Whatever Happened to the Athens High School Class of 1969
by Donny Seagraves
Okay. I’m old. Proof arrived the other day in an invitation that said: “Please join us as we celebrate 40 years since our graduation from Athens High School.”
Had it really been that long since I walked the hallways of the red brick building on Milledge Avenue (now called Clarke Central) in well-worn Weejuns from class mate Gene Lewis’ family shoe store? Since I drew an editorial cartoon or typed an article for the Thumb Tack Tribune on an Underwood Five manual typewriter in the journalism room? Since the class of ’69 cheered and sang our alcohol-themed version of the Athens High fight song at a pep rally in the old gym?
Flash forward 40 years. Was I ready to see what time had done to my classmates? Did I want them to meet the mature me?
Still undecided, I joined the reunion committee. The first meeting was like a test called “Senior Recognition.” Looking at the 40-years-older faces with my own aged eyes, I analyzed each person before me and tried to mentally match them with my high school memories. It didn’t take long for us to decide that wearing name tags at the reunion — with big yearbook photos — would be a very good thing.’
Just thinking about the reunion over the next few days sent my middle-aged mind into memory overload. Our class numbered almost 500 when we started our senior year in the fall of 1968. With only 14 black students, Athens High was predominantly white.
But outside our mostly segregated high school walls, the world reverberated with the sounds of violence and cultural change. We were aware of the turmoil in the world around us, but in the cocoon of Athens High during the late 1960s, most of us dressed like preppies, mimicking University of Georgia students on the nearby campus and we spent our time engaged in the usual high school activities.
A highlight of senior year for members of the Thumb Tack Tribune newspaper staff was a trip to Chicago to attend the National Scholastic Press Association convention over Thanksgiving holidays in 1968. For some of us, the flight from Atlanta in the wee hours of the morning to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport marked the first time we’d flown. Several of us met the great Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) at the Palmer House Hotel where we stayed. And on a tour bus ride through Chicago’s Old Towne, we discovered hippies as they ran through the streets around us.
Though we didn’t know it at the time, our hippie encounter in Chicago was a hint of things to come after we graduated at the University of Georgia coliseum on the night of June 3, 1969. We emerged with our Athens High School diplomas and our dreams and ambitions into the summer of Woodstock and an atmosphere of peace and love. Despite the anti-war sentiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of our classmates went to Vietnam and never recovered from their physical and psychological wounds there.
Even those of us who didn’t drop out and tune into the counterculture after graduation found ourselves growing our hair longer, wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and faded, patched jeans, and living in a world we wouldn’t have recognized before graduation.
Of the almost 340 classmates we’ve located today at least 25 are deceased. About 160 are unaccounted for. Many of the 140 or so Athens High School class of 1969 members who still live in the Athens area have become some of the highest achievers and most ardent supporters of the local community.
And across our country, and even as far away as Austria, where classmate Roswitha Doerflinger Jauk now lives, members of our class make a difference in this world. Former student body president Norm Baldwin fights for equal rights for minorities in his position as a political science professor on the University of Alabama campus. Marjory Holder Turnbow counsels families and works for social justice for the disenfranchised and marginalized in Blowing Rock, N.C. Mary Jane “Janey” Beadles Dunham advocates for animal rights from her home in Sea Island as W.R. “Bill” Kelley does with his magazine published in Comer, GA.
A 40th high school reunion is a milestone, a ritual of modern American life. Whatever we’ve done over the past four decades, looking at such an invitation makes us realize how much of our lives have passed by. Looking into the mirror of our classmates’ faces this summer will remind us of our own mortality.
But in the long run, who we are, what we’ve done, where we fit into the popularity scale in high school or in life afterward, are unimportant. How we look is insignificant. Age is the great equalizer. What really really matters is that some of us are still here and contributing what we can to our world.
This article originally appeared in Athens Magazine, July/August 2009 issue.