Three weeks ago I returned from the second annual St. Louis Cathedral Grade School reunion. Given that I graduated in 1957, it was quite a feat to have a reunion at all. I’m sure there are some who went all through grade school and possibly high school with the same people and then stayed connected as they became adults. But our class wasn’t like that.
We were thirty-two students under the eagle eyes of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Most of us walked to school, although there were a few students who lived outside the parish and took public transportation. Even today, I’m not sure why; but perhaps devout Catholic parents had something to do with it.
Those days in the Catholic world, the parish was everything. Yet, once we’d graduated from eighth grade, we all went to different high schools because parishes couldn’t support both grade schools and high schools. We went where we could get in.
But this essay isn’t about high school. It’s about a specific grade school experience that resonates fifty-six years later. How many classes can say that?
Our first reunion was in 2012, last year, and I’ve posted an essay about it. At the time, I thought I’d said all I had to say. In fact, I attended the second reunion wondering if I would learn anything new. How shortsighted that was.
This year was even better in so many ways. In the tradition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count them.
First, everyone who attended last year came again. This tells me we created a bond based on the past but rooted in the present. Second, we found many more classmates in the ensuing year; and they came with their stories and their spouses. Third, it didn’t matter that we were wrinkled and sagging; the memory of who we were back then was still intact. The realization of who we were today seemed to add to our connection, not diminish it.
Finally, there were the stories based in memory. For instance, I reminded Jackie G of the time he and I went to the movies and he asked me to stand “over there.” Even though I did, I heard him ask the ticket clerk for “one adult and one child.” In truth he was right, as I was only twelve years old and that was considered a child. But I would have liked not to have overheard.
Over the course of the weekend we had two evening gatherings and one informal afternoon where we visited our school, the parish church (which just happens to be the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica), and the neighborhood. All three have seen tough times, but gentrification of the old neighborhood has smiled kindly for the time being.
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The Friday evening gathering is where we begin reconnecting. Last year, we’d asked, “Who do you want to see if we do this again? Bob D said, “Find Jackie G.” Back then, Bob and Jackie G were great friends. In fact, there were photos in attendance that first reunion which attested to their relationship. So we set out to find Jackie G. And we did. He’d lived in or around the neighborhood all his life. But we didn’t learn that until later.
Bob D and his wife, Ginny, arrived first that Friday. And then the others, mostly those who’d come last year. We got drinks, hung out, and enjoyed every minute waiting for Jackie G and David P. I believe it was Carol P who spotted them coming in the hotel.
What is my overriding memory of that evening? It is seeing the guys reconnect on that first night. After the moment of recognition, there were hugs – something men of our generation probably were not prone to do. But this transcended generations; it was about connections. Connections as sheer as gossamer, yet as strong as steel.
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The following day, Saturday, some of us visited the old neighborhood. The grade school was unrecognizable, but in a good way. It is not dilapidated. Rather it has been remodeled to the point that entrances and exits are all in different places and the main stairs where we all stood in cap and gown for our graduation photo is completely gone.
As we walked the grounds, we talked about the time that Bob R felt into a large construction hole and broke his arm. Then David P found the spiked fence that impaled his arm those many years ago. The construction hole is filled, but the fence remains. We reminisced about teenage infatuations in the late 1950s (“Spin and Marty,” dodgeball, Elvis Presley) and remembered our seventh grade teacher (name expunged), who would probably have been accused of child abuse today.
We also wondered if the girls and boys play on separate playgrounds these days. And if uniforms are still worn. In the late 1950s, the girls wore navy jumpers over a white blouse with a little grosgrain blue tie that fit under the collar. The boys wore pants and shirts (No shorts or sweats) and a tie every day. Judging from the current attire of my classmates, it could have been the last time some of them wore one.
When we were students to Cathedral School, work on the giant church was well underway, and we attended Mass with major scaffolding draped around various sections. Today the entire church is complete with massive oak doors, 83,000 square feet of mosaic, Kilgen Organs, rose windows, and massive towers. Begun in 1907, the church was finished in 1988, just in time for various restorations to begin. Those of us who visited the neighborhood that day were possibly more impressed than our younger selves were. Back then, we tended to take the church for granted. It was our parish church, nothing more. Today it is a famous example of Romanesque architecture on the outside and Byzantine culture on the inside.
We entered the church and a man approached us, asking if we wanted a tour. We looked at each other and smiled. Then someone said, “We don’t need a tour; we went to school here here over fifty years ago when it was still a work in progress. We spent many hours inside this church.” To which someone else added, “We could probably tell you a thing or two.” The gentleman stepped aside and we walked down the center aisle, not quite in the kind of formation we did for various religious celebrations back then. Some of us wandered the church; others sat and looked around.
Jackie G and Jackie L and David reminisced about being altar boys and how they made a dollar for being accolytes at a funeral and five dollars for a wedding. They also revealed a long-term mystery about how some of them got on the roof of the church and gave Father Durkin apoplexy. Finally the good Father forced the information from Jackie L’s younger brother .
More memories revealed themselves as we walked Newstead Avenue to the corner drug store at West Pine. It was there we used to buy ice cream cones for six cents. It was also the corner where many of us parted to wend our own ways home. I turned west; Connie and Carmen kept going on Newstead; David P. did too. Carol L. turned east.
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That Saturday night found us at the clubhouse that served Carol L’s subdivision as a meeting place. Last year we’d visited Culpepper’s in the old neighborhood, but we wanted to do something different this time. Carol P and Carol L and I went to the grocery store and bought frozen lasagnas and salad fixings and garlic bread; and everyone else was encouraged to bring their drink of choice.
Carol P. brought CDs that held tunes from our grade school era. Lord only knows how she came by them. We put them in a portable player and listened for a few moments. But, just like it was back in grade school, nobody wanted to initiate the dancing. Ultimately someone did back then; could it have been Bob R who wasn’t here? We must get him to come next time if we want to rock.
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As the evening wound down, there was talk of “next year.” At our age we can’t wait five or ten years like some schools do. Time, illness, and financial comfort are all against us. So Carol P., who deserves the most credit for these two gatherings, is already thinking ahead.
Maybe we’ll gather in the fall instead of the spring. Perhaps we can meet during the week, so that classmates who still live locally and have family obligations on the weekend can attend. Based on feedback, we’ll probably return to the clubhouse over Culpepper’s for our final get-together. And we’re going to try to find the missing twelve graduates before then.
I can’t say we were the smartest class or the prettiest or the most accomplished, but what I felt as I headed home after the weekend was that the thirty-two of us who comprised the St. Louis Cathedral Grade School Class of 1957 were special in some unidentifiable way. We still are.
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NOTE: This essay is dedicated to the memory of Joe Dobrinik, a classmate who died approximately ten days before we met. We talked about Joe a lot over the weekend. He had planned to attend our reunion in person; as far as I’m concerned, he did.