It's been 50 years since they were high school seniors fast dancing at the prom, cramming for final exams, and penning earnest notes in their Glenconian yearbooks. But on Saturday, 61 members of Glen Rock High School's first graduating class, the Class of '59, were as giddy as teenagers as they gathered for their 50th reunion and the Panthers' homecoming football game.
Not even the soaking rain could dampen their spirits.
"I can't believe it's been 50 years," said Dick Webb, a former center for the Panthers football team, when he arrived at The Rock on Doremus Avenue for the start of the Homecoming Parade. "It's amazing," he chuckled as he shook hands with his former classmates, many of whom were decked out in red and white and some of whom wore their high school varsity jackets.
"When I'm here with everyone," Webb said, "I feel like I'm still 18 and about to go to college."
Nearly half of the Class of '59 returned to Glen Rock for the reunion. The high turnout was credited to the dedication and resourcefulness of the members of the 50th reunion committee: Doug Anderson, Ginny Gennaro James, Tom Pearson, Betty Allen Cheshire and Robert Hansen.
"We started trying to find people a year ago," said James, a Glen Rock resident who currently works in the high school media center. "We had our last reunion 25 years ago, so we had a lot of looking to do. The Internet helped a lot."
Pearson built a Class of '59 Web site to aid in the search. "Searching for everyone sometimes felt like running around like a chicken without a head," he said, "but every time we found someone, it was amazing how quickly we reconnected."
Pearson took on the role of webmaster with little experience in creating or maintaining a Web site. "I used the Ridgewood High School Class of '58's Web site as a template," he explained. The site at www.glenrock59.com includes information on the reunion as well as detailed class member profiles, 1950s trivia, and a contact page.
"50 years after graduating from high school and I'm still learning," he said of his new responsibilities. "I'm going to keep the Web site updated. As we go along, we can add all sorts of other whiz-bang things to it."
Despite the wind and rain, the Class of '59 had the biggest contingent of alumni marching in the Homecoming Parade, which started at The Rock and ended at the high school football field. Many of the alumni were transported to Glen Rock by school bus from their hotel in Montvale. Some remained on the bus during the parade and threw candy to kids lining the route.
Before the parade, beside the yellow school bus, shouts of "It's so good to see you," "I can't believe it's you" and "I've missed you" rang out over the drumming of the pouring rain.
Alumni traveled from as far away as California and Washington to attend the reunion. All sported nametags on long lanyards. Beside each person's name was his or her senior yearbook photo. Jim Sundberg and Dave Burns said they found the nametags immensely helpful. Neither had been back to the high school in 50 years.
"We remember people looking like they do in their nametag photos," chuckled Sundberg. "It shows the power of visual memory. I keep thinking, 'I recognize you, but the age is all wrong."'
James noted that there were several classmates she hadn't seen since graduation. "But when I talk to them, it's like I just saw them yesterday." she said. "The years just melt away."
James attributes the closeness felt among her classmates to the fact that they were the first class in Glen Rock High School and, for one year, the only class. "It was a big adventure for us," she said.
The Class of '59 is credited with establishing many of the traditions and icons that are now synonymous with Glen Rock High School, including the Panthers, the Glenconian and the Glen Echo. "We chose everything: the mascot, the school colors, the names of the yearbook and the newspaper," James said. "It was all up to us and it was all new to us."
Many in the Class of '59 were initially ambivalent about going to the new high school, explained Barbara Mechan Carragher.
"We all assumed we would go to Ridgewood High School, just as everyone from Glen Rock had always done," Carragher said. "But our parents were enthusiastic and involved and our new principal, Robert Ax, scoured the nation for the most talented teachers he could find. Then he set up everything so that there was nothing Ridgewood High had that we didn't."
"Except older boys," laughed Cheshire. "That was one of the toughest things about always being the oldest class."
In 1953, a year after the Ridgewood Board of Education informed Glen Rock that it would no longer accept Glen Rock students, a referendum was held and Glen Rock residents decided the borough should have its own high school. In 1956, following three years of construction, hiring of faculty, curriculum planning and preparation, Glen Rock High School opened. The Class of '59 would be the first class to remain in Glen Rock for their entire secondary education.
