’66 at the Wharf in Edgartown. I was all over it: ’66, at Chatsworth High in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley (aka “The Valley”), was my own long-ago class! I took a quick mental selfie of myself in the summer of ’66 on Malibu Beach with my bestie Cindy Gruber, she with blond hair and blue eyes, I with dyed raven black hair, brown eyes, and fake eyelashes, but other than that we looked identical. We spent our entire summer of ’66 bikinied and barefoot, dating a different surfer dude every night but caring for none of them (they weren’t deep enough; they liked the Beach Boys more than the Mamas and the Papas), scoring grass whenever we wanted it, and driving over the canyon with our windows down and the Rolling Stones blasting on the radio: “Paint it! Paint it blaaaaackkkk!”
OK, I realized the Vineyard class of ’66 would be ever-so-slightly culturally “delayed.” They were lucky. They had other people’s parents with an eye on them wherever they roamed, and teachers who knew them by name and personality. It was a nurturing environment. True revolution wouldn’t hit until any one of them left the Island to face the real world.
The first clue to these reunion kids’ (now all in their late 60s) innocent past was that a whole bunch of them actually wanted to be there this recent night. Together! Like Island generations before and since, they’re attached to their little rock in a way that either keeps them home or, if they wander the world for a spell, draws them back to stay, or at the very least, crooks a finger at them for regular visits.
In the party-hearty back room of the Wharf, I came upon a big assemblage of classmates: 33 out an original count of 96. This works out to a 42 percent turnout, when you factor in the 13 who’ve passed away — their bright high school faces attached to a dark board, this tribute put together by former class prez Herb Ward of Vineyard Haven. Some quick Google research of 50th reunions shows that a mere 10 percent participation is more the norm.
As I moved around the festive back room of the Wharf, I was struck by a certain life satisfaction among the graduates, now approaching 70, and no longer driven by that ego urge to show up at a reunion in full Gucci garb, with keys to a Ferrari parked out back, and with a job at Morgan Stanley, if in fact Island reunion attendees ever considered this an appropriate way of showing off (that was more likely in my own class of ’66 in the San Fernando Valley, along with pretty much any movie you see about class reunions).
Even considering the strife and challenges of living through seven decades — some of these Island ’66ers had lost spouses and even children — no one appeared disappointed with his or her present lot in life, and, truly, all the usual melodrama of adolescence had long been laid to rest. For example, Faith “Hasty” Runner had been a transplant from Westport, Conn., but she remembers her Island classmates, in retrospect, as “darling.” She recalls a certain amount of cliqueishness among the kids who’d known each other since grammar school days (such as attendees Nancy Abbott and Rosalie Bassett Domont, who grew up across the street from each other in Edgartown and were still joined at the hip at the party), but now Faith swears now that those long ago cliques don’t matter anymore. (I heard this sentiment expressed a number of times.)
I think it makes sense that graduates would be happier and better-adjusted if they know the pleasure of being able to go home, back to a place full of old friends (not forgetting, as a few of the ‘boys’ pointed out, memories of beach parties and ample supplies of Boone’s Farm wine; and no, there was no weed, as far as I could find out, and certainly no stronger drugs).
Speaking as someone with nomadic DNA in her background, I’ve always noticed that those who content themselves with staying within at least driving distance from the family homestead are the least neurotic among us. Class of ’66er Thomas Hodgson of West Tisbury arrived here from the Cape as an infant, so he’s technically a wash-ashore, although he embraces his identity as a “local.” A true, hidebound local. Thomas’ advice: “The best way to be a local is to go someplace and stay there.”
So many Island ’66ers are still going strong professionally: Joan Taggerty Dugan lives in Connecticut, works for an insurance company, and plays the piano in a nearby hospital. Dickie Gale, who in his youth was mad about hunting and fishing, has lived here forevermore as a builder, and while he notices the changes all around him, is unfazed.
Nelson Oliver has a familiar face to all the quotidian folks of Oak Bluffs — he’s the office machinery engineer at DaRosa’s printing. Although when you see him seated before a beer in a dimly lighted booth, he appears gentle and even unassuming, he was voted “Mr. Athletic” in his senior year, as he crushed it in football, basketball, and track. And everyone pointed across the crowded room at “Mr. Popular,” Jeffrey Madison, a party boy who surprised everyone by skedaddling off to law school and becoming a judge, for crying out loud! He’s based in Aquinnah, but hears cases in tribal affairs in Mashpee.