"Robert Ax was a whirlwind of activity," said Anderson. "He was remarkable. His name is still revered in educational circles, but what we probably remember most about him is that we knew that he really wanted us to succeed."
For the past 40 years, teachers in the school district recognized for their excellence have been awarded the Robert H. Ax award. The honor is bestowed annually upon one or two teachers who embody the values upheld by Ax: love of people in general and young people in particular; exceptionally high degree of personal integrity; and loyalty to colleagues, the community, and — most of all — the students.
Anderson said the members of the Class of '59 lived up to Ax's expectations. "This class has had a tremendous set of accomplishments by anyone's standards," he said.
"It's amazing, our class," added John Coyle. "Nearly everyone, if not actually everyone, went to college, and many were very successful."
The impact of the Class of '59 is also felt every year at commencement, when highly regarded graduating seniors are awarded the Citizenship Award and the Glen Rock High School Class of 1959 Scholarship Award. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Citizenship Award, Pearson and Class of '59 class president Catherine Sullivan Roberts, the award's first recipients, were invited to present it to the Class of 2009 award winners, Michael Escalante and Julie Irwin.
At the conclusion of the Homecoming Parade, Class of '59 alumni gathered in front of the high school to rededicate the flagpole, their class gift to the school. The flagpole and the engraved plaque at its base were damaged when a tree fell on them during a storm in the spring.
Current Glen Rock High School principal James McCarthy welcomed the Class of '59 alumni and thanked them for "being the people who started many of the traditions we still enjoy here today." He then led the Pledge of Allegiance.
Hansen continued the ceremony with a prepared speech. "This flagpole is rededicated in honor of all of the members of the Class of '59, both living and deceased," he said. Hansen then slowly read the names of the 17 classmates who have died since graduation.
"The Class of '59 has also felt it appropriate to include all the graduates of Glen Rock High School who have lost their lives in military action," he added, before reading the names of three fallen Glen Rock graduates, all of whom died in the Vietnam War.
Anderson followed with brief readings from the Bible about courage and friendship. His voice cracked as he spoke of classmates lost. "These folks were our friends," he said, " and they will always remain in our good memories."
Following the rededication, McCarthy invited alumni to take a tour of the high school.
"This is incredible," said Carragher as she and her husband entered the media center. "All my bearings are off. Very little is where I remember it."
In the gym, while gazing at the championship banners hanging from the rafters, Paul Bovenkerk, a member of the Panthers' 1958 championship football team, asked, "Who do you play on Thanksgiving?"
When McCarthy answered that Glen Rock's football team no longer plays on Thanksgiving Day, Bovenkerk turned to his former classmates and sighed.
"It ain't what it used to be," he said. "It's too bad. The Thanksgiving game was a big deal."
Many alumni said they were surprised by the addition of black to the school colors. They had chosen red and white as the school colors. Black was added several years later.
"When we were here, our school spirit chant was 'Red and White! Fight! Fight!'" said Leslie Nutt Wright. "I guess I understand adding black because of the Panther," she said, "but what do they chant at football games now?"
Burns and others expressed interest in the new construction near the old junior high entrance on Harristown Road. "It's really a credit to the school and the town that the student body has nearly doubled and the school is thriving," Burns said.
A brief respite from the rain gave the alumni a chance to make their way to the football field for the Panthers' homecoming game against Lodi. A section of bleachers was reserved for the Class of '59.
Betty Hartzell Dovey, a former Panthers cheerleader, remembered football games in the late 1950s.
"The whole town used to turn out for our football games," she said. "It was really something to see."
Football players and cheerleaders from the Class of '59 were called forward by name before the start of the game. The crowd applauded wildly. During halftime, the GRHS Marching Band dedicated its performance to the Class of '59. Following the performance, the school's football field was renamed in honor of Alan Deaett, a longtime GRHS teacher and coach.
The Panthers lost by two points. The Class of '59 alumni, many of whom remained in the stands during the sporadic downpours that occurred throughout the game, said they were disappointed, but not defeated.
They then headed back to Montvale for a 50th reunion dinner and party.
"It will be fun," said Anderson. "Everyone is, as the kids say, psyched!"