The effervescent Louella Johnson was born in Quincy, landed here at the age of 3, became a Montessori teacher, raised two daughters, and now has two grandkids living down the street. She said she was “so excited to see old friends in the room! We hadn’t seen each other in 50 years, and it was as if we’d just met for coffee!”
I realized immediately that Louella, slim and cute in a slinky brown silk jumper, could be my Deep Throat for edgier information. I knew from a glance at the yearbook that none of the guys had long hair or even sideburns; they proudly displayed the shiny pompadours of an earlier age. The girls wore hairstyles their mothers must have approved of; short, flipped, or pageboy, sprayed with a thick glaze.
“Louella,” I asked, “did any of you get into, you know, leather fringe jackets and bell-bottoms and other ’60s attire?”
She laughed: “Some of us girls tried to wear miniskirts to school, but we were immediately deported by a bus they had waiting outside for that very purpose. We’d be driven home to change.”
She said they all wore jeans in their down time, and they did the typical stuff of the day — riding around in cars with boys. And booze. But the frequent references to booze tipped me off: These sweet kids would have to wait a while for a major ’60s shakeup. For my own bad-boy (and -girl) class of ’66 in California, once the weed came in, the booze went out. We experienced a cultural amnesia that liquor had ever been anything worth raiding our parents’ cupboards for.
Truly, I envied these ’66ers who carried forward a more mature agenda, and therefore hadn’t shipwrecked themselves for a number of years on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. In attendance also was class valedictorian Elaine Garneau, now a longtime Bostonian, recently retired from consulting, accounting, and work in nonprofits such as the much-admired Pine Street Inn. She might claim to have hung up her holster workwise, but she takes classes, involves herself in senior groups, and volunteers at the Animal Rescue League of Boston.
The party also held a delegation of couples who were childhood sweethearts (i.e. going steady in high school), and are still together as senior married items: Jim Athearn (“Mr. Senior Class”) and Debbie Galley Athearn, owners of Morning Glory Farm; and Bruce Wayne and Susan Metell Wayne (class of ’67), who stayed romantically attached even after heading off to separate colleges. Perhaps to step up to the luster of his name — the alter ego of Batman — Bruce Wayne roars over our sweet little country roads on his Harley.
Two natives, Elaine Marchant Ciancio and Michael Ciancio, married hot out of the box, both of them expressing a burning need to “get the hell out of here!” “Here” meant adolescence and parental oversight, apparently, since they remained on-Island. Michael graduated in ’64, and has run a longtime successful plumbing business and gas inspection for the towns. “It’s my job to keep you safe,” he said with an admirable degree of dedication; “you, the customer, not the appliance companies.” Praise be to these nonretirees!
Dicky Gale claimed his own mother, a teacher no less, goaded him and his pals into initiating the first Senior Skip School Day, when two-thirds of the class stayed home. That same two-thirds received two weeks of detention, but Dicky is still proud of his Ferris Bueller–style mission.
At least one of the love stories had its element of sorrow: I perused the class of ’66 yearbook, this one having belonged to the late Nancy Brooker Blankenship, a beloved member of the community, a banker, who died ten years ago. Over John Stone’s yearbook photo was written, “Nancy, you will always be my true love.” They did marry, and had a daughter Meredith, today co-owner of Mocha Mott’s. After their divorce John married again, to Wendy, who traveled with him to this recent reunion from their home in Alabama. Nancy would marry Buzz Blankenship, another beloved native, a locksmith, who died in the past year.
As in that old line from “The Naked City,” “There are 8 million stories in this town,” it was clear to me as I milled around the room collecting thumbnail sketches that another million stories had been packed into the lives of the 96 students who graduated MVRHS 50 years ago. The really positive takeaway from the gathering was that all the petty antagonisms, so typical of high school years, have flown. A recollection of those who are gone brings a mindfulness, and older age itself conveys pleasure in the present moment.
So, yeah, this old hippie chick took some mental snapshots of this utterly wholesome class of ’66, and while I wondered why they hadn’t sprawled on their beautiful beaches with blunts hanging out of their mouths, the Troggs’ “Wild Thing” blasting from a tinny radio, somehow I knew they’d had the better coming-of-age experience.
That’s why I raised my son on Martha’s Vineyard.